“The only constant is change.” – Heraclitus
Derek Fisher’s departure created a void which the Mavericks unsurprisingly filled with a veteran journeyman: the 37-year-old Mike James. James played well enough to earn a second 10-day contract, but Dallas must decide by Sunday whether the player Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas labeled a “poor man’s Derek Fisher” will remain with the team for the rest of the season.
It’s unclear whether Dallas plans to retain James, but Rick Carlisle clearly trusts him at the end of games, to the point of keeping him on the floor to finish several close contests while starter Darren Collison warms the bench. Carlisle’s short leash with Collison is evident in his stated reasoning for opting to go with James down the stretch against Houston, as he told our own Bryan Gutierrez that “(Jeremy) Lin just walked right in there twice in a row on Collison. The physical size with Darren is what is tough for him. We needed a stronger guy in there.” Carlisle continued that James offers “experience, some physical strength and some toughness” before concluding simply: “I like him. I really do.” As inelegant as James’ play sometimes appears, the Mavericks are 5-1 in games where James has been on the floor.
All of that said, it would ultimately be best for the Mavericks to part ways with James, even in spite of Carlisle’s praise and the team’s recently impressive performance. While physically stronger than Collison, James is several steps slower and a much worse shooter and distributor. James’ moments of great play are outnumbered by mind-boggling inconsistency. Collison’s play has improved dramatically of late but he needs to receive consistent and consequential minutes to continue his improvement. Carlisle’s general preference for veteran guards shouldn’t mislead him into opting to keep James.
The comparison between James and Collison over the past few games is told in part by a tale of two critical plays: James’ ill-advised heave in the overtime loss to Oklahoma City and Collison’s excellent corner three to help secure a victory late against the Orlando Magic. In the final possession of overtime, Oklahoma City made a critical adjustment by doing something they hadn’t all game: switching on the screen. James didn’t look much like a composed veteran, electing to launch an ugly, off-balanced three-point try instead of taking the slow-footed Kendrick Perkins to the basket. Dallas fans and Mark Cuban shook their heads, ESPN analyst Matt Mosley called it “awful,” ESPN Dallas writer Jean-Jacques Taylor remarked that James “lost his mind,” and our own Kirk Henderson openly wondered why James was left in the game instead of Collison. In contrast, Collison helped to counter a long offensive drought for Dallas in a crucial game against the Orlando Magic by calmly draining a critical three-pointer with 31 seconds remaining.
Of course, a few late plays can only tell us so much. The more compelling evidence for releasing James is that Collison has vastly outperformed him in nearly every important metric available. Player-Efficiency-Rating (PER), a measure of general efficiency and production, rates Collison at 16.4 (above the average rate of 15.0) and James at 2.9, a mark far lower than every Maverick except Eddy Curry. Effective field goal percentage, a measure which factors in the value of three-point shooting, shows Collison shooting at a 51.5% clip, while James’ 35.8% mark is quite comfortably the team’s lowest. Collison’s assist percentage is over 10% higher and his offensive rating is an eye-popping 33 points higher. James’ size hasn’t translated to an advantage in Defensive Rating, with Collison yielding four fewer points per 100 possessions than James.
Even the single area where James bests Collison — turnover percentage — is misleading. Collison’s ability to avoid turnovers has dramatically improved as of late, and Collison’s turnovers often come from aggressively attacking the basket to seek high-percentage looks or earn a double-team. These are precisely the types of plays that Dallas needs in moments like the aforementioned last overtime play against the Thunder. Mike James’ turnovers, while less frequent, are more unsightly, including an errant pass earlier in the Oklahoma City overtime that ended up somewhere in the deepest rows of the stands after traveling somewhere through the Earth’s mesophere.
James’ presence on the roster and his aforementioned usage late in games stunts Collison’s development. Unlike Fisher’s signing, it is extremely difficult to rationalize James’ roster selection as a teaching tool for Collison. Collison would learn much more quickly and directly from committing his own errors than watching James make the same costly mistakes in pivotal moments. Additionally, Collison makes the sorts of mistakes (errant passes, occasional missed defensive rotations, etc.) that are ultimately characteristic of young players, and thus the only real cure is a forgiving margin for error and more creative solutions from the coach. Collison has dealt with Carlisle’s creativity remarkably well, responding in a much more encouraging way than most young point guards would to losing his starting role and fourth quarter minutes to two formerly unemployed veteran point guards. His emotional maturity has been impressive and, coupled with a maturing game, demands a greater role for him late in close contests.
Hard work and determination made James’ second ten-day contract well-earned but the Mavericks would be ill-advised to use a permanent roster spot to keep him. Collison is a far superior shooter and distributor and has worked to overcome his early-season turnover problems and the temptation to succumb to “hero ball.” Collison has the skill, composure and athleticism to close for Dallas and should make the decision to amicably part ways with James an easy one for Dallas.
Brian Rubaie is a high school teacher, debate coach, and full-time Mavericks fan. Follow him on Twitter: @DirksRevenge.