Jonathan Tjarks writes about basketball and all that it implies at RealGM and SB Nation, and is a guest columnist here at The Two Man Game. Follow Jonathan on Twitter at @JonathanTjarks.
With All-Star Weekend and the trade deadline behind us, the stretch run of the NBA season has officially begun. Now that Rick Carlisle has finally gotten (somewhat) comfortable with a set rotation, the Mavs are unlikely to make any more moves to tweak their roster this season. Nevertheless, there are several D-League players that Dallas could sign tomorrow for short and long term gain. That the Mavs seem reluctant to go that path is a shame, and perhaps a metaphor of sorts for a franchise that has lost its way.
There aren’t any future stars in the D-League, but the level of play is higher than the casual fan recognizes. The D-League All-Star Game, held in Houston during All-Star Weekend, was a veritable “Who’s Who” of former second-round picks and collegiate standouts, many with the ability to be rotation players in the NBA. And in the league’s new economic climate, identifying the minimum-salary talent available to all 30 teams is more important than ever before. In that respect, signing and playing Mike James over someone like Shelvin Mack is a notable misuse of resources.
Dallas signed James off the very end of the free-agent scrap heap in early January. Before coming here, he had played a grand total of 15 NBA games in the last three seasons. There are 37-year olds who can still produce at that late stage of their careers, but they’re generally Hall of Fame players (Jason Kidd, Steve Nash) declining from ridiculously high peaks. James, on the other hand, hasn’t had a PER above 15 since 2005. In his 18 games with the Mavs, he’s done little to suggest the rest of the NBA was wrong about him. He has a ghastly PER of 6.0 and takes an awful lot of shots (13.7 per 36 minutes of floor time) for a guy with shooting percentages of 34/28/67.
Mack, in contrast, is a 23-year old PG with room for growth in his game. A 6’3 215 combo guard with a 6’7 wingspan, he helped lead Butler to two improbable Final Four runs in college, but has had to adjust to being more of a traditional PG at the next level. After being drafted No. 34 overall in the 2011 draft by the Wizards, he’s had an up-and-down two seasons as a pro. In his rookie year, he put up respectable per-36 minute numbers: 10.6 points on 40/29/71 shooting and 6.1 assists to 2.2 turnovers — all taking composite form as an 11.9 PER. He became the victim of a roster crunch this season, spending time in Washington and Philadelphia before landing in the D-League.
And while his ability to run point was questioned coming out of Butler, his jump shot was the biggest hole in his game as a first-year player. In that respect, his time in the D-League this season has served him well. He’s averaging 20 points a game on 46/38/87 shooting for the Maine Red Claws, and is listed by the D-League’s website as the No. 1 prospect available. That said, Mack is far from an ideal player; his 7.5 assists are colored by 4.0 turnovers a game, too high for a backup PG. Even still, it’s hard to imagine him not doing a bit more with the 14 minutes a night James currently receives.
He was thrust into a difficult situation as a rookie, as he was not only adjusting to a new position, but did so without the benefit of training camp amidst a chaotic roster in Washington. Yet he still put up significantly better numbers than James, who has had a far less demanding role in Dallas. Mack is bigger, younger and faster too; his size would give Carlisle more flexibility in the backcourt and allow him to play Darren Collison and Rodrigue Beaubois off the ball at times. He’s a much better shooter and whatever his faults as a decision-maker, he can hardly be worse than James, whose propensity to hoist contested jumpers and force the action when he’s the least talented player on the floor can be infuriating.
If we take a long-term perspective, going with James over Mack makes even less sense. A 23-year old can learn from his mistakes; a 37-year old is who he is. Dallas has a 25-30 record and is currently No. 11 out West, 4.5 games out of the final playoff spot. With the Lakers finding a rhythm recently, the Mavs will have to make up a lot of ground on at least two teams with better point differentials over the next two months. And if the playoffs are unlikely at best, what value is there in going with a 37-year old with no future on the team? If James had a PER of 15.0, it would be hard to justify keeping him around. At 6.0, it shouldn’t even be a question.
Given Carlisle’s lack of faith in Collison, it’s unlikely the free-agent PG will be here next season. As a result, Dallas will probably be looking for a starting PG this off-season, a task that would be easier and less fraught with danger if they had a decent backup already on hand. James isn’t that guy, but Mack might be. The Mavs could have used the next 27 games to find out. Instead, they’re paying for experience even though James’ lengthy run in the league is the least desirable thing about him.
In contrast, Houston appears to have found a long-term answer behind Jeremy Lin in Patrick Beverley, a 24-year old free agent they signed out of Ukraine this season. While the Mavs were bringing in guys one stop from the NBA glue factory (Derek Fisher, James), the Rockets found a former second-round pick overseas who was ready to contribute immediately. In 17 games in Houston, Beverley has a PER of 17.9. This is a guy Dallas could have had for nothing in December. Given their inability to develop their own draft picks, the refusal to pick up free money lying on the ground in the form of already developed young players overseas and in the D-League is all the more baffling.
The flaws in the front office’s decision-making process may be the most troubling part of all. At the end of the day, a backup point guard is unlikely to make or break a roster. However, from the time when Mark Cuban first came to own the team, Dallas became one of the most aggressive and forward-thinking front offices in the NBA. Now, after 12 years of sustained success, the Mavs don’t appear as interested in pushing the envelope as they used to be. Instead, they’ve allowed hungry young franchises like Houston and Oklahoma City to push out ahead of them. Competing with Kevin Durant and James Harden on the court will be hard enough over the next decade, and if Cuban and Donnie Nelson can’t go toe-to-toe with Sam Presti and Daryl Morey in terms of creating solid return out of minor resources, that pursuit may well be hopeless.