In the last four games, with Chris Kaman out with a concussion, rookie center Bernard “Sarge” James has moved into the starting line up. The 27-year-old big man from Florida State is known mostly for his unique journey to the NBA, which included a six-year stint in the Armed Forces, but he’s starting to make a name for himself as a player, too. While he hasn’t played more than 20 minutes in any of his starts, the second round pick has flashed an intriguing skill set, particularly on the defensive end. In a season rapidly circling the drain, James’ development is one of the only silver linings.
At 6’10” with a 7’3” wingspan, James has nearly prototypical size for a center in the modern NBA. While he’s undersized for wrestling matches in the low block, his lack of bulk allows him to move his feet, protect the paint and defend in space. As a college senior, he was the anchor of an elite defense that ranked 20th in the nation, leading Florida State to a berth in the Sweet 16. He averaged 11 points, eight rebounds and three blocks on 61% shooting, but his age and lack of offensive upside caused him to slip all the way to the 33rd pick on draft night.
As a rookie, James has been the low man on the totem pole at the center position. Rick Carlisle isn’t exactly eager to play inexperienced players, and thus James has spent most of the season sitting behind Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, Brandan Wright and (somewhat hilariously) Troy Murphy. However, whenever he has gotten the chance to play, he’s made an impact on the game. Even before his recent stretch as a starter, James was posting very respectable efficiency numbers, with per-36 minute averages of 12 points, 11 rebounds and 2.5 blocks on 52% shooting — marks that in composite registered James a PER of 16.3.
Of the four centers on the Mavericks roster, James is the best fit as a frontcourt partner for Dirk Nowitzki. Ideally, Dallas needs a center who can protect the rim, clean the glass, take the tougher defensive assignment in the front-court and finish efficiently near the rim — Tyson Chandler basically, but no need to re-open old wounds. James is the closest player to that mold in Dallas; he’s taller than Brand, quicker than Kaman and stronger than Wright. All four are flawed in their own way, but the strengths of James’ game align best with what the Mavericks need from the center position in order to best complement Nowitzki.
The Dallas defense allows 110 points per 100 possessions with Kaman on the floor, 109 with Wright, 106 with James and 105 with Brand. With Dirk still clearly not 100% after offseason knee surgery, it’s more important than ever that he be protected by a center with defensive chops. James doesn’t read defensive rotations as well as Brand, but he’s the better rebounder (with a team-high 17.4 rebounding percentage) and is more comfortable operating near the rim (taking 69% of shots in the paint as opposed to only 42%) on offense.
What makes Dirk great is his ability to create shots and space the floor, so you don’t want to play a center next to him who takes the ball out of his hands. While Kaman and Nowitzki became good friends in their time with the German national team, great chemistry in the locker room can’t make up for a lack of it on the court. Kaman often makes Dirk a spectator on offense and accentuates his problems defensively and on the glass. While James complement Dirk’s high-usage, offense-driven game, Kaman replicates it, in a weird sense, and does so rather poorly.
All that said, it’s still unclear whether James can be a starting-caliber center in the NBA. He’s not skilled enough to create his own shot and he may not be big enough to impact the game defensively as much as a high-level specialist like Sam Dalembert. Before the draft, I compared him to a rich man’s Joel Anthony. Going forward, he’ll need to improve his defensive recognition while also remaining efficient offensively as the scouting report on his game gets around the NBA. However, even if James has already peaked as a player, he should be an effective backup center in this league for a long time.
But more immediately, the Mavs need to figure out what James’ ceiling is over the next few months. There’s no point in denying reality: Dallas has almost no chance at making the playoffs. At 20-27, they’re currently in 11th place out West, five full games behind Houston at No. 8, and with the Blazers and Lakers to contend with in between.They’ve shown signs of life in the last few weeks, there’s not much time left for Dallas to jump three teams in the standings. Plus, even sneaking into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed wouldn’t do much good — not when the prize is another four-game sweep at the hands of the Thunder.
And if the Mavericks are already looking towards 2013, there’s no reason for a 27-year old on an affordable, long-term contract to lose minutes to guys on the wrong side of 30 on one-year deals. Brand is a 33-year-old in his 14th season in the NBA whose having by far his worst statistical season. He’s still a serviceable player, but he’s clearly in the decline stage of his career and the bottom could fall out from under him at any minute. And Kaman doesn’t have much of a future in Dallas regardless, not when he meshes so poorly with the team’s best player.
Playing James would also give the Mavericks something they’ve lacked for a long time: a legitimate trade asset. With the new luxury tax penalties making NBA teams more cost-conscious than ever, the most sought-after players are those with surplus value — true superstars on a capped contracts or young players on cost-controlled deals. Due to the failures in drafting and player development, Dallas hasn’t had many players who fit that second category in recent years. The Mavericks depended on Cuban’s willingness to eat salary to build the 2011 roster, but “the bank of Cuban” won’t be enough in the new economic climate.
This off-season, it will be difficult for Dallas to get into the sign-and-trade market with nothing to offer. All you need to know about what the Mavericks think of Dominique Jones and Rodrigue Beaubois is that they haven’t been able to hold off Mike James or Derek Fisher in an open competition for a reserve role. Jae Crowder may be a fan favorite, but he’s also a defensive tweener with a 10.9 PER. Jared Cunningham has played a grand total of 26 minutes in his rookie season and was widely seen as somewhat of a project coming out of Oregon State. James is their only young player likely to move the needle at all in trade discussions, but not if he’s chained to the bench when Kaman returns to the lineup.
It’s been less than two years since the 2011 NBA Finals, but they already seem like a lifetime ago. It was always a stretch to think of Dallas a free-agent destination, even before the franchise’s descent into mediocrity. To paraphrase Rick Pitino, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul aren’t walking through that door. There are no quick fixes available, and with so many holes on their roster, Dallas needs to upgrade their talent base as cost-effectively as possible. James may be able to fill one of those holes, which would make him the best draft pick Dallas has made since Devin Harris and Josh Howard. That can’t happen if the team doesn’t commit to letting him play through his mistakes over the next few months.
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.