Considering he was called a waste of a pick and a publicity stunt (due to his unique military story), Bernard James is having one hell of a season. Look at raw stats, look at advanced metrics, or simply watch him. If he's playing, you can usually find him making an impact in the game.
That's a pretty big "if", though. As good as Bernard has been when he's played, he hasn't played all that much. Troy Murphy left the team weeks ago and still has played 46 more minutes than James this season, and the same applies to recently departed Derek Fisher, who is up 19 minutes on the rookie. Even Roddy B has played more minutes (214 to 210) than James...let that sink in for a minute.
What’s the deal? I love Rick Carlisle -- he's one of the very best coaches in the league, and deserves the second most credit for the 2011 Championship (behind Dirk, of course). One of the criticisms he used to get before defeating the Heat in six games was the strange patterns he played his rookies, namely Rodrigue Beaubois.
Looking back, Carlisle might have been on to something. Roddy is a good athlete and possesses some quality basketball skills, but he simply isn’t much a basketball player. His mental physique is lacking, too; a complete loss of his confidence while on the basketball court has certainly contributed to his poor play.
With all that said, Roddy made an impact his rookie year. Carlisle was able to pick and choose the places that he sent the young Frenchman onto the court, giving him match-ups and situations that he was sure he'd succeed in. Thanks to the way he was handled, Roddy would take the court and lead the Mavericks on comebacks and rallies like another Frenchman, Napoleon, led his troops into a crushing victory over the Prussians.
It looks like Carlisle is trying to repeat the "Roddy B" strategy with James. The four games James has received the most playing time are as follows: 21 minutes against the Heat, 18 against Toronto and 17 minutes each against Golden State and Detroit. You won’t find a big, physical post player on those teams, nor a particularly heady, veteran player who could use Sarge’s inexperience against him.
This doesn't mean Carlisle or the organization believe Bernard is doomed to fail in coming years, but that they expect him to take steps forward and can't be relied on in every situation. Roddy never taking steps forward -- actually regressing -- has no impact on James doing or failing to do the same.
Moving back to Beaubois, we see his ability to light up the Timberwolves, Warriors and Kings didn't translate against tougher competition, where he struggled mightily. That's a reason Roddy never cracked the regular rotation, instead falling back to the specialty role of Napoleon off the bench.
That’s where Bernard’s and Roddy’s similarities branch apart. In only 15 minutes, Bernard James played perhaps his best game against the Lakers facing Dwight, Pau and Antawn Jamison. Bernard put up seven points, five rebounds and four blocks against that trio. Watching that game, he could have passed for a four-year vet...which if not for his military career, he probably would be at this point.
Sarge is somewhat undersized at 6’9" and just 240 pounds, and there’s nothing that can be done about that. Maybe a few decades ago, some coaches just wouldn’t stand for a 6’9" player at center, but the modern NBA is less about rigid positions and more about results.
It’s a short sample size, but James has proven himself to be a great rebounder, exceptional shot blocker and efficient finisher around the basket against all kinds of competition -- not just the underbelly of the NBA like Roddy B.
Carlisle was right to stick to a strategy with Bernard for the start of the 2012-13 season, because there was doubt whether James would even be active on a nightly basis. There were certainly other factors that went into his decision, like opting for smallball to quicken the pace in hopes of sparking an Dirk-less offense. However, at this point of the season with Dirk finally back, it’s time to adjust.
This is great place to separate good coaches from the bad ones. It’s common to see a coach blindly stick with an unsuccessful tactic only because it had previously been effective.
I'm not advocating for Bernard to start and play 36 minutes a night, because that’s foolishness. But a slow expansion of his playing time should be in order – how does a consistent place in the rotation with the second team sound? Don't rush it, but give him the opportunity to take some steps forward.
See how he reacts, and in a few weeks, maybe it’s time for another shift in tactics. James' success could just be due to small sample size, a lack of scouting, or whatever other reason people come up with. I know I'm not ready to proclaim him as the "next big thing", especially after how well that has worked out for former Mavericks.
But at this point of the season, the Mavericks need a spark.