Yesterday, Kirk Goldsberry wrote an interesting post for Grantland about the Kobe Assist. I recommend reading it yourself, but the gist of the Kobe Assist is the idea that not all shot attempts are created equal. Some (specifically, those that Kobe takes from close to the basket) are very nearly assists because the way the Lakers play means that an astonishing 52% of his misses turn into offensive rebounds, and 32% of them are immediate putbacks. This means that 73% of Bryant’s close-range shots turn into points for the Lakers.
This, of course, immediately made me think of J.J. Barea. Looking at shot attempts through the lens of the Kobe Assist could finally help me make sense of why Barea’s play can be so often frustrating.
But first, let’s concede that there are some things Barea is very good at. Having now watched all of his FGAs this season, I can say that he rarely takes long 2-point jumpers. His game basically consists of two things: transition and pick-and-roll layups or pull-up 3-pointers or 3-pointers off of screens. If there’s one thing Barea is as a player, it’s self-actualized. He does the aforementioned things well for and by himself, but the problem comes when we look at how his decision making affects the team as a whole.
Because his playmaking often comes in transition or when plays break down, his teammates are rarely well-positioned to take advantage of his shots. Here’s an example from early in the season against the Toronto Raptors:
Cunningham hands the ball off to Barea and sets a pick, allowing Barea to get the switch. He can’t get around the much bigger Ed Davis (a problem we’ll see again), so he backs it out to the perimeter. At this point, he’s isolated on the perimeter against a big man while Cunningham and Stiemsma are both down low, dealing with Alan Anderson and Amir Johnson, against whom they have a cumulative size advantage.
The problem is that Barea then asks for a clear-out (you can see him wave his hand for it), takes a few seconds to try and set up his dribble against Davis, and then decides to shoot the 3 after Cunningham and Stiemsma have now given up position.
At this point, every Raptor is now between the basket and their man with plenty of space. Barea misses the shot and it’s an easy rebound for the 6’6” Alan Anderson.
This isn’t just a problem on 3-pointers. Below we can see Barea drive the paint and miss:
After he drops the ball into Pekovic, the Denver defense collapses and Pek kicks it back out. Denver recovers well, but Cunningham creates a lane for Barea by pulling his man (in this case, Andre Miller, who has switched) through the paint.
So far so good. Faried is matched up on Barea and Barea easily takes him off the dribble and cuts into the lane.
When plays like this work out for Barea, it’s not a big problem. For a small player, he generally finishes well around the rim, but here we can see that Faried troubles the shot and when the rebound goes up for grabs, Mozgov is blocking out Pekovic and Faried grabs the easy board.
Later that same game, we get a classic Barea moment. Bringing the ball up, he calls for a screen on his man, plus also gives some kind of direction to the rest of the team. They look a little confused by it. Seeing his man, Andre Miller, going under the screen set by Cunningham, Barea jacks it up, and as you can see here, precisely none of his teammates are in any position to rebound the ball:
Sure enough, Anthony Hamilton grabs the easy rebound.
This sort of thing happens often for Barea in the half-court, but it’s an even more acute problem in transition, where Barea’s desire to get to the cup doesn’t leave his teammates time to get in position. Here, Barea drives right into the teeth of the defense for a highly contested layup that Jarrett Jack rebounds:
At the point where he goes up, look at how Pek is blocked out and Love has three Warriors between him and the basket.
There are plenty of examples of plays like these. The problem seems to be one of rhythm and patience. When Barea gets impatient—as when the team is down and he seems to feel the need to be the spark off the bench that brings them back—he doesn’t allow his teammates the time to get in a position to maximize his misses. When he does display patience, it’s often at moments in the half-court offense when his teammates have position, and then his hesitation allows the opposing team to get better position.
I don’t believe Barea is a selfish player, but I do believe he’s a self-centered player. He does not have the kind of vision that Rubio or even Shved possesses, that sense of positioning in space that would allow him to exploit situations of advantage rather than frittering them away or never letting them develop. He has a scorer’s mentality, and that will be difficult to change, but not impossible. There was one example that stood out as being the kind of smart playmaking that could make him more valuable.
Here, against the Blazers, Barea actually manages to use Amundson’s pick to give him an advantage and then lets Amundson roll all the way to the hoop.
Now, he misses the shot and Amundson can’t handle the rebound, but both Amundson and Josh Howard—slashing past Wes Matthews on the baseline—both have good position to rebound. In all the missed shots of Barea’s I watched, this was almost the only one in which the Wolves had a rebounding advantage. Often, a player like Cunningham or Love would get the rebound despite being out of position, but those are guys who go after everything with tenacity. Cunningham especially make up for a lot of Barea’s shortcomings, further emphasizing how important it is to keep them on the court together.
As we’ve seen, in the right context, Barea can be an effective player, especially off the bench and when paired with players ready to take advantage of his misses. But it would help Barea if he could develop a better sense of where his teammates are when he throws up 3s in transition or drives to the hoop. That vision and sense of space would go a long way towards cutting back on his Barea Assists and upping his Kobe Assists.