We’re kicking off our offseason coverage here at A Wolf Among Wolves with a comprehensive roster review of the team from this past season, looking at how each player’s 2012-13 went and what we see for them going forward. One player a day for the next couple weeks, starting with the bench and rolling up to the starters.
When J.J. Barea gets that steely glint in his eye, the possession is only ending one of two ways, and neither are not shooting. You saw that glint most often this past season somewhere around the mid-third quarter, at the point where the Wolves had let the lead slip enough that it was in jeopardy, or else had fought back enough that it was within striking distance. As Barea received the ball on the inbounds pass, someone on our row of the media section would likely mutter, “It’s going up.” Or maybe as Barea brought the ball across the half-court and held one hand up in a fist, someone would joke, “That’s the number of passes that are going to happen on this play.”
Then Barea would slip behind a pick, either dashing with his head down towards the rim or else going into the half-crouch that signaled 3-point jumper. Either way it was going up. He missed a lot of these shots, sure. But he also made a lot of them. Enough that when they went through, you just kind of shrugged or scratched the back of your head. Barea is fundamentally a results guy, not a process guy. Or is he?
It might be tempting to draw a comparison between Barea and another mighty mite, Chicago’s Nate Robinson. But there’s a fundamental difference between the similarly-sized—there’s no way Barea is 6’0”—players: If Robinson were bigger, he’d be just as much of a swaggery, inveterate gunner, whereas I’ve become convinced that if Barea were taller he’d actually be more fundamentally sound—the only reason he’s such a wild card is because he’s learned that’s what a man his size is best at.
I mean, let’s face it: fundamentals are only going to get you so far when you’re the smallest guy on the court. Time and again in postgame comments this season, Barea showed a genuine self-awareness of how he works best. It’s not his job to make decisions about how to play the game; it’s the coach’s job to decide when to put him out there and let him wreck shop. I remember after a particularly ill-advised stepback 3-point jumper that Adelman pulled him, and Barea’s reaction in the locker room was to be glad that coach took him out. Otherwise, he said, he was going to try and shoot another.
He is, in essence, a berserker. He is Winston Wolf. If you’re paying him to do a job, you have to let him do his job, which in Barea’s case is be an agent of chaos. It might rub you the wrong way or even infuriate you, but if his help isn’t appreciated, he can’t magically turn into who he’s not. When the game has ground to a halt, when the other team has solved your offense or your own offense has run out of steam, you throw Barea in there like you’re tossing baking soda into vinegar. Then you cross your fingers and hope it’s the other team that has to clean up the mess and not you.
That directedness, that inherent understanding of his role, is what won me over to Barea. He’s not actually results-oriented; he’s so process-oriented, in fact, that it’s easily mistaken for the inverse. He knows the result is up to the whole team working together, playing their roles, and he knows what his role is. This is why he’s always going to have a place on an NBA team so long as he can play when there are so many other bigger, more overtly talented players. He can’t do it all, but he’s going to do all of what he does—driving, shooting 3-pointers, pissing off Ray Allen, dribbling his entire self between Hasheem Thabeet’s legs—whenever he gets in the game.
Towards the end of the season, I asked him about his offseason plans and he talked about going to play for the Puerto Rican team over the summer, about how much fun it was to get with the guys he grew up playing with. But he also talked about how volatile things could get with a team of all testy Puerto Rican ballers. He was, believe it or not, the guy who calmed everyone down. I raised an eyebrow.
“I know, right?” he said. He knows.