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.””
Recognize that? It was Steve McPherson’s roster review of J.J. Barea in May of 2013. Tempted as I was to make the backup point guard’s review nothing but the above quote, plus several pictures of him arguing with officials and links to unflattering videos such as this one, I ultimately decided any evaluation of Barea’s season ought to be more nuanced than that.
Individuals are rarely single-handedly responsible for a team underachieving over the course of an 82 game season, but if you polled Timberwolves fans, many would put a great deal of the blame for their struggles on the broad shoulders of Minnesota’s smallest player. Barea posted his worst statistical season since he became a regular member of Dallas’ rotation way back in 2007-08, shooting 39% from the floor, 32% from three, and (primarily) under his direction, the Wolves’ bench was among the most anemic in the league.
Frustration with Barea goes beyond the numbers, however, and to more aesthetic complaints, succinctly described in the paragraph above. Isolation basketball has its fans, but most of them wear Oklahoma City Thunder gear, and they feel that way because the guys going solo are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Barea is prone to attempting kamikaze shots in the paint or step-back jumpers after dribbling around for the better part of the shot clock. The lack of movement and involvement of his teammates is frustrating, especially since Barea’s rogue trips result in made shots fewer than a third of the time (per Synergy). He’s also constantly arguing with officials, and on a couple of occasions this season, seemed hellbent on engaging the opposing guard in a flop-off contest (a January matchup with Derek Fisher comes to mind). The end-of-quarter Barea iso is a play I’ll see in my nightmares for years.
I don’t think very many Barea apologists exist, but if they did, there are a couple of arguments they might employ. The first is that he didn’t have much offensive help on the second unit, which is indisputable. Dante Cunningham brings little to the table besides wide-open midrange jumpers and the occasional lob at the rim. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was a non-factor when the Wolves had the ball. Alexey Shved was a trainwreck. Chase Budinger didn’t get his legs under him until Mid-March following preseason surgery. And both Ronny Turiaf and Gorgui Dieng contributed in their respective ways, the two of them combined to play fewer minutes (1424) than Barea did on his own (1471).
The second defense you could mount is that it was foolish to believe he could be a second-unit point guard in the first place, which harkens back to preseason evaluation and roster construction, both of which fall under Flip Saunders’ umbrella. Luke Ridnour was dealt away as part of the sign-and-trade package that brought Kevin Martin to Minnesota – a net positive deal, on the surface, but one that had ripple effects throughout the Wolves’ rotations. In Dallas, Barea shared the second-unit backcourt with Jason Terry, who could handle and create if need be. His first two seasons in Minnesota, ballhandlers Luke Ridnour and Ricky Rubio spent time on the floor with him; this season, Barea logged just 297 minutes with Rubio. Shved’s inconsistency (particularly running the pick and roll effectively) meant that J.J. had to be the point guard, had to play with a conscience. Barea functions best as a sparkplug off the bench. Bench scorers like him ought not to have a conscience. Thus, the product was often clumsy and ineffective.
This brings up an interesting thought exercise – to what extent are a player’s attributes engrained, immutable facts that teams ought to be able to decipher, and to what extent are players charged with adapting to new situations? Is it the front office’s fault for thinking Barea could effectively run the second unit without another proven scorer, or Barea’s fault for failing to adapt to summon better production out of his teammates?
It’s probably some of both. Even when Barea got to share the floor with a proven scorer like Nikola Pekovic, the Wolves were still -3.1 points per 100 possessions. A Barea-Martin combination was -13.5 points per 100 possessions in nearly 400 minutes together (with an Offensive Rating of 96.6).
A new second-unit floor general is high on the Wolves’ offseason priority list; it’s unclear if moving J.J. Barea is somewhere on the list, as well. There’s reason to believe he can still be an effective player, so long as he returns to the role he appears destined for – second unit gunner, void of guilt. Given his hefty payday (he’s owed $4.5 million in 2014-15) it seems unlikely the Wolves will be able to trade him away.
He’ll be back. Hopefully, he’ll be better as well.