Everything You Never Wanted to Be

Posted by Rob Mahoney on December 31, 2009 under Commentary | 4 Comments to Read

When J.J. Barea moved into the starting lineup to aid the struggling Maverick offense, there was hardly an air of permanence. He leap-frogged Jason Terry in the natural pecking order if only to preserve the sanctity of the rotation, and it was all but concrete that Barea would retreat back to the bench when Josh Howard’s health allowed for it.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Since stepping into the starting lineup 10 games ago, Barea has facilitated the flow of the offense by providing ball-handling and penetration. He’s sparked what had been one of the more lethargic offenses in the league, and it’s no coincidence that Barea’s personal revival has been accompanied by some pretty demonstrative upticks in team-wide production. For all of his flaws (and J.J.’s critics are eager to point out plenty), a player with Barea’s skill set simply makes sense within the context of the starting lineup.  The dual point guard look arms the Mavs with two very different types of playmakers, and while Jason Kidd is still the PG in a traditional sense, Barea’s ability to set up his teammates, attack the basket, and space the floor accommodates the team in a similar capacity.

Barea has done well for himself during his stint as a starter, and has carved out a niche as an offensive crutch. The Mavs look for him to score early and often, and depend on that scoring to establish a first quarter tone. J.J.’s quickness and improvisation create a nice contrast with the plodding, precise offensive rhythms set to Dirk’s jab step. Nowitzki is one of the world’s best weapons in isolation, but players like Barea are certainly useful in their transformative potential. While Barea himself is hardly a noteworthy talent, he’s simultaneously a formulaic offensive asset and a stylistic foil for the Mavs. Or rather, J.J.’s value to the offense lies in his ability to be everything that the rest of the Mavs are not, which, strangely enough, manages to accomplish the original objectives of Dallas’ offensive system. Barea’s ability to get to the basket alleviates the pressure on the Mavs’ shooters, even if his approach is a bit different than Kidd’s. Barea’s quickness forces the defense to make compromises, even if J.J. isn’t considered a match-up problem. And Barea’s much improved jumper gives Dallas another threat from the outside, even if his shots come in a different manner than JET’s.

J.J.’s offensive success of late may be a bit surprising, but that end of the court has always been his strong suit. The real challenge is and has always been to find a way to eliminate Barea’s status as a defensive liability, which is a very real difficulty. How do you hide a point guard that can be posted up by anybody? And to make matters even worse, how do you hide one that has proven time and time again to be completely incapable of defending the pick-and-roll?

There’s no easy formula. You can only hide NBA defenders so much, and less so for six foot point guards with a bull’s eye on their back. While the defensive weaknesses of a raw, athletic wing or an unschooled center may be a bit less obvious, Barea wears his limitations on his sleeve. It’s painfully apparent that J.J. won’t be blocking many shots or even challenging them all that well, and as such, he’s easier to attack.

So when you see that J.J. Barea is a part of three of the top six lineups for the Mavs in terms of adjusted plus/minus (including the starting lineup), I want you to grasp just how impressive that is. In spite of Barea’s defensive woes, he still manages to be part of the Mavs’ most productive lineups, particularly when playing alongside the rest of the starters. Kidd-Barea-Marion-Nowitzki-Dampier is also the second most effective lineup in terms of raw +/-, and by a wide margin.

Given what we know about the Mavs’ propensity for starting slowly, Barea’s fate in the rotation seems to be of particular interest. While Josh Howard still seems like the inevitable starter, one has to ask if that’s really in the team’s best interest. With J.J. starting, we not only know that the Mavs can at least hold court defensively, but also blow the lid off the game offensively. With Howard, are we to see a repeat of his first quarter surges, or merely an extension of his current shot selection? Is it possible that the early offense unravels when it’s forced to rely on a few too many long jumpers? It’s certainly possible, even if the threat of Howard’s offense gives the Mavs a new dimension. I’m not saying that Howard isn’t the starter to be or that he isn’t the best choice, but at this point, Barea has played well enough to qualify as the devil we know. We know the good and bad of what J.J. does over long stretches as a starter, but we have yet to see how Howard meshes with the opening unit.

So while Howard likely will be the starter at some point, Barea has been productive enough as a starter to warrant consideration for the long haul. He’s not only added some food for thought when considering when Howard should make the jump back into the starting five, but also in the conversation over whether Howard should be the eventual starter at all.