Six weeks ago, after the Orlando Magic dropped four straight games to sub-.500 teams, I wrote that head coach Stan Van Gundy had erred in inserting Matt Barnes into the starting lineup and moving Mickael Pietrus to the bench. The team needed a shot in the arm, sure, but that fivesome didn't work well together, and Van Gundy would do well to return Pietrus to his starting role.
I'm not sure I've ever been more mistaken, at least with regard to basketball. Usually, I'm pretty patient, and such an approach works. But man, I was way off here. Consider this post my mea culpa.
That lineup, with Jameer Nelson at point guard, Vince Carter at shooting guard, Barnes at small forward, Rashard Lewis at power forward, and Dwight Howard at center, has really jelled. As of last night's action, it had the best one-year adjusted plus-minus rating of any in the league that had played at least 400 minutes together. Dynamic on both sides of the ball, it scores 111.4 points per 100 possessions while yielding just 98.5. That lineup is still tops even if accounting for the standard error.
And to prove just how wrong I was in early January, that same lineup with Pietrus in Barnes' place is much, much worse due to its tremendous drop-off on offense: just 103.7 points per 100 possessions, with the defense virtually identical to that of the Barnes unit at 98.4.
Now, there may be other factors at play here. Barnes' starts have coincided with Carter's re-emergence, Nelson's return to health, and Howard's increased offensive role. Perhaps if Pietrus had played more alongside the four All-Stars as they're playing presently, he'd have a better showing. However, Barnes' impact is too big to ignore. We'll go in greater detail after the jump.
Barnes is the team's third-leading rebounder on a rate basis, grabbing 12.4% of all available rebounds; Charlotte's Gerald Wallace is the only small forward who corrals more, at 15.4%. His strong instincts in that area of the game offset Lewis' below-average ones. With Barnes on the floor, Orlando's team rebound rate improves by 2.7%.
Additionally, Barnes appears to be a better complement to Jameer Nelson. Or, put another way, Orlando's better off with Pietrus playing alongside backup point guard Jason Williams than it is with Pietrus alongside Nelson. The stats I'm about to present may be a bit skewed, since Pietrus has spent some time at shooting guard with Barnes at small forward this season, but in general I believe they illustrate this point well.
|Matt Barnes +/- with Orlando Magic Point Guards, 2009/10 NBA Season|
|PG||+/-||Minutes||+/- per minute|
|Mickael Pietrus +/- with Orlando Magic Point Guards, 2009/10 NBA Season|
|PG||+/-||Minutes||+/- per minute|
The reason why Pietrus works better with Williams is, at least empirically, play style. Williams pushes the tempo in transition and finds open shooters, like Pietrus, in their favorite spots. Nelson, for all his speed, is better suited to a more deliberate, half-court game. Pietrus appears to force the action in this setting, settling for long two-point jumpers and rarely looking to pass. Barnes, in contrast, is a more aware player who does the--and I hate this term--"little things" like make entry passes and cut away from the ball that enhance a half-court offense. Again, this conclusion is all based on my own observation, and I have no statistical evidence to support it. Y'all watch the Magic as often as I do, so (as always) feel free to tell me if you see the issue differently. After all, opponents still need roughly 120 minutes just to outscore the Pietrus/Nelson pairing by a single point.
In short, I jumped the gun with my earlier post about Barnes being a poor fit with the starters. Van Gundy made the right move, and the team is rewarding his patience. As of games played prior to February 25th, Orlando has played the league's second-most-difficult schedule over the last 25% of its slate, yet has posted a stellar plus-7.33 margin in that span. That margin, incidentally, is also the league's second-best. Only Utah has beaten teams by a higher average during this stretch, and it's done so against weaker competition.