The Orlando Magic's 96-94 win over the L.A. Lakers yesterday stands out for several reasons, but perhaps none as prominent as Matt Barnes' physical play and willingness to engage L.A.'s Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher in almost literal combat. As I wrote in my recap, Barnes' altercations with those two led him to become a trending topic on Twitter the world over. For a veteran of seven teams in seven seasons with career averages of 7.2 points and 4.3 boards, that's quite an accomplishment.
Now, Twitter wasn't the only place in which Barnes--whose own wildly entertaining account you can follow here, incidentally--drew attention. Orlando Sentinel columnist George Diaz published this piece shortly after the game ended explaining why Barnes is his new favorite Magic player, saying Barnes "punched" Bryant "on the red carpet," to use a Hollywood analogy. Veteran beat writer Brian Schmitz blogged that Orlando must do anything it can to keep Barnes this summer, when he can become a free agent, "even if it means going deeper into the tax or trading away somebody else." OPP commenter ggrant wrote, "Matt Barnes is damn near my favorite player right now." On the other side, Lakers fan koberules wrote, "Hey, friendly competition is cool, but he just took it over the limit." So there's no question that Barnes made an impression.
Likewise, there's no question that Barnes played a key role in Orlando's win yesterday, with 10 points, 6 boards, a steal, a crucial three-pointer with just more than a minute to play (after which he mean-mugged his way to the bench), and the aforesaid defense of Bryant. But I fear we're in danger of missing the point with our lionization of him. You won't read about Barnes' own stats in those posts I just linked, for instance, but only about his physical play. And that's a bit problematic.
As Schmitz wrote, it's "hard to price" the edge that Barnes brings to the team. Yesterday wasn't the first time he's garnered attention for his attitude: after a loss to Portland in January, Barnes erupted in the Magic's locker room, saying, "Talk is cheap. We gotta knock people down like they're knocking Dwight [Howard] down." He also got went forehead-to-forehead with Boston forward Paul Pierce earlier this year after Pierce fouled Howard pretty hard. In any case, he's unique among Magic players in his willingness to mix it up. And when I say "among Magic players," I mean on a franchise-wide scale. In 21 years, Orlando's never quite had a perimeter enforcer like Barnes.
So when we talk about what makes Barnes special, there's going to be a tendency to point to those incidents, or his shoving Bryant, or his screening Fisher in the backcourt so hard that Fisher fell on his rear. As fun as those confrontations were to watch--let's face it, Magic fans, you liked the hell out of them--it's unclear as to if they affected the outcome of the game. Not to put Bryant on a pedestal or anything, but he's a tough dude to irritate. Tim Povtak writes that the Lakers cracked jokes at Barnes' expense after the loss, though they were complimentary of him to an extent, and Bryant described his afternoon-long battle with Barnes as "fun."
You know what did affect the outcome of the game, though? Bryant missing 18 of his 30 shots, or needing 32 shooting possessions to score 34 points. And I don't think Barnes was in Bryant's head, necessarily, on those misses. Solid footwork, good awareness, good contests... those are the hallmarks of good defense. And that's where Barnes, who says there's no such thing as a "Kobe Stopper," is valuable. The extracurricular stuff helps, but only to a certain extent. Plenty of NBA players have "grit," "toughness," "tenacity," and all those other traits that are essentially code for "the guts to beat the hell out of people." Barnes happens to back that swagger up with contributions that can be measured. The dude's an asset, but not just for playing hard. Focus on his productivity, like the fact that LeBron James and Gerald Wallace are the only small forwards who rebound at a higher rate, or that he's averaging 10.1 points per game on 61.4% True Shooting since January 1st. At the risk of saying the entirely obvious, snagging rebounds and scoring efficiently are important, too.
I don't mean to diminish Barnes' toughness, or to say we should ignore it entirely. To me, what's more important than his toughness is his overall skill set. Jamaal Magloire and the Collins twins are but three guys who are still drawing an NBA paycheck because they play hard and beat people up. Let's not mistake Barnes for a no-talent, all-hustle, unproductive guy like those three are. He's more than that, and to think of him as such a player is to do him a disservice.