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Evaluating Matt Barnes

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Our series of 2009/2010 Orlando Magic player evaluations continues with Matt Barnes, Orlando's starting small forward and chief enforcer. He's best known for altercations with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant, and he received an ejection for tussling with Hasheem Thabeet, which is all kind of a shame, because he does more on the court than merely tick people off. I fear people regard him as an unskilled irritant who only draws an NBA paycheck for his toughness. And while it's true that he brought that reputation on himself, it's also true that he brings more to the floor than frustrated malevolence. Orlando went 34-13 once he replaced Mickael Pietrus in the starting lineup, and that unit paced all NBA lineups in adjusted plus-minus with at least 700 minutes together.

Matt Barnes
No. 22
Small Forward
Points Per Game Rebounds Per Game Assists Per Game
8.8 5.5 1.7
Points Per 36 Rebounds Per 36 Assists Per 36
12.3 7.6 2.3
PER Rebound Rate Assist Rate
13.6 12.3 10.1
FG% 3FG% FT%
.487 .319 .740
eFG% TS%
.546 .576

All statistics in this table from Barnes' player page at basketball-reference. Career-high statistics highlighted in gold.

I feel like I discussed most of what I wanted to talk about here in this post the day after the nationally televised game against the Lakers when he and Bryant faced off. The highlights? He's an excellent rebounder for his position, defender, and energy guy. And, to an extent, we can quantify "energy guy." Check these Synergy Sports Technology data about his offense:

Play Type %Time Points Per Possession Rating
Transition 18.0% 1.290 Very Good
Cut 14.6% 1.274 Good
8.2% 1.183 Very Good

The plays he makes in these areas are ones not many other Magic players can, or do, based on their roles. In a way, he's an ideal role-player for this team because he does the "dirty work." Now, that may sound lazy on my part to you, but think about it: how many superstars in this league crash the offensive glass, or cut to the basket away from the ball? And how many times do the Magic get out and run in transition? The answer to all those questions is "not many." Indeed, Orlando ranked 23rd in percentage of possessions ended in transition, according to Synergy, and 22nd in points per transition possession. Now, there's nothing wrong with running a halfcourt offense, of course, but Barnes adds a new element to the team in that he can be effective on the break.

Don't let the poor three-point percentage fool you, either: Barnes shot 35.8% from long range after joining the starting lineup. In other words, he was about in line with league average in that area, which means he could continue to spread the floor for Dwight Howard without being too much of a liability. Clearly, though, he's the weak link in Orlando's starting 5, which the Boston Celtics exploited in the Eastern Conference Finals by leaving him open and daring him to shoot. One can make a decent case that Orlando would be better served by seeking a more dangerous offensive small forward this summer in order to apply more pressure to opposing defenses. But on the other hand, the present starting lineup scored 115.7 points per 100 possessions, a rate which would have led the league over the course of a whole season, so clearly something's working.

And the "working" part is the biggest reason why Orlando would like to keep Barnes this summer, when he can become a free agent. It can handle his emotional outbursts and abrasive attitude, at times, because he fits so well with what the team is trying to do. There'll be plenty of debate here and around the basketball community about whether that approach is even the right one, and what sort of raise from his $1.6 million salary this season he's earned, and if Orlando should retain him. But those topics aren't our focus here. Nope, its Barnes' season as a whole. And he had a good one.

Don't misunderstand me, though. Barnes makes his share of mistakes. On a per-possession basis, he turned the ball over more often than any other small forward playing 25 minutes per game, according to HoopData, although his low usage mitigates the turnovers a bit. And though none of his 10 technical fouls really changed a game, the potential to have hurt the team remains. I'm not saying the dude should play like a robot, but it's possible for him to play a bit more in control while still having a bit of an edge, I believe.

And defensively? He got a lot of high-profile assignments this year, having to handle the opponent's best perimeter player for heavy minutes each night. Consequently, the media tended to overrate his ability on that end. Now, he competes hard on D, and takes pride in what he does. That's important. And he is a good defender, ranking in the 61st percentile among all players this season. But his skinny frame and lack of muscle hurts him against more physical players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Paul Pierce. Synergy shows him to be "good" to "excellent" against three of the four most common play types he faced. The weakness, though, is a glaring one: he can't cover the pick-and-roll. To attack Orlando's defense with Barnes in the game, one needed only to isolate Barnes on the top wing scorer, and then set a ball screen for him. What hurts him the most is his tendency to run straight into the darn thing instead of fighting over it or going underneath it: in defending 105 pick-and-roll situations this season in which an offensive player actually used the pick (instead of dribbling away from it or splitting it), Barnes ran into the pick 53 times, which opposing players exploited for 1.057 points per possession. The list of 81 players who defended the pick-and-roll better than Barnes this season (minimum 120 possessions) includes Steve Nash, Earl Boykins, Mike Bibby, and Gilbert Arenas. Gulp.

At age 30, Barnes isn't getting any better. He is who he is, and there's a decent argument to be made that his hot three-point shooting as a starter will regress to his career norm of 32.9%. Still, his positives far outweighed his negatives this year. Considering his role, pricetag, and performance, Barnes delivered better than almost anyone could have reasonably expected him to.

Grade: B+