To every hardcore NBA nerd/fan who’s stumbled across this article, a quick question to kick things off: When did you first ask your (yawning) roommate, significant other, mom or dog if they can even believe how good Will Barton is this season?
Barring an injury, or a magical 73-9 exclamation point by the Golden State Warriors (a scenario that’d necessitate every major individual award be hand-delivered to someone on that team), Barton is well on his way to locking up this season’s Sixth Man of the Year trophy.
In December, he averaged 20.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. Zero starts. How did a 25-year-old blade of grass become one of the NBA’s most terrifying threats off the bench? How does someone go from Real Plus-Minus’s 323rd best offensive player last season to 36th today (right in front of Dwyane Wade)? Where did Barton come from?
It normally isn’t noble to salvage an aimless team when it might be more prudent to lose and develop youngsters than stay competitive and get stomped by either the Warriors or San Antonio Spurs come playoff time, but despite being 2-8 over their past 10 games, the Nuggets are only three games back from a playoff spot, with just a couple unimpressive clubs standing in their way.
Nobody’s saying they’ll make the postseason, but for them to not have been disqualified already is a testament to Barton, who’s surprisingly and increasingly been more steady than random. Injuries to Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Emmanuel Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic should’ve flooded these expected basement dwellers. Instead, Barton’s shimmered many times over as Denver’s primary option, lead ball-handler and most valuable player.
It’s funny what happens when someone who’s in the league because he knows how to score is thrust into a situation where his team wants and needs him to do just that. A little opportunity can go a very long way. And for Barton, it has.
Last season, Barton was a scrap to match salaries on a trade that sent Arron Afflalo from Denver to the Portland Trail Blazers. The Nuggets landed a lottery-protected first-round pick in the trade, and were applauded for it. Those are cool and teams covet them for obvious reasons. But, in an upset as it stands, Barton is the transaction’s biggest prize. He’s better and younger than Afflalo, and on a tight three-year, $10.6 million deal (easily one of the best non-rookie-scale contracts in the league today).
In his first three years with Portland, Barton averaged 3.8 points per game, made 19.8 percent of his threes and sported a 10.0 PER. He wasn’t “in-and-out” of Terry Stotts’ rotation so much as you knew something was wrong if he entered the game. This season, Barton is averaging more points than Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol. Heading into 2016, he made 42 threes. This season, he’s at 61 and counting, shooting just under 40 percent. Is this legitimate evolution or simply the fortunate byproduct of a new home? It’s probably a little of both.
Barton showed signs of life last year after the trade, but it’s nothing like what he’s doing right now. As a pick-and-roll scorer, he’s nearly as efficient as James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, but where he really shines is in transition. He’s creative and confident and most glorious when a buffet of options lay in his path.
The only players who’ve used more possessions in transition who’re also more efficient than Barton are LeBron James and Steph Curry. (The only two others with at least 100 possessions and a higher points per possession rate are Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.) This is the dopest company a player can have, and it’s in an area of steadily rising importance in the modern game.
Over 75 percent of Barton’s shot attempts have come either behind the three-point line or in the paint. He’s like a rubbery Terminator, efficient and wise, but also tricky. Barton’s fluid ball fakes are their own subtle hypnosis. He’ll curl off a screen or set off on a straight line drive and hold the ball out front, as bait, to freeze help defenders. It’s like Harden, except Barton isn’t interested in drawing a foul so much as he wants to hold a defender’s attention just long enough to wreak havoc. Sometimes he’ll pass, sometimes he’ll score:
Barton’s deceptive, herky-jerky play doesn’t mean he’s careless with the ball, though. Only a handful of guys can boast a lower turnover rate than Barton’s, with a higher usage percentage. He’s reliably aggressive, and is too unpredictable to defend with certainty. He contorts his body in the air as well as anyone, and has an unteachable knack for putting the ball in the basket regardless of who’s in his way.
The Nuggets are grateful. They score more points in the paint, on fast breaks, off turnovers and offensive rebounds with Barton on the floor than any other player, and are at their worst in all four categories when he’s on the bench.
Since December 1, Denver gets outscored by 13.8 points per 100 possessions with Barton off the court and are 2.2 points better. Only the Warriors, Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have a better offense than the Nuggets with Barton. Only the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers are worse than them when he sits.
Part of his appeal is a general mystique—a “no seriously, how is this happening?” shake of the head whenever he devises another magical on-court moment. But how much of it’s real? Barton’s shooting 29.3 percent over his last three games, and a slip back into Earth’s atmosphere wouldn’t be all that surprising over the next couple weeks.
Actually, on second thought, it would. He’s incredible.