Positional definition in basketball has become far blurrier as time has evolved. The standard positions of the point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center have never been in more flux - after all, what separates Caron Butler from being a three or a two? What separates Jason Terry from being a one or a two? Or Pau Gasol a four or a five?
As players evolve, so does the game. The traditional NBA lineup has become less reliant on the standard "1-5" positions and more on the best five players that adapt and fit in with a head coach's system, whether it's geared toward the offense or defense.
Thus, the difference from being a starter, role player, six man or backup has been harder to define. But not all of this is new or revolutionary - coaches have long picked and prodded their roster to fill out the depth chart with their guys, their players to carry out the vision of the coach. This is why DeShawn Stevenson can sit on the bench in Washington but start in the NBA Finals in Dallas. It's also why a player who can't register over six feet tall in high tops can swing an NBA championship.
J.J. Barea maddens a fan base due to his own heroic feats. Despite being, basically, a back-up point guard, Barea has constantly fought off detractors in DFW as if he were an incumbent starter.
Barea's play this season wasn't anything spectacular from a statistical standpoint. A 14.6 PER during the regular season and a 16.8 in the playoffs. Despite all the highs and the lows, Barea's output wasn't anything more (or less) than an average NBA player (an average NBA player is meant to garner a 15 PER).
But that's why context matters. Barea's play from a casual observer might not have been anything noticeable, but he provided Dallas with three things from a single player that no one else on the team could: an ability to spread the floor, penetrate and facilitate a rather unique Dallas offense.
Even with those skills, however, Barea wasn't always successful. His erratic shooting and physical limitations turned him into a streaky player - just as capable of dropping 20 points as he is shooting 20 percent.
Which showed in the playoffs. Barea barely registered any meaningful production against Portland, due to the Trail Blazers size in the backcourt. Barea shined against Los Angeles thanks to LA's lack of competent point guards, especially off the bench. With Oklahoma City, Barea went back and forth, with two strong games to start the series, two duds then redeeming himself a bit in Game 5.
The most alarming show of Barea's streaky tendencies was in the Finals. Barea was 3-for-15 and looked overmatched in Games 1 and 2. Coming off the bench against his much more athletic counterpart Mario Chalmers, Barea's skills were cut off by the Heat's lanky defense, swallowing up his drives to the rim. So, naturally, Rick Carlisle inserted Barea into the starting lineup, even with starter DeShawn Stevenson 5-of-8 from three in the first two games.
Once again, this was a move that needed context and was all about match ups. Stevenson's scoring is a bonus - his role on the team is to be a perimeter defender. With Dwyane Wade's continued brilliance, the need for that defense was losing its focus. Stevenson, for all his good efforts, is a ball stopper on offense. When the ball is swung to him, the offense stalls as Stevenson thinks about launching a three or not making a quick enough decision to pass.
With Barea, Carlisle felt the first-team offense needed the extra spacing and ball movement created with Barea in the lineup. It wouldn't hurt that it also forced Erik Spoelstra's hand when dealing with the putrid starting Mike Bibby.
The rest is history. Barea's play skyrocketed after being put into the lineup, Stevenson somehow managed to keep shooting well off the bench and the Mavericks won the title. One of the Maverick's biggest scapegoats was turned into a hero, thanks to a coach's understanding of how to best max our Barea's efficiencies and keep the inefficiencies down.
But one last note before this wraps up. Barea is a back up point guard, this much everyone can agree on. Here's Barea's competition when it comes to the back-up point guards (the number is their PER):
ATL - Jeff Teague, 14.6. Kirk Hinrich, 9.8
BOS - Nate Robinson, 10.2, Delonte West 12.3, Arroyo, 9.9
CHAR - Shaun Livingston, 14.3
CHI - C.J. Watson, 12.8
CLE - Ramon Sessions, 19
DEN - Raymond Felton, 14.7
GS - Acie Law, 11.3
HOU - Brooks. Dragic, 13.2
IND - A.J. Price, 10.7, T.J. Ford 9.9
LAC - Eric Beldsoe, 10.8
LAL - Steve Blake, 7.5
MEM - Greivis Vasquez, 9.6
MIA - Mario Chalmers, 10.3
MIL - Earl Boykins 17.6
MINN - Sebastian Telfair, 7.1, Johhny Flynn 10.5
NJN - Jordan Farmar, 14.1
NO - Jarrett Jack, 14.6
NY - Tony Douglas 15.2
OKC -Eric Maynor
ORL - Gilbert Arenas, 10.8
PHIL - Lou Williams, 18.9
PHX -Goran Dragic, Aaron Brooks, both 13.2
POR - Patrick Mills, 13, Brandon Roy, 13.9
SAC - Pooh Jeter, 11.1, Beno Udrich, 17.7
SAS - George Hill, 14.6
TOR - Jarred Bayless, 14.2, Leandro Barbosa, 15.4,
UTA - Earl Watson, 10.2
WAS - Holy crap their roster from last year was a mess, just trust me that whoever it was that played back-up point guard was bad. Bad, bad, bad.
Barea's PER, as mentioned earlier, was 14.6 in the regular season, 16.8 in the playoffs. I understand PER isn't the be all, end all when it comes to defining an NBA player through statistics, but it's a nice barometer for this little test.
As you can tell, only a handful of players exceeded Barea - Felton, Boykins, Douglas, Williams, Udrich and Barbosa. But two of those players (Felton, Udrich) were practically starters. Some were their team's Jason Terry, who closed games (Williams, Barbosa) and Douglas benefited from New York's up tempo system and Chauncey Billups going down with injury. Boykins truly shined off the bench and funny enough, is the same stature as Barea.
My point being here is this: Barea has his down moments and certainly isn't a perfect player. But back-up point guards aren't supposed to be perfect. Imagine how much the Lakers would have liked Barea off their bench? Or Memphis? The Celtics? Chicago would have loved to relieve Derrick Rose with Barea. Heck, even the Heat?
Some team might overpay Barea for his worth based on the last Finals games. And the Mavericks would be right to not pursue that. But that doesn't mean that Dallas, without Barea, is a much better team for it. Back-up point guard might not be the most glamorous position in the NBA. But Barea mastered it.