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J.J. Barea saved the Mavericks season behind surprising improvements

The diminutive back-up point guard posted career-bests in shooting numbers for an offensively-challenged Dallas team that needed all the scoring it could get to claw into the playoffs.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back

Expectations weren't high for J.J. Barea before the season. He just signed a 4-year deal worth $16 million, a crazy number for a sub-six foot tall point guard on the wrong side of 30. Barea represented the putrid hellscape that was the Mavs 2015 off-season, where loyalty was rewarded over talent or need. At the time, it seemed the Mavs just guaranteed four more years to the third or fourth best point guard on the team.

His season started off fairly typical for Barea -- some energetic scoring off the bench, some dour looking games where the jumper isn't falling and some nice playmaking and running of the offense on bench units compromised by defensive futility. The narrative of his season started to turn when Deron Williams missed a couple of games toward the end of December and Barea absolutely lit it up as a starter. Barea scored 32 and 26 points in back-to-back thrilling wins against Brooklyn and Chicago, respectively.

With Williams looking ever so pedestrian and mediocre outside of clutch situations, Barea opened some eyes during his brief starting spell. He continued to be a so-so bench player for a Mavs team that had to work around injuries, slumps and a lack of talent. For better or worse, Barea became the poster boy for the Mavericks backward thinking to small-ball where the three-guard lineup was supreme and rookie Justin Anderson rode the bench throughout the year.

Then Williams got seriously hurt in March, with the Mavs season teetering out of control. Barea was now the starter for five straight games and for five straight games he absolutely cooked. He carried the Mavericks offense through a brilliant stretch of shooting and scoring, averaging 24.2 points, 7 assists and canning 16-of-32 from beyond the arc and taking the Mavs from a couple of games under .500 to a playoff berth.

While that hot stretch certainly helped, Barea ended up posting career-best numbers across the board and a lot of it was boosted by his shooting. He finished 38.5 percent from three, by far a career-high since he became a regular rotation player nine years ago and his 44.6 percent from the field was an overall career high. He nailed triples off the bounce and with no defender in sight at career high levels, which forced defenders to go under screens and freed Barea up for clear paths to the basket running pick and rolls with the greatest floor-spacing big of all time.

Barea's presence was none more felt than when he was actually off the court. A groin strain before the playoffs seriously limited Barea and without him at 100 percent, the Mavericks offense looked horrible in a five-game first round loss to the Thunder. It forced Rick Carlisle to make some wonky lineup decisions to juggle a limited Barea with the all-defense identity the Mavs built in the final games of the regular season. Without Barea at full strength (or Williams) to prop up offensively limited lineups featuring Justin Anderson and Salah Mejri, Carlisle had to employ over-matched and overwhelmed three-guard lineups to try and add juice to a lifeless offense. It seems crazy to say, but when Barea went down, so did the Mavericks chances at making the Thunder sweat out that series more.

Contract status

Barea will be entering the second year of his four-year, $16 million contract he signed last summer as Mark Cuban finally decided to show loyalty to players at the exact wrong time.

With the cap exploding this summer and the next, Barea's money isn't that huge a deal -- it's more the years, as Barea will be nearing 35 by the end of this contract.

Looking forward

The biggest question for Barea for the rest of this contract -- will he keep up his shooting? Barea somehow put up his best shooting numbers of his career on the most offensively-challenged Mavs roster he's been on. With Dirk hopefully returning and still proving effective, Barea should still hit those jumpers he did this season, so long as it wasn't a small sample mirage. It'll be important that he does, since his speed will deteriorate year after year and the threat of a jumper will be crucial in providing him the space he needs to get into the lane and create offense. Barea is essentially tied to the hip of Dirk -- he needs Dirk's spacing to be effective or at least a respected shooting big when Dirk eventually retires.

The danger of Barea is that he represents a roadblock to progress. While the Mavs have been using smallball lineups in the Dirk era for years before it came in vogue, the new era of smallball is about gaining the benefits of going small without actually going all that small -- Golden State's "smallball" lineup doesn't feature a player shorter than 6'4. The Mavs lineup features three guys that height or shorter. With Barea around, Carlisle will always be tempted to roll him out with lineups featuring three other guards, potentially limiting the impact of Justin Anderson or whatever young wings the Mavs (hopefully) bring in this summer.

If the Mavs can reload at the wing with enough two-way players, Carlisle won't dip into the well that often. As just a backup point guard, you can do much worse than Barea -- look at the playoff teams that are struggling to fill in the minutes behind their starting point guard for reference. Barea is a nice safety blanket to keep bench units humming and the Mavericks need to make sure that's all he is as they build the roster going forward.

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