José Juan Barea has had a remarkable career. Moving from Puerto Rico to the United States at 17 to play high school basketball in Florida, Barea was the antithesis of the over-publicized, over-exposed high school ballers we see entering the college scene today. Generously (very generously) listed at six feet, J.J. was not highly recruited and did not receive major college offers, opting instead to play at Northeastern in the America East Conference. After a stellar career there, Barea was not invited to the combine, and unsurprisingly went undrafted that summer.
That was in 2006. 12 years later, Barea is still in the league; still baffling defenders with hesitation moves, and still making circus layups over defenders seemingly twice his size. He has never been a star, but he’s been a game-breaker for stretches in Dallas, including an impossibly good run in the 2011 playoffs that helped deliver a championship. His play in the second round against the Lakers, as well as the Finals against Miami (where he started the final two deciding games) were absolutely crucial to that title run.
I’ll confess that there were times — especially in his first stint with the Mavs — when I found Barea’s style of play a little grating. The excessive dribbling, where Barea would scamper around looking for a play and then end up having to heave a 25 footer? Yeah, not my favorite. However, when Barea returned to the Mavericks in 2014 (after a few years of questionable point guard play in Dallas), I found a renewed appreciation for his craftiness and guile. He really is a guy who gets the absolute most from his body, using every last one of the few inches he’s been given to find the right angle to attack.
Barea is a free agent after this season. It is not a secret that head coach Rick Carlisle adores him. But, will that be enough to see him come back at age 35? The team spent what was essentially a late first round pick on Jalen Brunson, who has a similar profile, and given how highly the team spoke of him on draft night, it would certainly seem that they think Brunson is capable of handling Barea’s role as the backup point guard.
After 12 years in the league, there isn’t much of a mystery left to J.J. Barea’s game. The biggest question is likely just “can he stay healthy?”
Barea has missed time in each of the last two seasons (significant time in 2016-17), and given his age and physical limitations, injuries can be especially costly. Barea is a good but not devastating shooter, so the threat of the drive is important for him to be successful. That’s on the offensive end. On the defensive side, his margin for error is almost non-existent. Already a poor defender, further loss of quickness would make him virtually unplayable.
Best Case Scenario
People have been betting against Barea since he began his professional career, so do so at your own risk. What Barea lacks in size or tremendous athleticism, he makes up for with pure moxie, and a high level basketball IQ. Barea didn’t play more minutes least season than any other, but at 34 he managed to set career highs (per game) in points, assists, rebounds and steals. Judging from his first two preseason games, he doesn’t appear to washed, as he dished out 9 assists Friday, and scored 14 points Monday, both in just 19 minutes.
Assuming he stays healthy, Barea should continue to be an excellent pick-and-roll playmaker, playing a lot alongside Devin Harris (the two work like magic together) and Dirk Nowitzki, who for the first time will be coming off the bench. For years, Carlisle would stagger Dirk’s minutes to play him with J.J., and that will obviously be much simpler now.
Worst Case Scenario
Injuries would obviously be very problematic, but it will also be interesting to see whether Rick Carlisle plays Barea alongside one or both of Dallas’ two young building blocks, Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. Carlisle experimented playing Barea and Smith together last year, and while perhaps the experiment was useful going forward for Smith’s improvement playing off-ball, the results were mixed. Barea has a tendency to pound the ball, and for all the charm of his kitchen-sink bag of tricks, there’s a point where you risk stalling the development a little of players the team desperately needs to get better.
The other issue, which I alluded to earlier, is that Barea’s defense is teetering on the edge of a cliff. Barea ranked 83rd out of 91 qualified point guards in defensive real plus-minus. He hustles, but in a league that puts a premium on switching and spacing the floor, Barea’s lack of size hurts him severely both in close-outs, and in bothering the shot of longer defenders on switches. J.J. is deceptively strong and battles in the post (he’s also an all-world flopper, and draws many offensive fouls that way), but when a 6’7 guy gets the ball against J.J, a hand up isn’t exactly going to do much. Hiding Barea as much as possible will be key for Carlisle.