With all eyes fixed on rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., J.J. Barea could have easily flown under the radar and simply provided veteran leadership to a team in the midst of a rebuild. Rather than taking a backseat in his 12th season, the 33-year-old veteran put together a career year and was arguably the best player on the team.
In 69 games this season, Barea played 23.2 minutes per game, averaging 11.6 points and 6.3 assists while shooting 37 percent from deep. The points and assists were both career highs for the seasoned floor general, and the three-point percentage was the third highest of his career. This offensive surge earned Barea a 54.5 true-shooting percentage, the highest of his career. Simply put, Barea was too good to keep off the floor, and the draft conversation this offseason could have been much different had he not sat out seven of the last 10 games of the season because of injury.
For example, Barea played the point for the three best Maverick lineups in terms of plus/minus. The lineup consisting of Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell was a plus-108 on the season. That’s the ninth best group in the league, and all behind lineups that are currently playing in the playoffs. The next-best Maverick lineup comprised Barea, Ferrell, Doug McDermott, Nowitzki and Powell and was a plus-41 for the year. Obviously, McDermott was acquired at the deadline, so this lineup didn’t log as many minutes as the previous group, but McDermott was a seamless fit, and Barea was masterful in operating a lineup full of shooters and a rim runner.
But the best illustration of his impact is a series of late-January losses to the Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns in which Barea did not play. The Mavs shot an atrocious 38 percent from the field and 30 percent from deep and failed to score more than 90 points. In the next game against the Sacramento Kings, he played and the Mavs scored 106 points on 49 percent shooting (and won the game). Barea himself was rusty (2-of-12 shooting) but was a team-high plus-17. It’s a small sample, but the Mavericks were better with Barea on the floor, and that’s no jab at any other guard on the roster. Barea was just that good.
Barea’s career year seems even more impressive in context. On September 20, Barea’s home territory of Puerto Rico was struck by Hurricane Maria, one of the worst natural disasters on record in Puerto Rico. Barea helped fundraise and even teamed up with Mark Cuban, sending the team plane with supplies and returning with passengers looking for safety. On and off the court, Barea exceeded the standard for professional athletes. Basketball is a game, which Barea is good at. But his disaster relief efforts transcend the game, and he exemplified what the NBA aspires to be.
Barea is heading into the offseason with one year remaining on the four-year, $16 million deal he signed back in 2015. He’ll be on the books next season with an expiring contract for about $3.7 million. Barea’s name will most likely pop up around the trade deadline next season, but it’s hard to imagine the Mavs swapping him in February like they did with Devin Harris.
Gazing ahead into Barea’s 13th NBA season, health is the biggest question mark. After a season in which he posted career highs in multiple categories, effectiveness is not the concern. However, Barea dealt with an oblique strain multiple times this year, and his career hasn’t exactly been the model of good health. As long as Barea stays healthy, Rick Carlisle will continue to lean on him as the leader of the bench unit, orchestrating pick and rolls until we’ve all long been wiped from the face of the Earth and prolonging his career by way of spot-up shooting similar to Jason Kidd. And as Dennis Smith Jr. acclimates more to the rigors of the NBA, his minutes will slowly begin to increase, likely at the expense of Barea. But veteran leadership and basketball IQ will always be important to Carlisle, so look for Barea to play effective basketball as long as health allows.
Also, the NBA really needs these two old men to do more cool stunts like retrieve basketballs stuck on top of the backboard: