The jokes have been easy since Timberwolves GM David Khan selected three point guards in the first round of the 2009 draft, including two with back-to-back picks at No. 5 and No. 6 when Stephen Curry was still on the board. The jokes will come back today, once the Timberwolves finalize a reported four-year, $19 million deal with J.J. Barea, a crucial reserve-turned-starter on the Mavericks’ championship team.
But I’m having a hard time summoning any real negativity about this deal, even if the Wolves have both Ricky Rubio and Luke Ridnour under contract for the next few seasons, giving them three point guards deserving of major playing time. One of those point guards has never played in the NBA and is coming off a Euroleague season in which he shot worse than 40 percent from the floor and 25 percent from three-point range. The other, Ridnour, is a decent long-range shooter coming off a season in which his turnover rate blew up to a career-worst level, his defense remained so-so and he looked a bit uncomfortable in Kurt Rambis’ triangle offense. His addiction to questionable pull-up jumpers in transition remained strong, though.
In other words: It’s not the worst thing in the world to have a third point guard here, even if Rick Adelman’s corner offense system isn’t as heavy on the pick-and-roll — Barea’s main strength. Barea might be a bit overpaid at about $5 million per year, but he wouldn’t be overpaid by much, and the Wolves retain a bunch of financial flexibility going forward. They have only about $27.6 million in guaranteed money committed for 2012-13, though they’ll obviously work to sign Kevin Love to the maximum five-year deal allowed in the new CBA for so-called “designated players.” Martell Webster and Brad Miller have mostly non-guaranteed deals for 2012-13, and the following players will either hit restricted free agency or team options over the next two years: Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph, Wesley Johnson, Lazar Hayward and Wayne Ellington. Even Darko Milicic’s horrid deal is only about one-third guaranteed for 2013-14.
Toss in the amnesty clause, available for use anytime on any player on the roster before last Friday, and the Wolves have the kind of financial flexibility to sign someone like Barea as a potential Rubio mentor/tradeable contract/insurance policy.
Barea has one monster skill that could work well in Minnesota, depending on how often Adelman wants to use it: He has unique experience running a pick-and-roll with a power forward who can shoot jumpers. The Barea/Nowitzki pick-and-roll was devastating, in part because Nowitzki’s defenders are so fearful about jumping off of Dirk to contain Barea’s penetration, allowing Barea to pick his way into the lane. And Barea does well from there, with his hesitation dribbles and array of crazy flip shots, and the Wolves will have something if he and Love can duplicate that chemistry. Barea also improved his pass-or-shot decision-making last season, which helps explain his career-highs in both assist rate and shooting percentage on attempts at the rim. Barea had historically been a low-percentage shooter, compared to the average point guard, on those close shots, and his value diminishes big time if those numbers return to his prior career norms. That said, he was unusually inaccurate last season on long two-point shots, an area from which he has generally been very good. And he worked his three-point percentage up to league average, where it has always been, after a terrible start.
You know the issues: Barea’s short, and he’s always going to be a liability on defense, despite his pesky on-ball work against the pick-and-roll. Guards will attack him in the post, forcing double teams or flop attempts, and he ranked near the bottom of the league in defending spot-up attempts, according to the stat-tracking service Synergy Sports. His lack of length hurts him in chasing shooters and contesting shots. The Wolves almost certainly won’t run as much zone as Dallas did last season, and Barea won’t have Tyson Chandler around to help contain pick-and-roll plays; Milicic is an elite shot-blocker, but he’s not in the same league as Chandler in jumping out to contain quick ball-handlers.
As for the Mavs, the championship exodus continues, but history will probably vindicate Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson for allowing most of these defections to go unanswered. The Mavs want cap room next year and beyond, and they could get themselves between $11 million and $20 million of space this summer by some combination of buying out Lamar Odom’s cheap-ish unguaranteed deal for 2012-13, declining various team options linked to young players and using the amnesty provision on Brendan Haywood. Barea will be 32 by the end of this four-year deal, and the Mavs are justified for thinking they’d be better off without that cap hit.
That’s especially so because Barea’s value was so tied to Nowitzki’s presence. Dirk is still here, and the Mavs must hope Roddy Beaubois (coming off a lost season due to injury) and perhaps even Dominique Jones can develop the kind of pick-and-roll chemistry Barea had with Nowitzki. That’s a risk; those guys don’t match Barea as a passer, and neither has Barea’s subtle change-of-pace trickery mastered yet. But in addition to size, both add other skills — explosiveness, finishing and defense — Barea lacks, and the Mavs may well absorb the blow of losing Barea without feeling all that much. Again: The most important part of the Barea/Nowitzki duo is still in Dallas.
But add it all up — the losses of Barea, Chandler and Caron Butler — and the Mavs will feel something in 2011-12, despite the addition of Odom. Still, if the Mavs want flexibility in the face of a harsher new luxury tax — and without Laker- or Knick-level profit guarantees — they are doing the right thing, and the could still push for the title this season with some good fortune.