Matt Barnes: Right Guy, Wrong Role

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Overachieving in a role not built for a specific individual leaves an odd feeling. Even in ones excellence, there’s this distinct reminder that goes off like a microwave timer following every game — it isn’t enough, no matter how hard player ‘x’ tries.

That’s what Matt Barnes is dealing with this season and sadly there’s nothing he can do about it.

Things weren’t supposed to be this way. In the summer of 2013, the Clippers executed a three-team trade that sent Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler to the Phoenix Suns in return for J.J. Redick (MIL) and Jared Dudley (PHX). By acquiring Dudley, the newly re-signed Matt Barnes (3-year, $11 million) was primed to be a key cog off the bench alongside Jamal Crawford as a energy 3-and-D guy while Dudley’s floor-spacing and defense complimented Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan in the starting lineup.

“The list goes on and with each elite player opposite of Barnes, the harder it is to appreciate what value he brings to the game in his role.”

Instead, Dudley dealt with injury and inconsistencies throughout the 2013-14 season, forcing Doc Rivers to thrust Matt Barnes in a role too big for his abilities. In the following summer, Jared Dudley was traded and no replacement was brought in, again leaving Barnes to start.

Every team has a Matt Barnes, whether it be at small forward or any other position. He’s a pseudo-tough guy, a “proven winner” (a dumb title that oddly matters to NBA players) and doesn’t shy away from doing any and everything that’s asked of him to help the team win. And typically these guys are first off the bench to compliment stars; think James Posey in Boston during the Celtics’ 08 championship run, DeShawn Stevenson on the 2010-11 Mavericks title team, or Mike Miller off the bench for the Heat’s back-to-back run in 13-14 — ability-wise, these guys just aren’t starters in the NBA anymore and Barnes is once again being asked to keep up with guys far above his taken level.

If statistics tell the story, Barnes is on par to have one of the best seasons of his 12-year NBA career once you factor in age. Through 30 games (28 as a starter), Barnes is averaging 8.8 points on 47% shooting from the field and 37% from three, the highest mark behind the arc for his career, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game.

As a reserve, these are numbers you praise. On the 07-08 Celtics, Posey averaged 7.4 points on 41/38/80 shooting splits, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.5 assists. Mike Miller, a better comparison to Barnes given age, averaged 4.8 points on 43/41/72 splits, 2.7 rebounds,and 1.7 assists in 2012-13.

As a starter? They’re borderline laughable. Defenses treat Barnes as if he’s Tony Allen from three, altering how the offense runs due to lack of spacing (most notably Blake Griffin). And due to the inconsistencies behind him, Barnes is pretty much manning the entire small forward position himself, save for a hot start from Hedo Turkoglu from three to start the season.

In the Western Conference, the journey to the NBA Finals likely means Barnes will have a superior player across him in every direction: Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, Nicolas Batum or Wesley Matthews in Portland, James Harden in Houston, Chandler Parsons or Monta Ellis in Dallas, Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio, Klay Thompson in Golden State, etc. The list goes on and with each elite player opposite of Barnes, the harder it is to appreciate what value he brings to the game in his role.

Take last night’s victory over the Utah Jazz for example. In 30 minutes, Barnes finished with 13 points, 3 blocks, and 2 rebounds, a good game for the vet, but none of it seemed to matter as we saw Gordon Hayward dance his way around Barnes for 22 points. And Hayward isn’t the lone forward (or scoring wing) who has had his way with the Clippers this season:

In Game 1 of the season, Perry Jones (OKC) scored a career-high 32 points and 7 rebounds.

In Game 3, Rudy Gay (SAC) scored 25 points along with 7 rebounds and 6 assists.

In Game 4, Gordon Hayward (UTA) posted 27 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists.

In Game 7, Kawhi Leonard (SAS) posted 26 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals.

In Game 16, Hayward returned for more, this time posting 30 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists.

In Game 23, Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) posted 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists. In between each massive performance stands an impressive, smaller outing, relating to the bigger performances as they each outweigh what Barnes can give the Clippers.

With 60+ games remaining in the season, there’s a hope a ‘savior’ arrives to spare Barnes of doing work his body is incapable of today. The franchise has been connected to several ‘available’ wings through the season by viable sources, dangling Jamal Crawford (and likely any other player not named Griffin, Paul, or Jordan) as trade bait. With January a few days away, the 10-day market could muster up a temporary option. After that, the buyout deadline could lead to signings a la Danny Granger and Glen Davis last season.

If not, we’ll spend the remainder of the year harping on why Barnes isn’t enough … and it’s not his fault.