Nuggets picked up Will Barton at the trade deadline last year, one-half of a low-risk flyer the team netted for Aaron Afflalo’s expiring contract. The other half—a lottery-protected first-rounder in this year’s draft—won’t materialize into found money, but Barton has. The 24-year-old hasn’t just blossomed into a nice role player; he’s been the best sixth man in the game.
After Barton’s production more than tripled in increased minutes with Denver to finish out the 2014-15 season, the team still had admittedly low expectations when re-signing the raw guard to a cheap 3-year deal over the summer.
But Barton’s knack for scoring and versatility (he can play the 3 in both small and big Denver lineups) quickly earned him a prime role on the team. Barton plays the fourth-most minutes of any Nugget and gets the most burn in the fourth quarter where he averages a whopping 10.1 points.
Barton (14.6 PPG) is Denver’s second-leading scorer behind Danilo Gallinari (19.5), and produces nearly as efficiently as the Italian vet (18.4 points per-36 for Barton vs. Gallinari’s ). Barton also leads Denver’s non-bigs in rebounds (5.9) and non-point guards in assists (2.5) per contest.
That outsized role makes him more essential to the Nuggets than other 6MOY candidates like Andre Igoudala and Enes Kanter, each of whom play on superstar-filled rosters. Kanter runs pick and rolls with Russell Westbrook; Barton is fed by the 19-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay. Iguodala lines up in the corners opposite four teammates shooting better than 40% from deep; Barton has one such teammate in D.J. Augustin, who has only been on the team for a third of the season.
One knock against Barton might be that he plays on a worse teams than the Kanters and Jamal Crawfords of the world, but those other guys have the luxury of being used by their coaches carefully and in the spots that serve them best.
Barton has been a core piece of an improved Denver team, without a glut of pieces around for Mike Malone to lean on from night to night. Aside from Iguodala, whose numbers just aren’t nearly as impressive across the board, none of the other candidates are as essential to their team’s success on a nightly basis.
If Barton were a little more explosive on offense, he would be garnering a lot more consideration in the vein of microwave scorers who have won the award in recent years like Crawford and Lou Williams. While he scores a handful of points less than those guys did in their winning seasons, he does something neither of them were capable of: he plays defense.
The scrawny guard gives up weight to just about every opponent he faces and gives up below-average scoring as his man takes him closer to the hole. But Barton’s length and quickness help him defend the three-point line, where he forces the same opponents to shoot 3.3% worse than they normally do.
His defensive box plus/minus is a modest -.04, compared to hideous -2.6 and -3.1 marks for Crawford in 2013/14 and Williams in 2014/15, respectively.
We’ve started evaluating players more intelligently, finally looking past counting stats to ding defensive liabilities like Kanter as awards season approaches. That’s a good trend, and the readjusted scales should extend to wing players.
A perimeter player who can both score and defend at the arc is just as premium a commodity in today’s NBA as a big who can protect the rim. Barton should be viewed as an evolution of the bench scorer—a guy who can fill it up but doesn’t have to be hidden on defense.
Every smart team wants a guy like Barton on their roster, and smart NBA voters will recognize his game with their ballots.
Cray Allred | todaysfastbreak.com | April 8, 2016