Name: Matt Barnes
2012-2013 Key Stats: 10.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.5 apg
Years in NBA: 10
Years With Clippers: 1
2012-2013 Salary: $1,229,255
Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
In A Nutshell:
In most cases, it takes a combination of ingredients to create a contending roster in the NBA. First and foremost you have to have a superstar or two. In the last 30 years, only the 2004 Detroit Pistons managed to win an NBA title without an MVP in their relative prime on the roster. But once you've added the stars, the reality of the NBA salary cap and the luxury tax invariably requires another key ingredient: productive players on cheap contracts. With a few exceptions (the Heat don't rely as heavily on role players because their stars are so dominant, the Lakers and Mavs didn't need as much cheap production because they were willing to pay huge luxury tax bills) you need both of these elements to really have a shot at a championship. That cheap production can come from a young player still on a rookie contract, or from a veteran who has a great season playing for the NBA minimum, but all the best teams get it from one source or another.
The Clippers have their star power in place in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. But after adding Jamal Crawford this summer, they had to try to find production on a budget for their final few roster spots. It was the last signing of the off-season that proved to be the bargain of the year.
Matt Barnes played college basketball at UCLA, broke into the NBA with the Clippers, and played two seasons with the Lakers. He makes his home in L.A. and over the summer he was showing up at the Clippers training facility to scrimmage. When Chris Paul saw how Barnes was playing and found out that he was still a free agent, he went to the front office and lobbied on his behalf; the Clippers signed Barnes on September 14, just a couple of weeks before the start of camp.
At the time it seemed like a strange signing. After all, the Clippers already had Caron Butler (a former All Star making $8M a season) and their signing of Grant Hill (another former All Star) had been a pretty significant coup. What did they need Barnes for? Where would he play? With a well-earned reputation as a hot-head around the league, was this really the kind of guy you wanted as your third string small forward?
But with Hill injured to begin the season, Barnes went out and had a career-year at 33. He immediately established himself as a key member of the rotation and in fact was on the wing to close games from opening night. He finished the year playing more minutes than Butler and was the Clippers fifth leading scorer, behind the big three of Griffin, Paul and Crawford and ever-so-slightly behind Butler. He was the team's perimeter 'stopper' on defense and provided a level of toughness and intensity that every team needs. And he did all of that for the NBA minimum.
There little mystery to the production Matt Barnes provides on an NBA court. He runs his way into points and he works his way into defensive stops. He may not be the most talented guy out there, but he works harder than anyone.
Barnes averaged a career high 10.3 points per game this season. He scored 14.4 points per 36 minutes, slightly less than he averaged per minute for the 2007 Warriors, but when you adjust for pace this season was still his career year scoring the basketball. Most nights the Clippers knew they could count on Griffin, Paul and Crawford for offense, but going into the season it was unclear who else might provide some scoring. Many nights that wound up being Barnes, which no one would have expected heading into the season.
Barnes got his points in essentially three ways: (a) spotting up for open three pointers -- he's not a great three point shooter, but at .342 this season he was more than adequate; (b) finishing on the break -- the Clippers second unit at its best was converting turnovers into fast break baskets, and Barnes was invariably filling a lane; (c) cutting to the basket -- few players in the NBA are as good at making off the ball cuts, and the rest of the Clippers were good at finding him on those cuts.
None of this is rocket science. Barnes rarely has to take more than a dribble or two to get points. He just runs to the right spot, catches and finishes. Of course it's harder than it sounds. Barnes is an uncommonly good finisher around the basket, with good body control and the ability to use either hand. In fact, he's equally comfortable dunking with either hand, which is not something you frequently see in a wing.
On the defensive end, the Clippers had signed Hill to be their wing stopper, the guy they could stick on high scoring small forwards and shooting guards, or perhaps the occasional point guard. But with Hill injured for the start of the season and never able to displace Barnes in the rotation, that role fell to Barnes, and all season long he was asked to contend with the best perimeter scorer for the opposition.
Barnes is only adequate as a perimeter shooter; if he were just a bit more reliable from deep, he could be that "3 and D" guy that teams love to have, a la Shane Battier. He hit .342 this season, which is above his career average of .331 -- but it's well below the league average. The Clippers desperately need their wings to be able to knock down threes, with Griffin attracting attention in the post and Paul dishing to shooters off the drive. It's no coincidence that during the Clippers undefeated month of December Barnes made .431 from deep -- outside of December, he made fewer than one and three.
He's not much of a creator on offense -- he works his way into good spots where he can finishes plays, but he's not the kind of guy you can give the ball to with a short clock and ask him to make something happen.
His confrontational attitude on the court can be a blessing and a curse. He will always protect his teammates and that can help create team unity. He will not be intimidated on the court. However, technical fouls (Barnes had 10 of them) and flagrant fouls (he led the league with four) cost points; points that seem more costly when it's a role player who is giving them away.
Future with the Clippers:
This is the bad news. Barnes is a restricted free agent and because he is coming off a one year contract, the Clippers don't even have his Bird rights. This season he provided that crucial cheap production -- but the season ended prematurely nonetheless, and it's unlikely the Clippers can replace that production at the same price.
Barnes just finished his tenth season in the NBA, during which time he's played for eight different teams, including two stints with the Clippers. In those 10 years, he's never signed a contract for more than two years, and he's only made more than $2M in a season once (he made $3M in 07-08 with the Warriors). Coming off a career year, Barnes is clearly going to be looking to get paid -- he has said as much.
Who will be willing to pay him and how much remains to be seen. He is not going to get mid-level exception type money -- but anything over the minimum is going to require some reflection on the part of the Clippers, who will be venturing very near the luxury tax after re-signing Chris Paul and who need to spend their MLE very judiciously this summer to improve the roster.
Because they don't have his Bird rights, rewarding Barnes for a solid season with a better contract must come out of L.A.'s MLE -- and every dollar spent on Barnes there is both a dollar they can't spend on another free agent as well as a dollar closer to the luxury tax. Barnes clearly enjoyed his time with the Clippers and he'd like to stay -- he's an L.A. guy, he fit well with the team and he got an opportunity to contribute. His twin boys are a constant presence with little Chris in the Clippers post-game locker room/day care center, he was near the heart of a very close roster all season and he's very close with Paul. He'll probably be willing to give the Clippers a bit of a home town discount -- but how much money is he willing to leave on the table at age 33 when he's never had a really big NBA contract?
Perhaps the Clippers can secure him with an extra year on the contract while keeping the per year relatively low; perhaps he'll be willing to skip the big payday to stay in a positive situation with the Clippers. But one thing is certain -- the Clippers need to again find the sort of inexpensive production that Barnes provided this season, either from Barnes himself or from another source.