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The conundrum of Will Barton

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Will Barton’s impact on the offense isn’t great on the surface, but is he better than the numbers indicate?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The sixth man in the NBA is a player designed to inject life into the starting lineup. The profile of the ideal sixth man is usually a fast-paced player, someone who grabs the attention of the opposing team through explosive offense. This is usually generated through the skill of that player, almost outside of the offensive design that the starters use throughout the season.

Players like Jamal Crawford, Eric Gordon, and Lou Williams have or are currently making a living as a sixth man. Jason Terry and Lamar Odom were sixth men of the past that excelled on championship teams as offensive creators. Most good playoff teams have a player that comes off the bench and can drag the team to victory through a rainy day.

Will Barton also fits the player type of a prototypical sixth man. He’s a change-of-pace player who sometimes works outside the scheme of the offense to generate points every now and then. The Nuggets have a limited number of dribble creators now that Danilo Gallinari is gone, and Barton is the best of the bunch.

This past season, Barton made a leap offensively. Already a solid bench player, Barton improved even more from 2015-16 to 2016-17. His points per game actually decreased from 14.4 to 13.7, but his field goal attempts per game decreased at a similar rate. Barton improved his shooting from behind the arc (.370 3P%) and his efficiency overall (.547 TS%). He improved his playmaking for others (17.7 AST%) while keeping turnovers to a minimum (11.5 TOV%).

He also made plays like this:

Barton won a few games for the Nuggets last year.

  • 12/26 against the Los Angeles Clippers, he had 23 points, eight rebounds, and six assists.
  • 1/17 against the Los Angeles Lakers, he had 26 points, four rebounds, and eight assists.
  • 3/16 against the Clippers again, he had 35 points, five rebounds, and three assists.

Without Barton, Denver wouldn’t be close to the playoffs. They’d likely have 35-37 wins. That’s a fact.

So, why does the Nuggets’ offense get worse when Will Barton is on the floor?

Offensive Ratings by year Barton ON the floor Barton OFF the floor Net O Rating
2016-17 (pre Dec 15th) 103.4 110.2 -6.8
2016-17 (post Dec 15th) 113.5 119.1 -5.6

I included the December 15th deadline as another description of how Denver changed offensively with Nikola Jokic inserted into the starting lineup. All offensive ratings go up, but the difference when Barton is ON versus OFF the court remains unchanged.

Now, there is a reason for this, and it’s pretty simple: only 638 of Barton’s 1,704 minutes came with Nikola Jokic on the floor. That ranked seventh among Nuggets players, with Kenneth Faried being the only rotation player sharing less minutes on the floor with Jokic.

Barton is being placed at a pretty steep disadvantage. While players in the starting lineup gain comfort and familiarity with passes that free them up for open three pointers and layups, Barton is on his own. Denver attempted to mitigate this with Mason Plumlee as a passing center on the second unit, but he and Barton struggled to gain chemistry during the second half of the season. Both were accustomed to playmaking with the ball in their hands, and their chemistry in the pick and roll wasn’t where it should’ve been.

The only fair thing to do is grade each of these players on a curve by how they perform with Jokic to aid them. How efficient are Nuggets players offensively when Jokic is OFF the floor?

Player/Team scoring efficiency numbers with Jokic OFF the floor

Player O Rating True Shooting % (TS%) Points per shot (PPS)
Will Barton 105.3 53.4 1.07
Wilson Chandler 108.2 54.3 1.09
Gary Harris 111.1 59.7 1.24
Jamal Murray 111.4 51.8 1.04
Emmanuel Mudiay 101.1 43.8 0.88
Jameer Nelson 107.5 50.6 1.01
Kenneth Faried 104.9 54.3 1.09
Juancho Hernangomez 102.4 43.8 0.88
Mason Plumlee 113.8 56.3 1.13

This ranking omits Danilo Gallinari and Paul Millsap, as they are obviously both good and aren’t a great basis of comparison since one will replace the other. Others omitted are those players that didn’t play enough (Darrell Arthur, Malik Beasley) or have since been moved (Jusuf Nurkic).

It’s clear which players are simply good offensive players and aren’t reliant on Jokic being on the floor. Gary Harris is one of them. Mason Plumlee is another, though it makes sense that he would be better as the single center on the floor. After that, Barton and Wilson Chandler are clearly the next best. For the responsibility each of those guys held when Jokic wasn’t on the floor, they both delivered. Players like Kenneth Faried, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Juancho Hernangomez were shown to be pretty dependent on Jokic.

This doesn’t even take into account the passing. Barton assisted on 32.6% of 3-point field goals while Jokic was off the floor, second best among this group. He didn’t assist on many 2-point field goals, which is one of the reasons why he isn’t seen as much of a creator for others. That being said, with the way that Barton collapses the defense on his own dribble-drives, it’s no wonder he generates more 3-point field goals.

So, Will Barton’s value as an offensive player has been established. He performs as well as can be expected without Nikola Jokic. He also performs well with him. The offense jumped to a 120.6 offensive rating when BOTH Jokic and Barton shared the floor. After December 15th, that number jumped to an incendiary 122.1 offensive rating.


Unfortunately, the less glamorous end has had its issues for the skinny swing man. Defensive ratings remained unchanged when he stepped on to the floor, and he was basically a non-factor there. Defense isn’t really his role, and his size on the wing will always play a part in that. Still, with Barton, his value will largely come from the offensive end, as he will always be average to below average in defense.

There’s also the question of his future contract. Barton has one year left on an incredibly cheap deal, worth $3.5 million annually. Here are a few contracts for other bench wings in the last 2-3 years and whether they are still with their current team:

  • Jamal Crawford - 3 years, $42 million - TRADED
  • Allen Crabbe - 4 years, $72 million - TRADED
  • Eric Gordon - 4 years, $52 million - ON TEAM
  • Jordan Clarkson - 4 years, $50 million - ON TEAM
  • Tyler Johnson - 4 years, $50 million - ON TEAM
  • Dion Waiters - 4 years, $52 million - ???
  • Tim Hardaway Jr. - 4 years, $71 million - ???

Crawford agreed to a buyout with the Atlanta Hawks after being traded there, which is why he’s currently employed by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The market has been set for the sixth man in today’s NBA. The bare minimum contract Barton should be expecting is an eight figure deal, worth more than $10 million annually. Now, 2018 free agency may play out differently due to a lack of cap space around the league, but Barton will be in his prime as a solid scorer. Someone will make him an offer and push the Nuggets if they want to re-sign him.

A sixth man is replaceable, but not easily. The Nuggets will have young guard talent in Emmanuel Mudiay and Malik Beasley pushing for minutes, not to mention any new players they plan on acquiring. If Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, projected to be two quality scorers for a long, long time, are to be retained long term, then the necessity for a scoring sixth man might be lessened.

That said, Denver doesn’t have five or six guys that can complete the sequence in these two plays at the end of a game.

This shows Barton’s value on offense perfectly. When asked, he can do one of two things:

  1. Play his role within the offense and capitalize on Jokic’s game
  2. Play his role outside of the offense and break the defense down by himself

Regardless of what the numbers say, that role really matters. Who else is there to take control when things break down? Jokic? Millsap for two years? Maybe Jamal Murray in the future but not right now. The fact is, Barton’s value goes beyond the numbers. It involves relieving others of a responsibility that would affect their efficiency negatively. It may impact offensive ratings and efficiency numbers for Barton himself, but when Will the Thrill is scoring buckets at the end of games again this year, will it really matter?

Barton will play out the final year of his contract this year, and Denver will have to ask itself: with Harris and Jokic nearing extension opportunities and the hope of acquiring more top end talent looming, what is Will Barton worth to this team? Is he just a bench player, capable of being replaced by other guards on cheaper deals?

Or does his value go deeper than team ratings and efficiency metrics?