Site Manager Ryan Blackburn is beginning a new offseason series that will post every Monday titled “The Climb” which focuses on the journey of the Denver Nuggets during the Michael Malone era. From how the Nuggets recovered from obscurity to how they win their first championship, this will be an open editorial for the next however many months until the new season begins.
Next up is Will Barton’s journey from journeyman to starter to whatever’s next.
For a long time, Will Barton’s NBA career has been represented with second place trophies.
Barton was a second round pick out of Baltimore, Maryland for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012, heading to Portland along with another rookie named Damian Lillard. He never received a full opportunity to showcase his talent, and in February of 2015, Barton was traded to the Nuggets along with a first round pick for Arron Afflalo, a piece meant to push Portland’s championship aspirations over the top.
In Denver, Barton entered a locker room that was a complete mess, and he had just 12 days of overlap with head coach Brian Shaw before Shaw was fired on March 3rd, 2015. For the rest of the season, the Nuggets utilized Barton as a high volume bench player, and Barton earned the sixth man spot with his play.
For the next three seasons under new head coach Michael Malone, Barton was a great sixth man, backing up both Gary Harris, Danilo Gallinari, and Wilson Chandler on the wing and providing a little bit of everything from scoring, rebounding, playmaking, and some defense. He became a spot starter for Harris in that 2016-17 season and developed some chemistry with a young Nikola Jokić. There were many big moments for Barton during this stretch, but the biggest was a scoring burst versus the Chicago Bulls that saw Barton make the game-winning shot.
In 2017-18, Harris’ injury issues down the stretch became more problematic, but in 40 games as a starter that season, Barton showcased his versatility and explosiveness that could be translated into a starting role, averaging 17.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. He shot over 40% from three, generated a 59.8 TS%, and looked extremely comfortable in the starting unit.
As a result, the Nuggets made him their full-time starter at small forward in 2018-19 and 2019-20. For a player that often had made the most of second place, this was his opportunity to step into the spotlight as a starter and primary contributor to a winning team.
When he was healthy during the 2019-20 season, Barton performed well on both ends of the floor, averaging 15.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. He was one of just 24 players to hit those benchmarks (15, 6, and 3) in 2019-20. He shot 37.5% from three-point range as well. The only players on the aforementioned list of 24 to also shoot 37% from three were Barton, Kawhi Leonard, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram, Khris Middleton, and Gordon Hayward. That’s a fairly prestigious list.
Unfortunately, Barton wasn’t always healthy during these last two seasons. An unfortunate hip injury marred his entire 2018-19 season and robbed the bouncy wing scorer of his explosiveness. A nagging knee injury disrupted the end of the 2019-20 season, both in the regular season and in the bubble playoffs. Barton never stepped on the floor in the playoffs this year, and as a result, the Nuggets never discovered how a healthy Barton could impact the roster. It’s too bad that for as much work as Barton has put into The Climb, he hasn’t been able to experience the fruit of his labors throughout the journey.
How Barton’s persistence impacts “The Climb”
For most of his NBA career, Barton has worked to become an NBA starter. He never saw himself as a bench player, never penciled himself into the sixth man role that most thought he was best suited for throughout his career. He knew he had more to give, especially to the Nuggets, and he proved as much during the 2019-20 season. With questions surrounding Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray throughout the first few months of the 2019-20 season, it was Barton who stepped up to offer consistency across the board. As the third option offensively for most of the year, Barton steadied the ship, scoring either 15 points or dishing three assists in 47 of his 58 games played this year. He reached both thresholds at the same time in 26 of the 58 games.
It says a lot that Barton has been around for the entirety of the Michael Malone era. Over five and a half seasons, Barton has become one of Denver’s steadiest contributors, going from merely a throw-in of the Arron Afflalo trade to a Sixth Man of the Year candidate to a founding member of the Nuggets organization. He has been a voice in Denver’s locker room through thick and thin, the emotional leader of the organization. The Nuggets aren’t a championship contender without Barton.
And yet, the fickle nature of the NBA is how unforgiving windows of contention can be. The Nuggets found a formula in the bubble that saw Jamal Murray step into a leadership role on and off the court. Rookie Michael Porter Jr. earned the right to be considered a piece of the core going forward with his dynamic scoring and rebounding. Jerami Grant stepped into the starting small forward role next to Paul Millsap and did the one thing that Barton will likely never be able to do: capably guard LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard 1-on-1. That’s not Barton’s fault, he’s the size of a shooting guard while LeBron and Kawhi are the size of small trucks.
The Nuggets certainly found something with the Murray-Porter-Grant-Jokić quartet that posted a Net Rating of +16.2 points per 100 possessions, the best on the team by far and a sign of things to come going forward. The ability to surround the Murray-Jokić two man game with dynamic 6’9+ forwards that can shoot, pass, and drive while taking up more airspace defensively is a good avenue for the Nuggets to compete going forward. Barton said it himself that Porter needs to be let off the leash at some point and is a star in the making.
MPJ is special! Ready right now! 6’10 small forward with a ratchet & a handle! Stop playing with him! Can’t be on a leash with that type ability! It’s time! Gotta let him be him! Shorty different!— Will Barton (@WillTheThrillB5) August 5, 2020
Now, that’s only four players, and it’s very possible that Barton is the fifth starter just waiting to come back to the group and take it over the top. There would be few starting units more dynamic offensively than Denver’s group if Barton stepped into the starting shooting guard role. He spaces the floor, offers secondary playmaking, is a solid defender, and meets a lot of the criteria a third, fourth, or fifth starter has to meet while playing next to star talent. It’s notable that the Barton-Jokić-Murray trio was one of Denver’s absolute best three-man units in the regular season, and disrupting that begs the question of whether changing anything is a good idea.
But the natural progression of most elite teams with young players stepping into larger roles is working against Barton in this case. Most teams would be thrilled to have Thrill in their rotation as a complementary starter. The Nuggets just aren’t like most teams, and the evolution of Michael Porter Jr. into a prospect with superstar potential has to have them in the major bind. There just may not be enough basketball to go around for Murray, Jokić, Porter, Barton, and Grant in the same starting lineup and for all to perform at an optimal level.
With Murray and Jokić already blossoming into cornerstone pieces, the clock is ticking to put together the best possible group to win a championship. It stands to reason that after the playoffs, Porter and Grant have penciled themselves into the group that can get the Nuggets over the top. Barton’s standing on the roster after playing zero minutes in the bubble is much less clear.
The Nuggets will ask themselves how much they value Barton’s skill set and voice in the locker room before deciding how to best improve the roster in the offseason. The most likely outcome is for the team to run it back, decide between Barton and Harris at starting shooting guard, and go from there. If Denver decides to change things up, who they go after will most likely affect Barton’s future with the Nuggets as a starter, bench player, or even if he’s on the team. Denver could decide to make small changes and avoid a major shakeup. They’ve avoided the “splash” move for a long time, and Barton would be safe if they decided to avoid major changes once again.
Whatever happens, Barton has been an incredibly valuable member of the Nuggets on and off the court for the duration of his five and a half seasons with the organization. His willingness to work, adapt, and persist to become the player that he is today speak volumes about his character and commitment. When the Nuggets needed an emotional wakeup call, they turned to Barton for the past several seasons. When they needed a play to be made on either side of the ball, they often turned to Barton as well.
He has contributed extensively to The Climb over the past half decade. Now, it’s time to figure out whether, after all of the hard work and dedication, Barton will have an opportunity to enjoy the payoff with this Nuggets team.