Wednesday night gave Nuggets fans a chance to see Will Barton, one of the team’s veteran leaders, return to the court after a struggle with a knee injury.
Barton was, in a word, electric in his return to the court. While he only had nine points in his 18 minutes, his presence on the second unit helped spark a unit that had struggled in the team’s first preseason game. The bench was able to stretch a lead into double digits, and help decide the outcome of the game long before halftime had even begun. With his ability to defend in transition, serve as a ballhandling scoring threat, and rebound, Barton filled holes for the Nuggets second unit that turned them into a dangerous weapon.
However, after the game, Barton was asked about his new role.
“I am a starter,” Barton said, via The Athletic’s Kendra Andrews. “I have no plans on being a sixth man. I have no desire to be that.”
This gives Nuggets head coach Michael Malone a minor, small, issue to deal with as the season starts. Barton has started for Malone’s Nuggets the last two seasons, but in that time, the Nuggets have drafted and developed a younger player, Michael Porter Jr., into a player that is capable of playing in the starting lineup. With Jamal Murray at point guard, and Nikola Jokic at center, that leaves two spots open. One of those spots is going to be filled by Paul Millsap, a rock-steady veteran who has done nothing to deserve losing his spot as the starting power forward. The other spot is currently occupied by the longest tenured Nugget, Gary Harris. Malone can’t start six players, due to league rules, which means that he’s ran out of spots for Barton.
I think it’s an issue for Nuggets fans (at least for me personally) because I remember the end of the Kenneth Faried era in Denver. A fan favorite, Faried had been a thrilling part of the Nuggets at the turn of the decade, and was a staple as the starting power forward. Then the team signed Millsap, who had been and would continue to be a much better player than Faried. Faried showed up to media day talking about how if he couldn’t find minutes on the Nuggets, “there are 29 other teams in the league” and that he wouldn’t be happy to lose his starting role.
How did that end? Faried played 461 minutes that season, starting seven games, before getting traded to the Brooklyn Nets in a salary dump. He would only play in 37 games again the rest of his career, as he washed out of the Nets and Rockets, a ghost of his former self.
That was a tough ending to a career for Nuggets fans to see. I still remember seeing Faried’s first points in the league, buying a Manimal t-shirt, and cheering whenever he threw down a big dunk and yelled into the air. The NBA can be cruel at times, and it certainly decided Faried’s time in the league was over before he wanted it to be.
Does this mean that Barton is at a similar point in his career? I would say no — Barton still has a lot of game left in his legs, and should continue to have a productive career, even if he has to come off the bench this season at times. He showed that he can still be a contributor on Wednesday, and I expect him to play a big role the entire season. I’m even expecting him to start a fair amount of games, either as a fill-in for an injured Gary Harris or MPJ. Even if those players just need a night off, Barton should be able to step into the starting lineup and be just as productive as always.
But barring some imaginary trade that isn’t there for the Nuggets right now, where they can create a spot for him in the starting lineup while also improving as a team, I don’t see a path for Barton to start this year.
Barton will continue to be a valued member of the team. His voice in the locker room is heard by a lot of the players on the team, and the front office clearly values him on the team. Barton has been an outstanding member of the team since he arrived, and that shouldn’t change this season.
I’m excited to see him battle teams as a member of the Nuggets all season, giving his best on both ends of the court. He’s always going to get a certain baseline of minutes each game, and some nights, I think fans need to be prepared to see him continue to get run if the lineup on the court is in a rhythm and things are rolling for them. Barton is a dang good player, and the Nuggets reward good players with minutes. He’s going to play — it just might not be as a starter as often as he prefers.
If that’s the case, we’ll be pounding the table loud for all to hear about his eligibility for the Sixth Man of the Year award. It’s about time someone in Denver brought home some hardware to recognize the success they’ve obtained over the last few seasons. They don’t call him the People’s Champ for nothing — we’ve got his back.