My Mavs Apology: Sorry, JJ Barea
Once Dirk Nowitzki shed the ignorance chained to the perceptions many assigned him, once Jason Terry proved he could be clutch in the most significant moments the NBA can offer, once Jason Kidd reminded us that the glitter of youth can't always trump the wisdom of experience or the strength of a growling will, once the Mavericks lifted the Larry O'Brien trophy over their heads these shallow, misguided opinions clawing in from beyond the walls of the Metroplex were supposed to run out of breath.
The thought that a team so close for 11 seasons could "luck" their way into a Title, could essentially trip their way to the top of the mountain should have never found its way from proverbial pen to paper. Yet, it seems some are bound to their lack of respect for what has been accomplished, and unwilling to bend their preconceptions to allow the truth to invade.
This is not to imply this sentiment is prevalent, perhaps no more so than around a majority of first-time champions, only to acknowledge its presence while also addressing a parallel misconception around at least one player. Though this is a broader topic than a single man, we'll focus on one for this day, while also issuing our second apology owed to a member of champion Dallas Mavericks: JJ Barea.
He's too small. He can't manage the game. He dribbles too much. He's lovable, but just hasn't enough to overcome playoff defenses. And a new addition to that list, he was one of many who played impossibly beyond his accustomed levels to aid the Mavs' championship run. In other words, he and the Mavs benefitted greatly from a burst of play that can be labeled nothing more than a "fluke."
In truth, he's bigger than all of this, even as he may be the only player on the roster the majority of the press has to tilt their head down to interview.
To open, let's take a look at some basic numbers that may surprise a few who remember little more than Barea's decimation of the interiors of the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. For the 2011 playoffs, over the course of 21 games Barea averaged 8.9 points while hitting 41.9 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 32.0 percent behind the 3-point line, to go with 3.4 assists and 1.1 turnovers.
We're not foolish enough to believe these stats define his impact, but they may come as a shock to those that believe Barea played well beyond his capabilities, rather than a notch below the precedence he set in the final 50 games of the regular season (purely statistically speaking).
Some easily recall his 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting in Game 4 of the Lakers series, but not the four points on 1-of-5 attempts the previous outing. They highlight the 16 points he averaged in Games 5 and 6 of the Heat series while hitting 56.5 percent of his shots, but not the fact that he averaged 5.3 points on 25-percent shooting the first four games.
We point this out not to disparage what Barea contributed, which was instrumental to the final outcome, only to note the fact that this wasn't a player performing beyond his abilities, rather capitalizing on what the defenses granted him and stepping up in vital moments.
To grant a small window of perspective we need look no further than the final 50 games of the regular season, when Barea averaged 11.0 points with a 47.0 field-goal percentage, including 44.8 percent behind the arc along with 4.2 assists and 1.8 turnovers. Across the board these numbers dropped in the playoffs.
This wasn't a player exceeding his skill level to climb to previously unforeseen heights, only one who performed well within his means. He wasn't an unexpected gift, merely more of the same … of what we should have come to expect.
Barea has played significant minutes in three postseasons. Here is how his 2011 playoffs compare in several categories within those stretches: second (of three) in field-goal percentage, second in 3-point percentage, matched his best in assists and set a new high in points per game. If you break it down to a per-minute basis, his scoring and assists create a little distance from what he has done in playoffs past, but is not beyond his regular season paces.
Again, while some in the national media may have been oblivious to what Barea was capable of, and many of us may have doubted him on the grandest stage, what we saw was the same player present the majority of the season. There was no flukiness to his performance, only continuity: a continued fearlessness in the paint, a lingering ability to frustrate much more physically blessed offensive players into "cheap" offensive fouls, and oddly enough, a persistence to be everything we all thought Roddy Beaubois had to be.
We say "oddly enough" in respect to the Roddy B comparison for reasons that may rest where our current need to apologize is rooted.
In looking at this roster, one apparent need was offensive penetration and/or creation. Of his plethora of tools, raw speed or quickness and the ability to relentlessly carve into the heart of opposing defenses is no longer the forte of Jason Kidd. Roddy B, on the other hand, has these traits in abundance.
We believed that Roddy B must immediately be given the time to learn how to harness his immense physical skills as there would come a time in the playoffs where their presence would be a necessity. Indirectly, we were correct. More directly, hindsight has brought clarity to the fact that there was another on this roster able to bring these facets to the Mavs offense, and ready to do so now.
He didn't need to be the team's second scorer (he was fifth, behind Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd). He only needed to be able to shoulder the offense for brief moments, to threaten the paint and force teams to pay for their well-reasoned desire to stay close to Dirk and other perimeter threats, to act as a change of pace. This, he did with masterful skill and timely execution.
To be concise, he presented us with all we thought must come from Roddy B.
We mentioned this briefly in our apology to Terry, but feel it must be noted here as well. A significant portion of the reason we're able to praise Barea's strengths in the wake of a championship while overlooking his deficiencies (particularly at the defensive end) is due to the presence of Tyson Chandler.
Without Chandler providing a safety net behind him, a constantly moving wall between the ball and rim, we may have been forced to paint a very different picture. Yet, when considered as a pair – just as you would consider any perimeter on-man defender to be paired with the interior protector behind him – these weaknesses were washed into the land of temporary irrelevancy.
And, this does not constitute an ode to "chance" or a "fluke," but to the chemistry built over a season of growth and interdependence, to the traits housed in the veins that intertwine to form the core of a team.
This wasn't a group to lasso a shooting star and surf the wind over the horizon. It was a unit that conformed to their singular strengths while using their teammates to suffocate their individual weaknesses. Players were asked to do what they could, not what others wished they could … perhaps leading to the need for one more apology: Rick Carlisle.
It's a coach's job to put his players in a position to succeed, not to dance them to the edge of a cliff and ask them to trust in wings they haven't been provided as they are abruptly shoved over the edge. Some of us may have doubted Carlisle's ability to do this after the collapse against the Spurs a season prior … on a quick tangent, does it also force us to consider just how heavy the levy of result is tolled in the accounting of opinion?
Carlisle didn't become a great coach this year. He may have grown, embraced the opportunity to learn from his past, but he didn't go through a metamorphosis into something unrecognizable from his former. He trusted his players, guys such as Jason Terry and JJ Barea to do what they had shown they were capable of. Only this time around they rewarded him for that trust.
Moving back to Barea, long forgotten is the slump he endured in the 2010 portion of the 2010-11 season, where he converted only 37.6 percent of his field-goal attempts and a paltry 15.6 percent behind the arc (including 15 straight misses at one point) in 31 games. He spent the next 50 regular-season and 21 playoff games reminding us that this was not the player he had become, dispelling the notion that he could not fulfill the role being asked of him.
Barea is a man who's undoubtedly fought the constraints of perception at every step of his basketball evolution, and at this moment, at this time, we must offer our apology for having been a contributor to this. Through our desire for this roster to improve the backup point guard position, our belief in the need for Roddy to mature as quickly as possible for the benefit of now (though this speaks nothing of our future hopes for him), our thoughts that the primary rotation was not a fitting home for Barea … for all of this, we cannot deny that we were wrong.
After witnessing Barea mature into the player he became for the final 50 games of the regular season and maintaining this level in the playoffs (his playoff PER of 16.8 was third on the playoff roster, behind only Dirk and Terry) … we must apologize for the doubt we once cradled.
There are stats that do not portray Barea's performance with praise, but for those that watched, those that enjoyed every moment of being wrong or reveled in every second of having been correct, we know better. This team emerged victoriously because each and every member met or exceeded the expectations placed in them. Without some of the timely and often demoralizing drives, key shots, or frustration-granting offensive fouls drawn by the smallest player on the court, there is no parade.
He may remain more of a shooting guard forced to play the point, but he proved beyond a doubt that he is more than capable of being the primary backup point guard on a championship team. There is no denying this fact. It wasn't luck. It wasn't a fluke. It was a player completing what was asked of him and doing his part, much as he had many times before.
We're unlikely to be the last naysayers Barea will face, just we we're likely to not be the last he will feed their own words, but we're happy to dine on our reservations and offer up our sincere apologies.
Barea was right. We were wrong.