J.J. Barea is, and always will be, a folk hero of sorts for the Dallas Mavericks and its fan base. His contributions over the years, and especially in the 2011 NBA Finals, will always be greatly admired and appreciated. Due to a number of circumstances, however, head coach Rick Carlisle could have a big decision to make this season regarding Barea’s role, emotions set aside.
The now-accurately-listed 5-10 Puerto Rican point guard is entering his 14th season in the league, and is back on the court from a ruptured Achilles injury he suffered just nine months ago. It’s an incredible feat by itself that 35-year-old Barea has already recovered from an injury that’s been historically devastating for players throughout NBA history. Unfortunately, the very early preseason returns indicate that a decline in Barea’s play might be inevitable.
In the Mavs’ 118-111 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, Barea got the majority of the backup point guard minutes in the first half, scoring just three points on 1-of-5 shooting from the field in 12 minutes. Barea didn't record any assists and had a negative-12 plus/minus for the game.
For JJB, this particular night wasn't about "stats,'' of course; it was about the rehab success. Worth nothing: the AAC fans warmly recognized all of that.
Said Barea of his performance: “I’m just excited. I’m happy that I’m out there competing and moving as well as I felt today. I just have to get my rhythm back and go from there.”
Said Barea on the appreciative Mavericks crowd: “This place for me is special, it’s always going to be special. No better place to play than Dallas, in this gym, in this arena. There are no words to describe the way I feel about this arena and these fans.”
But then came another feel-good: In the second half of that game, Mavs second-year man Jalen Brunson received the backup point guard minutes, scoring 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field (2-of-3 from deep) to go along with his four assists in 12 minutes. Through three preseason games so far, Brunson is averaging 11 points and four assists per game while shooting an eye-popping 60-percent from the field in 14 minutes per game.
Brunson was also a plus-12 in his time on the court, and continued to reinforce all the good things we've heard from the Mavs regarding how strong of an offseason he had. If you kept up with the math at home, that's a 20-point swing from just your backup point guards, in a game decided by 7 points. That might not mean too much at this very moment, but it will if it lingers into the regular season.
Now, obviously, you can't put too much stock into what you see during the preseason, and this is definitely the time for coaches to experiment with all different kinds of lineups to see what works and what doesn't, but when the regular season comes around, Carlisle can't afford to let seniority dictate which player gets more minutes, at least not if the Mavs plan on making a legitimate playoff push in a stacked Western Conference.
To be clear, the last thing I want to do here is make it seem like I'm pitting two Mavs players against each other, or insinuate that there's some kind of behind-the-scenes tension between the two. That is absolutely not the case. This Mavs team already has some nice chemistry brewing (read our pre-training camp story on 'Mavs in Miami' here), and that includes both Brunson and Barea. That said, it's clear to me that this 'Brunson vs. Barea' debate is one that Carlisle will have to make a decision on soon.
Not tonight, of course. It's OKC at the Mavs in a 7:30 preseason tilt at the AAC and Brunson won't even be playing, as he's nursing a sore hamstring. (Story here). But ... soon.
“He will continue to play in these (preseason games),'' Rick said of JJB, "and we want to get everybody ready. We are going to need everybody.”
Barea will surely look better as the season progresses, as he'll have more time to get back to where he was before the injury. Maybe he can rekindle some of that pick-and-roll magic once Dwight Powell returns from his own strained hamstring. Maybe, at some point this season, there is still a place for one of the most beloved players in Mavericks' history to have an impact on the court.
In the meantime, though, Brunson looks primed to contribute in a big way from the opening tip this season. And for a team that's desperate to get off to a good start for the first time in nearly four years, Carlisle pushing the right buttons at the right times can make all the difference. It says here that along with the easy calls (the roles for Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, for example), button-pushing can start with Brunson playing ahead of Barea.