Update: J.J. Barea’s Isolation Blues


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Earlier this season, I wrote about a troubling trend within the Timberwolves’ offense over at A Wolf Among Wolves. The star of the piece was Minnesota’s backup point guard (and lightning rod) J.J. Barea. A brief excerpt:

“Nowhere are Barea’s faults highlighted more vividly than at the ends of quarters. When the Wolves gain possession with fewer than 35 seconds left in a quarter, it’s a safe bet that they’ll hold for one attempt at the end of the shot clock – common practice in the NBA. The strategy is sound – the Wolves’ transition defense leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s better to leave the opponent with little or no time to hustle down the floor for a quick bucket. The problem, of course, is execution.”

At the time, the Wolves were on an 0-for-16 streak attempting to score at the ends of quarters. The stubborn reluctance to call anything other than a Barea iso or a simple pick and roll was enough to make fans and pundits pull their hair out. Granted, most teams employ the strategy of holding the ball to limit the defense’s opportunity to head the other way (either with a steal, miss or on an inbound) and get a quick bucket before the horn sounds, but Minnesota was particularly bad at putting the ball in the basket themselves.

The reason? Many of the possessions looked like this:

But what were the final numbers?

Methodology:

I counted 76 possessions in 2013-14 that qualified for this data set. They were possessions initiated by Barea, either in half-court or in transition, at or near the end of quarters (with 0:35 left on the game clock or less). By “initiating” a possession, I mean either a) he brought the ball up the court and made a pass leading to a shot, b) “used” the possession (took a shot, turned it over, or drew a foul) or c) both. If Barea brought the ball up, flipped it to Kevin Martin, and went to stand in the corner so Martin and Love could play a two man game, that didn’t count. If he dribbled around a lot, missed a shot, got a tap-out, dribbled around some more and missed another shot, that counted twice. Make sense?

The Numbers:

Ready?

- Team: 76 possessions, 59 total points, 0.78 Points Per Possession

- In transition: 10 possessions, 13 total points, 1.30 Points Per Possession

- Half-court: 66 possessions, 46 total points, 0.70 Points Per Possession

- Barea: 10-for-34 shooting, 2-for-9 on three-pointers, 6-for-6 free throws, 29.4%/22.2%/100% splits

- Barea: 28 points, 6 assists, 9 turnovers, 0.61 Points Per Possession

Analysis:

Towards the end of the season, things improved drastically because Rick Adelman altered his rotations: Kevin Love started staying on the floor through the end of most 1st and 3rd quarters, and Ricky Rubio began sharing the floor with Barea more often, freeing Barea to roam without the ball in his hands.

The end-of-quarter numbers are jarring, but they aren’t just a small sample masking innocuous production. We learned in 2013-14 that Barea shouldn’t be counted on to be a pure second-unit point guard. His performance suffered in part because he was asked to do something he probably shouldn’t have been asked to do in the first place. Barea didn’t have a ton of help on the second unit; their struggles go beyond a single player.

He was assigned a ton of blame by Wolves fans, some of it fair, some of it unfair. Everyone, Barea included, would probably agree that if he’s with the Wolves next season, he shouldn’t be the backup point guard. He functions better as a combo/energy guy off the bench. Some nights he has it, some nights he doesn’t. A true backup floor general needs to be more steady than that.

The Isolation Blues:

I’ll close with this: if you Google “The Isolation Blues”, the first result is a 1989 piece from the UC-Berkeley Graduate Student Newsletter about experiencing loneliness while writing your dissertation. The second is the original article I wrote for A Wolf Among Wolves. The third is this ridiculous song (and music video) by the Komatiks, a Canadian band based in Yellowknife (Northwest Territories) from 1985-88. It’s  as awkward and ridiculous as most Barea end-of-quarter possessions:

You’re welcome.

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William Bohl covers the Timberwolves at BreakTheHuddle.com and is a contributor to A Wolf Among Wolves, part of the ESPN TrueHoop Network. He can be reached at breakthehuddle@gmail.com.