There was one constant factor to this up-and-down season for the Detroit Pistons. The entire rotation of wing players -- from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to Caron Butler and beyond -- was a pronounced point of weakness. The Pistons exit the 2014-15 season with a pair of starting wing players who were shooting less than 40% from the field, and if they don't address the issue, they could start the next season the same.
The problem? Twofold. First, the Pistons enter free agency with bigger fish to fry -- namely Greg Monroe and Reggie Jackson. Second, the available talent pool at shooting guard and small forward is terribly shallow, and the big fish aren't likely to swim Detroit's way. That leaves the bargain bin. But a bargain catch-of-the-summer candidate might be the best option for the Pistons -- Denver Nuggets swingman Will Barton.
Just Who Is This Will Barton Guy Anyway?
Will Barton is a third year guard-forward who was drafted by the Trailblazers in the 2nd round back in 2012. Barton never found much of a niche in Portland, spending time buried behind Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews toward the end of the bench. He was part of the deadline deal that brought Arron Afflalo to Portland, and was seen as little more than filler by fans in Denver after the trade.
In Denver, Barton earned a role quickly. Since the deadline, Barton has averaged 12 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 combined steals and blocks in 26 minutes per game. He's shooting 46% from the field and 35% from three, while taking 3 trips to the line per game and converting at nearly 80%. In 21 games, he's been efficient and productive on offense and an absolute terror on the defensive end. In a small sample, he's been precisely what Detroit has needed so sorely on the wing.
Is Barton's Sudden Performance a Fluke?
There's good reason to be optimistic about Barton's rise. Barton's performance in Denver since the trade deadline echoes his final year in college at Memphis. In 40 pace-adjusted minutes between Denver and Memphis, there's an eerie similarity between 2015 Will Barton and 2012 Will Barton. The best athletic indicators -- defensive rebounds and steals -- line up almost perfectly, while scoring efficiency is also right in range. In other words, what we're seeing out of Barton now is not unprecedented, as he showed a similar level of ability as a college sophomore.
Despite these career bookends, Barton's first two years in Portland were up-and-down. The irregularity of his usage there presented a rocky place where his seed could find no purchase.
What is the Objective Take on Barton?
Go ahead and pick any advanced stat you can think of. I'll wait. Chances are, it's love at first stat.
Barton's efficient shooting, lack of mistakes and the ability to fill up a stat sheet make him a friendly figure to the advanced tracking. He's producing a 0.560 TS%, a 0.236 WP48 and a PER (yes, even PER!) of 17.1. He's admired by these stats for his ability to grab rebounds, to pass effectively, to steal and block shots and to avoid turnovers and other mistakes.
Over a small sample, he's outperformed any player Detroit has fielded at shooting guard or small forward this season. While Detroit should not be a standard for effective wing play, there's reason to believe that Will Barton could be an ideal 6th man or starter for a team like the Pistons.
Okay Great, but What About Defense?
I haven't paid attention to Will Barton during the few times I've seen him play for the Blazers. He wasn't considered to be a lock-down defender when he entered the league. But that's what he has been in Denver, and the chorus of defensive stats appear to point that way. The rule of thumb with defensive stats should be that a relative consensus can point toward a conclusion. Variance cannot. It's not a hard and fast rule, but when the whole chorus tends to sing a single tune, it can be evidence to help inform (or challenge) a defensive eye test.
With Barton, there's a strong consensus across the board. First and foremost, Barton's NBA Player Tracking defensive record is astounding. Like, best across the board wing player I have seen by this metric. Overall, he's holding his man to 6 percentage points lower than his seasonal average. Then there's defensive win shares, a box and on/off hybrid that is additive as a season goes on. In even minutes, he'd be leading all but one Denver Nugget this season (Jusuf Nurkic). In DRTG, he leads all Nuggets save for three centers. The new Defensive Box Plus/Minus? Leads all but Nurkic.
When all of these numbers point in the same direction, it's rarely a coincidence. While it'll take tape and time to determine just how effective Barton is on defense, the above numbers point very, very firmly to a positive conclusion about his performance.
Enough Numbers, Payne. What Kind of Player Is Will Barton?
Think a hodgepodge of Andre Iguodala and Tayshaun Prince. A poor-man's Jimmy Butler. He's long, capable of playing both wing positions and is effective on whomever is the other team's top wing scorer. He's a ball handler and he doesn't turn it over. If the Pistons have wanted an additional ball handler on the perimeter, he can be that guy. He scores in the paint and on the perimeter, and barely in between. He gets to the line very well. He's got an average 3-point shot on a career high attempt average this year.
Okay, Anything We Should Be Concerned About?
No matter how similar this season looks to his college years, this could still be a fluke. His 3-point shooting could regress. If for some reason he can't be given a regular role, or he falls out of favor, he'll likely struggle. His defensive tracking could be inflated by his role, where he might be getting the edge against bench players (save for the nba.com tracking, where he's a stud every which way). He bears the same risk as just about any low-level free agent purchase. The difference here is that the opportunity -- as shown lately -- is off the charts.
What's the Cost?
Will Barton will likely receive a $1.1M qualifying offer from Denver this summer which will make him a restricted free agent. However, it's not likely that Denver will want to match a significant offer for Barton. The Nuggets have $58M on the books for 2015-16 not including any cap holds or salary due draft picks. They would need to go over the cap to match an offer to Barton, and they may not see him as worth the relative cost.
It might require an offer sheet near the current mid-level exception to prevent Denver from matching. Is Barton worth a $6M salary? No -- and yes. He's certainly worth that salary today if his production continues (and it can be scaled into a bigger role). He's not worth that today if his production dips.
Here's the thing. When the salary cap explodes in the summer of 2016, a mid-level salary to Barton will be equivalent to the $3M-ish annual salary given to Jonas Jerebko, Amir Johnson and others at the end of their rookie contracts. It's precisely the "I like what I see, can you do more?" type of contract that the Pistons have issued in the past. If it doesn't work out, Detroit would still have a decent backup at an affordable rate.
If Will Barton ends the 2014-15 season on the same path he started since joining the Nuggets, Detroit should make an offer this summer. I suggest a starting offer between $14M and $18M over three years, with the third year being a team option. This should be enough to prevent Denver from matching. The only risk, which Detroit can measure at the time, will be offers from competing teams.
If Barton does pan out, Detroit could have a gifted, athletic, versatile 2-way player at either wing position. If it doesn't work out, Detroit could elect to end the deal after the second year. In the mean time, the most important thing to recognize is that Will Barton has been more productive for the Nuggets than any Piston wing player has this season. A contract would be a calculated risk for a potential breakout player.