A decade from now, when the babies of north Texas grow old enough to care about the Dallas Mavericks’ backcourt, those who came before them won’t have to explain who J.J. Barea is. He’ll still be the Mavs’ sixth man.
Barea has spent all but three of his 13 seasons with Dallas. Dirk Nowitzki has yet to play this season as he recovers from ankle surgery, and a group of emerging young guards is now populating the Mavs’ roster, which makes Barea the team’s unofficial Old Head. But the 34-year-old is less Udonis Haslem and more Dwyane Wade—the Mavs, after all this time, still need him to win games. In Sunday’s 114-110 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers—a game rookie Luka Doncic missed with a strained right hip—Barea stepped in to score 24 points off the bench while adding four assists and five rebounds.
The game should’ve been Dennis Smith Jr.’s opportunity to shine. The question of whether Doncic and Smith, the Mavs’ two recent lottery picks, can coexist in the same backcourt has lingered over Dallas’s 11-10 start to the season (good for eighth in the cramped West standings). So far, they are a minus-6.1 in 454 minutes. With the rookie out, it was Smith’s show again. But the 21-year-old went cold (3-for-7) in his 32 minutes. Before a remarkably clean game-sealing block in the final seconds, Smith’s most memorable moment was getting his tooth knocked out by Patrick Beverley. (The tooth’s already back in place, because, as Smith said after the game, “When there’s ladies looking, I’ve got to be looking nice.” Pure scorer.) Smith finished with nine points, five assists, three rebounds, two steals, two blocks, and three turnovers.
Figuring out how to combine or stagger Smith and Doncic is a pressing matter for coach Rick Carlisle, especially since Dallas has been winning lately (9-3 since a six-game losing streak). Even after the Mavs signed DeAndre Jordan and drafted Doncic this offseason, it was uncertain whether the two new additions plus a core of Harrison Barnes, Nowitzki, and Smith would be enough to make the team competitive this season. A Slovenian wonderboy can change that in a game or two. The expectations are higher now, and with their first-round pick likely headed to Atlanta as a result of the draft-night trade for Doncic, there’s no reason not to play to win.
But Barea is, and has been, the Mavs’ backbone. In whatever Dallas’s 2017-18 season was—a rebuilding year, an 82-game test ride for DSJ—Barea provided the consistency. He had a far less flashy version of the season that fellow career reserve Lou Williams had: Barea finished 2017-18 with career-high averages (11.6 points and 6.3 assists) in 23 minutes a night off the bench. It wasn’t uncommon for him to leave a game looking like Dallas’s best player, or its toughest.
Now, as Luka comes to form, Dirk sits, and Jordan, Wesley Matthews, and Harrison Barnes try to play up to their contracts, Barea is again a stabilizer. Undrafted and 6-foot on a good day, Barea is still creating opportunities the way he always has—working angles and using his savvy to get to the hoop. Only now, his audience includes Doncic—a player much bigger than Barea but one who also uses craftiness to get where he wants to on the court. (Smith, whose assist rate is trending downward, might be better served by Barea’s playmaking lessons.) Doncic could also learn from his sixth man’s scoring, which Barea’s been doing particularly well during Dallas’s recent run of wins. In the four times he’s taken 14 or more shots in the past month, Barea’s scored at least 18 points. Barea’s net rating is the best of any guard on the roster, and although most of his playing minutes come on and against second units, it’s the exact level of help the Mavs need in order to transition to, and not detract from, the Doncic era.
Barea likely won’t beat the career highs he set last season, not with Doncic, Smith, and even rookie Jalen Brunson on the roster. But Dallas doesn’t need that. The Mavs just need him to do what he’s always done, whether it was for a title team, a tanking team, or a rebuilding team.