Over recent seasons, few reserves have made the impact that Will Barton has coming off the bench.
Since the start of 2015-16, only one player with 60 or fewer starts has scored more points than the Denver Nuggets wing, and that’s future two-time Sixth Man of the Year, Lou Williams.
Efficiently getting buckets isn’t all Barton is good for either.
He’s also improved his effort defensively, as well as his creation for others. After averaging 1.9 assists per contest over his first five seasons, Barton set a career high in nightly dimes this year with 4.1. What’s more, along with the 4.1 helpers, the Memphis product also put up career-best marks in points (15.7) and three-pointers (1.9) per game in 2017-18, while slashing healthy 45.2/37.0/80.5 shooting splits.
Barton had already mastered how to get buckets off the bench coming into the year. This season, he also adapted wonderfully into a starting role. Over the final 13 games of 2017-18, with the Nuggets desperately chasing a playoff spot (and the underrated Gary Harris injured), Barton was forced into the opening lineup, and acquitted himself nicely by upping his averages to 19.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.5 three-pointers while hitting 40 percent of his shots from deep.
Overall, the six-year veteran has blossomed into quite the player – one comfortable starting or coming off the pine, and one that will garner serious interest once he hits unrestricted free agency this summer.
Unfortunately for Barton, not many teams outside of the ones rebuilding will have cap space available to use this summer. Nevertheless, the 27-year-old should be able to secure himself some long-term surety.
We break down Barton’s likeliest landing spots.
Of the rebuilding organizations league-wide with money to spend, the Phoenix Suns seem the readiest to take the next step. With good reason, too.
Phoenix boasts an elite young talent in Devin Booker. They have the highest odds to land the No. 1 pick, meaning an immediate difference-maker will be added to the roster at the draft. First-year player Josh Jackson flashed serious two-way potential this season. And now they’re in the hunt for a top-notch head coach.
Although the comments were scoffed at at the time, the confluence of all those factors makes it unsurprising that general manger Ryan McDonough declared that his team was ready to take the next step.
Nevertheless, it’s unlikely the Suns will find themselves suitors for the big free agents once the market opens up on July 1. However, secondary targets, like Barton, should be right in their wheelhouse.
Although Phoenix already has a couple of young, competent wings in Jackson and TJ Warren that they’re invested in developing, Barton’s ability to play on the ball and improved vision should make that a non-issue.
If the Suns were to actually have interest in Barton, a deal in the range of a four-year, $50 million agreement would likely get the job done.
That would pay the current Nugget an average starter in 2018’s salary, provide him the sense of long-term security he seeks and still leave Phoenix well under the projected salary cap for 2018-19.
Oh, and it would also help in the Suns’ mission to field a competitive basketball team next season, thus appeasing Booker’s slightly optimistic wishes:
Playoff contention in 2019 may still be out of reach, but a Barton signing would undoubtedly improve Phoenix’s chances of achieving that goal.
One of the few playoff contenders set to have cap space this summer, the Indiana Pacers, could use a bit more scoring punch.
Nate McMillan’s men finished 2017-18 ranked 12th in offensive efficiency, an area Barton would help improve with his point-scoring prowess. Granted, the Pacers already have an All-NBA level combo guard in Victor Oladipo, who has made everyone that mocked the Paul George trade eat their words.
But there were times when Indiana’s offense would bog down, and he could use the help of another player with the ability to break defenses down, like Barton is apt to do.
Indiana probably wouldn’t go four years in a potential Barton deal – a luxury teams undergoing full rebuilds like Phoenix possess – but something resembling a two-year, $24 million would be fair. It’s a higher annual average salary than Barton turned down in a Nuggets extension, according to ESPN’s Chris Haynes, and would pay Barton, a career backup, like an average starter.
The 6-foot-6 guard may hold out for a bigger, or longer, payday but if one doesn’t come, a deal of the aforementioned nature could be agreed upon as the summer wears on.
The other Eastern Conference playoff squad, but one that will have legitimate title aspirations in the not-so-distant future, with money to spend this offseason are the Philadelphia 76ers.
Without question, Philadelphia will have its heart set on chasing bigger targets once the summer rolls around. There’s been consistent LeBron James chatter surrounding the team, and if not him, a wing like Paul George would also make a lot of sense as a 76ers target.
But if Plan A (James) and Plan B (George) fall through, general manager Bryan Colangelo could shift his gaze towards secondary targets, the likes of Tyreke Evans and Barton.
Like Indiana, the Sixers possess a very-good-but-not-elite offense (they finished the 2017-18 regular season ranked 11th in efficiency), making a player of Barton’s ilk, who can break opponents down and get buckets to lighten the scoring load on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, a need to fill this offseason.
The need for Barton will be even more heightened if Philadelphia loses its starting 2-guard, JJ Redick, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Financially, the 76ers have shown a willingness to overpay for a player’s services, as long as they can secure the player on a one-year deal, giving them cap flexibility moving forward. Redick, for example, was signed to a one-year, $23 million last season.
The team could do similar with Barton, though likely at a lower price tag, since Barton’s resume coming into this offseason pales in comparison to Redick’s last summer.
A one-year, $18 million agreement between player and team would make some sense in this situation.
At the end of the day, a Barton return to the Nuggets is the likeliest possible outcome to his free agency.
They were the first franchise to give him a chance, a fact Barton still fondly remembers, and the team’s front office appreciates what he brings to the table. Denver general manager Tim Connelly recently told the media, “[Barton’s] our guy. We love him. I think if he’s back in a Denver jersey, it’s good for both him and the team.”
Barton seems quite receptive to the idea of a return as well:
An extension of the marriage between Barton and Denver makes sense. He’s become a game-changer off the bench and stepped up as a starter when the team needed him to.
It’s the fiscal side of things between the two where things get muddy.
As is, the Nuggets are set to be over next season’s projected salary cap of $101 million. But since they own Barton’s Bird Rights, they’re allowed to go over the cap in order to bring him back without having to use their standard mid-level exception.
If Denver goes that route, a four-year, $40 million contract offer for Barton wouldn’t be surprising. That’s around the size of the extension that he reportedly turned down last season, but considering the lack of spending money league-wide, it’s tough to envision the wing landing a healthier deal anywhere else.
However, there’s an extremely important factor that could change Denver’s thinking this summer, and that’s a potential Nikola Jokic extension. The Serbian star put up numbers unheard of for a center last season, and did so on an extremely team-friendly deal. (The Nuggets paid Jokic $1.5 million in 2017-18.)
Now, it may be time to fairly pay the big man for his services.
The Nuggets own a club option on Jokic for 2018-19, one worth about $1.6 million. If they pick it up, they’ll be paying one of the best centers in basketball an obscenely cheap salary. The catch, though, is that picking up the option would make Jokic an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019, meaning they’d be running the risk of losing him for nothing next offseason.
On the other hand, if the Nuggets declines the option, the Serbian becomes a restricted free agent this summer, and the two sides can begin negotiating his next deal. Even if they can’t come to an agreement, at least the nature of restricted free agency would allow Denver the luxury of matching any offer sheet Jokic were to sign.
Common sense would tell us that’s the likeliest path Denver will take with its best player. But if they do take that route, and Jokic gets a payday approaching $20 million annually (which, in this market, may still be a of a steal for a player with his abilities), that would leave the Nuggets awfully close to the luxury tax without counting Barton.
Thus, depending on how the Jokic negotiations go, Barton could very well find himself wearing different colors to start next season.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.