If you take a look at the leaderboard for FiveThirtyEight’s NBA player ratings (RAPTOR),1 you will see a collection of expected names at or near the top. James Harden leads the league at the moment, contributing +11.5 points per 100 possessions to his team’s performance. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, new Miami Heat addition Jimmy Butler and two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard are right behind Harden, each contributing between 8.5 and 10.5 points per 100 possessions to their respective teams.
Four more players sit just behind that star trio, each contributing between +7.3 and +8.3 points per 100 possessions to their team’s performance. Those four players are breakout superstar Luka Dončić, dominant big man Karl-Anthony Towns, the seemingly ageless superstar LeBron James and … Will Barton?
That’s right. The Nuggets’ 28-year old wing — who last season ranked 269th out of 281 qualified players in total RAPTOR — ranks eighth out of 250 qualifiers for the 2019-20 campaign, contributing 7.3 points per 100 possessions toward Denver’s performance this season.
|2019-20||+7.3||8 of 250|
|2018-19||-4.1||269 of 281|
|2017-18||+0.9||97 of 280|
|2016-17||-0.8||167 of 286|
|2015-16||-0.4||152 of 282|
Barton scores highly in every component of RAPTOR: He ranks 11th in the box score component, fourth in the on-off component, 30th on offense and seventh on defense.
All due respect to Barton, but he sticks out like a sore thumb among that group of superstars. His relatively modest averages of 14.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals in 32.9 minutes per game pale in comparison to the numbers being compiled by the players with whom he shares real estate on the RAPTOR leaderboards. His performance in more advanced statistics like PER (16.1), Win Shares per 48 minutes (0.145) and Box Plus-Minus (2.6) does as well. So why does RAPTOR think so highly of Barton this year?
We can start with the easiest part first: Barton is crushing the on-off component of RAPTOR largely because the Nuggets — who are playing a Christmas Day game for the first time since 2012 — are crushing teams when Barton is on the floor. Denver has smoked opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Barton in the game, a mark 15.9 points per 100 better than the one the Nuggets have posted with him on the sideline. Denver’s starting lineup2 has been on the floor for more minutes than any other five-man unit in the NBA, and that group has outscored opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions. As a result, among the 168 two-man lineup combinations that have shared the floor for at least 500 minutes, the four combinations3 featuring Barton rank fifth, sixth, seventh and 14th in net scoring differential per 100 possessions. According to on-off data from PBPStats.com, meanwhile, three of those four players have seen the Nuggets outscored in the minutes they have been on the floor without Barton.
Figuring out why Barton fares so well in the box score component of RAPTOR is harder. It’s worth noting, however, that while his per-game averages are indeed modest, they’re also pretty rare — at least in terms of their being collected by one player. Just 10 other players in the league are averaging at least 14 points, six rebounds, three assists and one steal per game. Aside from Barton, they are all either perennial All-Stars or likely soon-to-be All-Stars. Such diversity of production is valuable, especially when you consider that adding a requirement of shooting at least 40 percent from three narrows that list of 11 down to just three.4
Barton’s proficiency from beyond the arc this season certainly accounts for some of his marked improvement in the box score component of RAPTOR. A career 34.1 percent 3-point shooter coming into this season, Barton is now knocking down 40.4 percent of his 4.2 deep attempts per game. Despite that accuracy, however, Barton is actually not seeing tremendous benefit from the spacing component of RAPTOR because he almost never attempts contested threes. According to Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com, only six of Barton’s 114 attempted threes have been tightly or very tightly guarded. The other 108 have been open or wide open; he’s just knocking them down at an extremely high rate.
Barton primarily works as a second-side ball-handler in Denver’s offense — with Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić doing most of the orchestrating — and his 3-point sniping has likely contributed to his ability to beat closeouts and get into the paint at a higher rate this season. Among the 175 players who have faced least 100 closeouts, according to Second Spectrum, Barton’s 1.187 points per chance those closeouts ranks 16th-best, placing him in the 90th percentile among that group. During his previous four seasons in Denver, Barton never topped 1.04 points per possession in the same statistic.
That closeout-beating ability has contributed to his taking a Denver-career-high 54.7 percent of his shots from inside the paint, giving him a considerably higher quantified Shot Quality5 than he had a year ago. Taking better shots has led to Barton posting the second-best effective field-goal percentage of his Denver career, a mark 6.7 percentage points better than the one he had a season ago.
Barton has done well to avoid turnovers this season, posting a 10.1 percent turnover rate that is both the lowest of his career and the 38th-lowest rate among the 160 players designated by Basketball-Reference.com as either guards or guard/forwards who have qualified for the minutes per game leaderboard. Furthermore, only 10 of the aforementioned 160 players have a turnover rate south of 11 percent, a steal rate above 1.5 percent and a block rate above 1.0 percent, and Barton is one of them. Among that group of 10, only five are using more than 19 percent of their team’s possessions, and Barton has by far the highest effective field-goal percentage of those five.
On defense, the story is similar. Barton has done particularly well to avoid fouls, with a fouls-per-36-minutes average tied for 17th-lowest among the 80 players averaging at least 30 minutes per game. Steals and blocks are obviously not the only important facets of defense, but Barton’s stellar steal rate (1.8 percent) and block rate (1.0 percent), combined with an above-average defensive rebound rate (17.9) for his position, once again has him in rare company. According to Second Spectrum, he also has a rebounding conversion rate 4.4 percent higher than expected, the 36th-best mark among 197 players who have been on the floor for at least 500 missed opponent shots.
Contributing to your team’s ability to end opponent possessions without a score carries tremendous value; and considering that the only ways a possession can end are with a made shot, a defensive rebound, a turnover or a shooting foul, Barton has done a strong job of contributing to the types of results that are positive for a defense.
Opposing offenses have also been largely unsuccessful when trying to attack Barton individually this season. Among the 138 players who have defended at least 40 plays in isolation, Barton’s 0.86 points allowed per chance ranks 40th-best, per Second Spectrum. Among the 1305 players who have defended the ball-handler in at least 200 pick-and-rolls, Barton’s 0.81 points allowed per chance ranks seventh. And among the 156 players who have defended at least 20 post-ups, Barton’s 0.79 points per chance allowed ranks 35th.
As a result of all these factors and more, the Nuggets have been excellent defensively with Barton in the game;6 and because Barton starts and finishes most games, he tends to be on the floor whenever the opponent’s best units are out there as well. The defensive component of RAPTOR includes an adjustment for the offensive rating of the opponents that the player faces as a defender, and Barton thus likely benefits from this adjustment, on at least some level.
Barton contributes at a considerably above-average level across a wide variety of categories on both offense and defense, and crucially, he’s doing so almost exclusively in the context of really good lineups. He’s been on the floor for 1,778 possessions this season, per PBPStats.com, and of those possessions, he has had at least three of Denver’s four other regular starters alongside him for 1,402 of them — a rate of 78.9 percent. That may not make Barton the eighth-“best” player in the NBA, but it does shed light on why a plus-minus statistic like RAPTOR thinks so highly of his contributions this season.
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