Since NBA teams were allowed to start negotiating with free agents last Monday night, plenty of news and rumors have come down the pipe in Rip City. The Blazers got the first crack at unrestricted free agent center Spencer Hawes Tuesday morning (he's since agreed to terms with the Clippers), a sign-and-trade for Pistons big man Greg Monroe has been discussed and 32-year-old journeyman center Chris Kaman reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with Portland last Thursday.
Several hours before the free agency frenzy began on July 1, Blazers.com beat reporter Casey Holdahl posted a story about Portland guard Will Barton that largely flew under-the-radar. In the article, the third-year wing out of Memphis discussed his offseason workout plans and the underrated ability of the Blazers' current stable of back-ups, among other musings typical of a young player in the offseason looking to break into a playing rotation.
Interestingly, though, Barton revealed that he and Portland's coaching staff have been kicking around the idea of him playing point guard off the bench for over a year. With last season's back-up point and sixth man Mo Williams opting out of his final year with the Blazers and exploring free agency this summer, the experiment to see if Barton can handle primary ball-handling duties off the bench has apparently been kicked into high-gear. He discussed the topic with Holdahl:
"We've been thinking about it since last summer," said Barton of playing the point. "Mo (Williams) might be coming back, Mo might not be coming back, but it was something I was thinking about either way."
"...So I wanted to sharpen my skills at point guard. I feel like I have a mindset for it and a skill set for it, so now it's just like, let's put it into action and see how he look doing it. I feel like, so far, I've been looking real good doing it."
Playing Barton as an occasional back-up point guard is an idea that certainly has merit. If the reported details of Kaman's negotiated contract with the Blazers are assumed to be true, Portland's mid-level exception for this offseason has been used on the 11-year center out of Central Michigan.
That leaves the Bi-Annual exception -- valued at just over $2 million per year -- for Blazers GM Neil Olshey to fill the gaping hole that would be left on Portland's bench should Williams walk in free agency. Even though both sides would like to work out a deal, there is interest from other teams in Williams' services, and he's seeking a three-year contract -- which would go through his fifteenth season when he'll turn 35. It's no surprise, then, that Olshey would hesitate to commit long-term money to a point guard who will likely be on the decline for the duration of his next contract.
That said, the market for free agent backup point guards in the Blazers' price-range appears shallow. Ramon Sessions, Kirk Hinrich and DJ Augustin will all likely garner more than what Olshey can offer. Darren Collison reportedly agreed to a three-year, full mid-level exception deal with the Kings. 31-year-old Devin Harris, who has struggled to stay healthy and play effectively for the last several seasons, picked up a reported three-year, $9 million contract with the Mavericks and Jordan Farmar took the Bi-annual exception from the Clippers.
The list of realistic point guard signings for Portland is underwhelming, contains players with clear downsides and has names like Luke Ridnour, Steve Blake, Aaron Brooks, Beno Udrih and Brian Roberts. In today's free agent market, most of these point guards could probably get what the Blazers would be willing to offer elsewhere.
Even if Olshey does ink a reserve point guard in the coming weeks, why shouldn't Barton -- affectionately referred to as "the People's Champ" or "the Thrill" by many Blazers fans -- get the opportunity to audition for the role of Damian Lillard's backup in the backcourt? According to NBA.com, Barton had the team's third-highest usage rate at 21.6 percent and an assist percentage of 19.9 last year, good for fifth on the roster. His turnover rate was a respectable 15.3 percent, about half of Williams'.
Though occasionally erratic or unpredictable with the ball in his first two seasons, Barton's energy can't be questioned, and there's no reason to think he can't harness his ball-handling skills into short, productive stints off the bench while Lillard rests or plays off the ball. He's obviously comfortable with the ball in his hands, doesn't turn it over often and is a willing passer, telling Holdahl:
"I'm not a guard that just thinks about scoring, and that's what helps my offense, because I'm out there just trying to make the right play," said Barton. "If it's getting to the basket, I'll do it. If it's finding my teammates, I'll do it. I'm the type of guy that prides myself on my teammates enjoying playing with me. That's getting up and down, running, finding them, hitting guys like [Allen Crabbe] for threes when he's open, finding CJ [McCollum] early and letting him push, finding T. Rob for a dunk or Meyers [Leonard] for a dunk, Joel [Freeland] for a pick and pop. I want my guys to say ‘I like when the ball is in Will's hands because I know he's going to make a play for us.'"
Barton will likely have his first in-game opportunity to man the point next Saturday when the Blazers kick off their 2014 Las Vegas Summer League schedule against the Knicks. Former Michigan State player Keith Appling, along with Bobby Brown and Jonathan Gibson -- who played in China and Iran last year, respectively -- appear to be the true point guards on the Blazers' Summer League roster, and look like long-shots to be with the team past training camp this fall. Barton (and sophomore guard CJ McCollum) should get a chance to show in the coming weeks that Portland's best backup point guard option for next season might already be on the team.
The idea of Barton playing the point does create questions about how the defense would function with him running the show, but Williams wouldn't exactly leave huge shoes to fill in that department. Plus, none of the realistic and available free agent point guards Olshey could still sign this summer would be a huge upgrade on the defensive end. At a lanky 6-foot-6 with an almost 6-foot-10 wingspan, Barton has the length to bother opposing backcourt players. Either way, he'd likely only be playing 5-10 minutes a night at the point -- sharing those minutes with either McCollum or an incoming free agent -- and would be playing against mostly reserves, a much less daunting task than facing starters. Also consider the mismatches that would be created when the Blazers have the ball; Barton would have little trouble getting a shot off over a much smaller, backup point guard.
Of course, he'd have to develop a passable pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop game and work on his outside shot -- Barton hit just 30.3 percent of his three-pointers last season -- but the work ethic is clearly there, he's familiar with all his fellow backups besides Kaman, and he has already shown an ability to get into the lane and finish. Add in his relatively high usage rate, lack of turnovers and a willingness to pass, and Barton looks like he has the potential to be a solid option at point guard off the bench for Portland coach Terry Stotts next season.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter