Since he arrived in Denver and took to transforming his game, Will Barton has vastly outplayed the number penned into his contract. Despite garnering 99 total Sixth Man of the Year votes over the last three seasons, the 27-year-old has only made around $3.4 million annually in Colorado.
When the NBA free agency gates burst open at the stroke of midnight on July 1, the man who hilariously dubbed himself ‘The People’s Champ’ finally secured the bag he had balled so hard for. Within the first hour of the free agency frenzy, Barton committed to returning to the Nuggets on a four-year, $54 million contract. According to Def Pen Hoops, Indiana Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan and president Kevin Pritchard flew to Baltimore to engage with the 6-foot-6 wing, although they were quickly spurned in favor of Denver.
With the majority of the league still hungover from the cap-rising shopping spree of 2016, there are plenty of impact players who will be getting under $10 million on the Mid-Level Exception this summer. However, after averaging 15.7 points, 5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game last season, Barton was justifiably rewarded with a nice chunk of Denver’s salary cap.
The People’s Champ and his teammates finished with a six-win increase over the previous season, missing the playoffs by the skin of their teeth after losing their final game – and playoff hopes – to Minnesota on the final day of the regular season.
Nikola Jokic was his usual transcendent self, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray’s potential started to shine and Paul Millsap was helpful when he was healthy, but Barton was the glue that held these young stars together. When the $54 million man was surrounded by the regular starters, Denver put up a blistering 124.7 offensive rating and an extremely staunch 92.0 defensive rating. Those gaudy numbers make it easy to see why the Nuggets brass moved quickly to lock up their spark plug on a long-term deal.
One of the biggest keys to Barton’s best year yet was simple – a major improvement in shot selection. According to Cleaning the Glass, he shot a career-low percentage of his shots in the short and long mid-range areas, opting to attack the rim more frequently and letting fly on more triples. Those triples were landing too, nailing 37 percent from downtown. This change in mindset led to a career-best 53.2 percent effective field goal percentage, alleviating the biggest worry of Barton’s game.
The People’s Champ is never going to win any titles for his work on the defensive end, his 405th ranked defensive real plus-minus is a testament to that. However, his instant offensive impact as a starter or sixth man is undeniably valuable.
Denver locked up Harris to a four-year, $84 million deal last summer and Jokic to a $146.5 million max contract, so they already had plenty of money invested in their future stars. The fact that they were willing to shell out for Barton shows the faith that general manager Arturas Karnisovas has in his offensive flamethrower.
Time will tell whether Barton can live up to his new deal.