Constructed around a legion of identifiable and domineering personalities, the NBA is as tantalizing a product as ever. By what feels like a pure exercise of will, the Chris Paul’s of the world contort, create, massacre and elevate the game to unforeseen levels with every step onto the court. Superstars aren’t just superior athletes; they’re inventive heroes.
And we, sports fans, are obsessed with heroism. Yet, we often only give pause to the kind that panders to our baser instincts. Yes, a special place in our hearts are shared to those lesser souls that leave their mark by way of overdriven, hustle-y clichés. But even they, the Joakim Noahs and Kenneth Farieds of the league, benefit from our attraction toward chaos.
Beyond even those damned to our fleeting, subterranean appreciations, however, there’s Matt Barnes. Put simply, Barnes is quintessentially average; just slightly decent at everything. His plight, less enthralling than the aforementioned hustlemen, is often overlooked. Barnes’ activity is well documented yet not conducive to the many platitudes garnered upon his counterparts.
Now in his tenth season, Barnes always seemed destined to be this way. The faint glimmers of potential that make these wayward athletes so tantalizing were few and far-between with him. Matt Barnes has simply always been Matt Barnes.
His job is to contest shots a half-second faster than his counterparts, to hit the floor and occasionally make shots, to be just a little bit better than the next guy. The line of reasoning goes that an amalgamation of these little things pay dividends for contending teams. It’s an unglamorous existence, spending your career in the backdrop of a system’s mechanics, but it’s the kind that saves possessions and determines successful execution. Put simply, if Chris Paul is the engine that makes the Clippers go, a player like Barnes is the drivetrain.
Over the years, Barnes has quietly mastered the art of roleplaying both on and off the court. He’s taken his underpaid status in stride and often found himself on both ends of hard fouls, with trickles of fan derision coming to the fore. To be fair, Barnes’ penchant for striking a nerve is more readily engraved in our memories than his dedication to system defense. And when Chris Paul is dripping with gravitas just five feet away, it becomes easy to forget about him completely.
But all roles, big and small, deserve to be celebrated. Sometimes, the greatest acts of heroism involve stepping aside to let someone else play the part of the hero. For Barnes, stepping up has always meant stepping down; taking care of the logistics of valour and the dirty deeds of villainy alike and then making a quick stage exit to let the other guys step in and take a bow.