What to do with Leandro Barbosa? That is one of the most intriguing questions facing the Raptors as they head into the second summer of their rebuilding project. Despite Friday night's heroics in the Raptors' win over Indiana, Barbosa would seem ill-suited to a club in such an early stage of rebuilding. But at the same time, his talents could help the Raptors get competitive a lot faster if they keep him around. It's a situation with no obvious answer despite the reverberations all through the roster.
First, consider what kind of player Barbosa is; he's a straight scorer. There is nothing else of note to really discuss with regards to his game, which makes placing his role on a team (rebuilding or otherwise) eminently easy. Despite being the size of a typical point guard (6-foot-3), he's not a very willing passer. Despite having enviable foot speed, he's not a very aggressive defender. Barbosa is a streak shooter of the highest order, and like his peers (Jason Terry, J.R. Smith and Jamal Crawford), if he gets hot he can be the difference between a win and a loss - like he was Friday night at the ACC.
After an up-and-down first few months of the season (due to roster turnover and various nagging injuries), Barbosa has steadied his game in recent weeks and brought his overall averages above those in his injury-riddled 2009-10 campaign with the Phoenix Suns. He's scoring 12.8 ppg and shooting 44.6% on the season, though that percentage is dragged down by a horrific 39.8% clip in February, and he's got his three-point percentage above his career-low level of a season ago by 0.01%. While he's still way off of his career-best numbers, he's still young enough to have several strong seasons left in his body, so long as his body doesn't keep breaking down like it has over the last two years.
It also helps that Barbosa is a willing sixth-man for any team he plays for. Despite his prodigious scoring talents, he's not the type to make waves in the locker room about not starting. That allows a rebuilding team like the Raptors to put guys that they are still in development ahead of him in the rotation (like DeMar DeRozan), just so long as Barbosa receives an allotment of minutes that is in line with his talents, experience and productivity. His $7-million salary is not cheap, but it is also not excessive, and considering that most of the Raptors' talent still plays on cheap rookie deals and that Barbosa only has one year remaining on his pact, it's unlikely that finances are going to be the determining factor to his future in Toronto.
Still, there are potential downsides to keeping him around as a long-term member of the club. The key one is the presence of Jerryd Bayless, the explosive combo guard the Raptors got back in their trade with New Orleans last November. The Raptors have been trying very hard to turn Bayless into a traditional point guard, but so far, the results have been mixed. Like Barbosa, Bayless is far more comfortable making plays for himself than he is for others. When he first began playing for the Raptors, he was far more likely to be shooting than anything else, averaging 8.9 attempts per game in the month of December. His aggressiveness, though, opened up passing lanes for him and seemed to bring balance to his whole offensive game.
So far in March Bayless is averaging 4.2 attempts per game, less than half of his early winter output, as he now attempts to get others on the team involved before himself. While there is nothing wrong with the Raptors trying to broaden the scope of his game, handcuffing his natural scoring strengths to try and re-invent his game somewhat negates having him over another semi-reliable backup point guard in the NBA. He now looks timid every time he's in a position to shoot and his shooting percentage with the Raptors has dropped from 46% in mid-December to 41.8% today.
So what does this have to do with Barbosa? Well, Barbosa is basically playing the role that Bayless is best suited for. Barbosa gets to shoot with impunity, gets to take his man off the dribble or launch from downtown whenever he is subbed into the game. That's his purpose on this or any team he plays on. If you have Barbosa, you have him to score and you basically have to let him do it with no handcuffs on his shot selection. Because of that, Bayless (who also plays with the second unit and thus is usually playing alongside Barbosa) is left to bring the ball up the court and make the first pass in the offence, rarely seeing the ball again. His assists per game have fallen as his time with the Raptors has gone on, and his assists per 36 minutes are now below the levels they were when he played his eleven games with New Orleans. While Bayless has a lot of growing to do as a player, that is in no way affected by Barbosa's presence. There is no denying that he's had to make accommodations because he's had to share the floor with Barbosa, which has forced him out of his comfort zone as an NBA player.
Not only is Barbosa taking shots away from Bayless, though, he's taking them away from the entire Raptors roster. When Barbosa is sharing the floor with reserves like Bayless, Ed Davis and Sonny Weems, he tends to dominate the ball and the team's offensive attack, leaving a lot of players standing around watching him pound the ball or isolate against his man. When Barbosa was the sixth man on a Phoenix team annually looking to make deep playoff runs, this was expected because he was the most important reserve the team had and he kept the offense humming along with the second unit.
With the Raptors, though, guys like Bayless and Davis aren't fill-in bench guys, they are young developing players that need to be involved as more than just props in Barbosa's offensive exploits. This is not a knock on Barbosa, who is playing exactly how he always has and how he should to maximize his skills, but the circumstances around him are different and the coaches and management have to decide if the trade-offs are worth it, not just this year but next year as well. Next year, the team will have at least one more lottery pick to integrate, which either means he'll be sharing the floor with Barbosa or he'll push a current starter to the bench. How many young players are they going to leave standing around while Barbosa does his thing for a club that needs to involve their young developing players as much as possible? Keep in mind, too, that at some point next season, the Raptors are going to have to attempt to re-integrate the injured Linas Kleiza, and if he's not scoring, he too, doesn't have a lot to do out there on the court.
At the same time, the Raptors are going to have to stop worrying themselves with development and they're going to have to start winning. When that time comes, having a bench scorer like Barbosa is not only invaluable, it's basically a necessity. For the last several years, the Raptors could have desperately used a scoring guard to keep the team's offense humming along when the reserves had come in, and Barbosa is one of the best in the business in that role. Even in his reduced state this season, he's still fifth in the NBA in scoring for reserves, and his shooting percentage is within 0.5% of the best shooter of the four in front of him (which is Jason Terry at 45.3%). Barbosa seems as committed to the Raptors as a veteran can be going from a a contender to a basement-dweller, and if the Raptors want to keep him around, they should have as good a shot as anyone at retaining his services in 2012 (especially if they opt to lock him up during next season under more favorable CBA terms).
The question is, how does the organization feel about Barbosa as a core piece going forward? Was acquiring him merely the price the team paid to unload Hedo Turkoglu, or is he truly an asset that they covet long-term? The fact that he wasn't dealt away at the trade deadline surely suggests that he's a part of their plans going forward, and so it would appear as though the club is committed to keeping him, regardless of how it impacts the players they are developing around him. After all, while guys like Bayless may one day be able to replicate Barbosa's scoring output, how important is training him to do that when the team already has Barbosa in the fold? Sometimes the seduction of potential and the development cycle can blind one to the merits of someone who's already come through that routine as a strong NBA player.
As exciting as it is to watch young players blossom, the Raptors are going to need talent they can rely on night-in and night-out if they ever want to return to competitiveness in the ever-improving Eastern Conference. That being the case, maybe keeping Barbosa isn't such a difficult decision after all.