Raymond Chandler was many things before his protagonist detective Philip Marlowe entered the public consciousness. He worked in the navy. He was a reporter. He was a poet. He worked for an oil company. He was good at some things but far from a influence in the broad fields of his different endeavors. Eventually, out of money during the Great Depression, he decided to write some pulp fiction to stay afloat. Within a few years, hardboiled detective fiction was born.
All this to say: It can take time for a fertile context to yield seeds for the right person. Scottie Barnes is a brilliant NBA player in many ways, but he has also been far from the Toronto Raptors’ most impactful player through his first two seasons. The right context has not been built around him to manifest his skills into something more on the court — to define his field.
Toronto is facing a crossroads this offseason in more ways than one. The team has several free agents, either this offseason or upcoming, and it has yet to hire a new coach. But arguably, the North Star that every decision should be chasing is an answer to the question: What context is correct for Barnes?
Barnes has numerous skills. He is one of the league’s best passers, and he processes events so rapidly that he is an elite passer in a huge variety of situations. He is a talented scorer in movement situations, such as during transition, broken plays, or second-chance possessions. He is endlessly long with elite vertical when he gets a runway to his jump. He takes contact well. He’s one of the most diverse finishers in the league. He has a bag in the post. All of that is good and helpful. But the passing and processing speed is the combined skill that elevates him from good young player to future star.
However, because Barnes isn’t yet elite at creating advantages from a standstill, that passing ability has not yet translated to his being an elite playmaker. He hasn’t yet been harnessed as a pick-and-roll juggernaut, capable of bending defenses as he probes and drives to the rim. He hasn’t mastered multiple speeds. He can’t space the floor for teammates. He isn’t elite in isolation, with little time on the clock, asked to create something from nothing.
As a result, Barnes’ passing is thus far best harnessed when he’s already catching on the move and inside the arc. A Barnes paint touch is solid gold for Toronto; he just isn’t yet able to manufacture a paint touch at will. He’s a brilliant blacksmith lacking a forge. So Toronto’s ideal context should be to find him the tools he needs to spin gold at will — to prioritize creating paint touches for Barnes.
Big picture, Barnes begs the question of what type of team the Raptors want to be. For the last several years, they’ve evolved in a different direction from the league — and in many ways been left behind by modernity. The Raptors can still keep some of their gimmicks under a new coach — Barnes is terrific at rebounding and forcing turnovers. But it’s clear that those strengths alone aren’t enough for a team to compete in the modern era. They need to be ornate frills rather than foundational elements.
So what do the Raptors want to be? Do they want to continue innovating in a different direction from the rest of the league? Barnes is unique — they can do that. Do they want to be a defense-focused team? Barnes isn’t a lockdown defender yet, but he’s improved greatly since entering the league, and he could fit into a rotation-heavy scheme that forces turnovers, a switch-heavy team that gums up the driving lanes, or a conservative team that drops and protects the paint. Do they want to be monstrously huge, force switches, and post-up smalls? Barnes, again, is great there.
No matter what they envision, Barnes has to be the reason. And his uniqueness means Toronto can be anything it imagines; he is Toronto’s ticket to lucid dreaming.
None of that works unless Barnes can catch the ball on the move inside the arc. That happens in a variety of ways. He can sprint towards the rim and turn that marauding cut into a deep catch while moving. But that requires other defenders to be outside of the paint — meaning Toronto needs plenty of shooting surrounding Barnes as he cuts, stretching the boundaries of the defense to the limits of the court itself, from sideline to sideline, and above the break. Toronto would also need to play quick-hitting passers alongside Barnes to actually feed him the ball in opportune windows when he’s open on cuts. (Or, he can grab an offensive rebound if his cut is ignored by his teammates, so cutting is always valuable.)
Or Barnes can play in the mid post. There are so many options there that Barnes can read and choose the best path forward, like a choose-your-own-adventure half-court set. Barnes can see split cuts on the strong side (Golden State Warriors), or a flare screen on the weakside (Utah Jazz, really everyone, but especially the Jazz), or handoffs buzzing around him (Denver Nuggets) — or all three happening at the same time, ideally. If Barnes’ teammates are threatening enough, Barnes will have time and space to create against single coverage those short midrange hooks and push shots at which he so excels. If Barnes is three-quartered or fronted, he can turn that defensive approach into a weakness by setting a screen on his own man for the would-be entry passer to drive to the rim. (Nikola Jokic is a master at this).
The requirement for that style of play would be to surround Barnes with elite cutters and movement shooters. The Sacramento Kings built the boat out of Malik Monks, and Toronto would do well to find some of the same materials. When Barnes morphed into a handoff hub for a stretch of a week or two in the regular season, he turned into a homing missile for Gary Trent jr., who was Toronto’s best movement shooter last season — giving Barnes more options there would turn his post-up adventures into meat and potatoes for an offense.
Barnes could also thrash defenses as a screener. He improved his pick-and-roll craft as a screener this past season, and though he’s not elite yet, he is one of Toronto’s best non-Jakob Poeltl options. He is a strong short roller — which is another cheat code to getting Barnes the ball, on the move, in the middle of the floor.
So Barnes would need a pick-and-roll partner who is an elite pull-up shooter and forces blitzes and hedges, so as to allow him to sneak in behind the pick-and-roll defense. Fred VanVleet did all of that! But Barnes’ ideal partner ballhandler would also have to be a strong driver and finisher, or else switching the pick and roll would be an easy means to defang the play and keep Barnes static. That’s where VanVleet in many ways hurt Toronto last season, when asked to create against a switch. (And indeed, switching massacred VanVleet-Barnes pick and rolls last season, with Toronto crawling its way to 0.695 points per possession in such scenarios, lower efficiency than, say, Dalano Banton-Precious Achiuwa pick and rolls.)
There are other ways to best capitalize on Barnes, but the requirements of cutting, finishing, movement shooting, and pull-up shooting already give great insight into the types of teammates that would best provide fertile context to take advantage of Barnes’ superpowers while ameliorating his limitations.
As Barnes is not quite a center, the ideal partner in the frontcourt would be able to space the floor — a la Brook Lopez, Nikola Jokic, or Myles Turner. The team would need more wings who can shoot on the move. Otto Porter jr. returning with toes intact would be a huge boon there, and O.G. Anunoby is already a good fit (although if he cut with more pace, it would be a huge, huge benefit). Perhaps Trent can remain a Raptor. But Toronto would still need more wings who can cut, shoot, and make immediate decisions. Malik Monk and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are idealized archetypes there on playoff teams, but Seth Curry, Coby White, Donte DiVincenzo, Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, and Justin Holiday are all upcoming free agents who can — to differing extents — fulfill that role. Gradey Dick or Brice Sensabaugh are great options in the draft.
And most importantly Toronto would need the point guard of the future. VanVleet is a good partner for Barnes, but they haven’t been perfect together. In all of the minutes played between the two players, playoff, play-in, regular season, they share a very strong offensive rating of 116. That falls to between 113-115 with one or the other but not both, and it plummets to 111 without either. They’ve been good together! But as a point of comparison, this past season Sacramento’s offensive rating with Sabonis-Fox on was 122, and Denver’s with Jokic-Murray was 126. Barnes is no Sabonis or Jokic, but the Raptors should look to push their elite offensive pairings to a higher offensive rating than 116.
(Another important point here: Toronto’s offensive rating with VanVleet and Barnes on and Pascal Siakam off holds up, at 115 through 2021-22 and 2022-23. The two have been able to generate at least solid offense without Toronto’s best offensive player. (Seeing as how Siakam has had half-court offensive on/offs above the 90th percentile in both seasons, that’s actually a momentous feat.)
Toronto could build a better offense around Barnes with a stronger pick-and-roll partner. It’s hard to find a better partner, but it’s possible. Maybe Scoot Henderson becomes an elite pull-up shooter (that’s a big maybe), which would make him sort of the best Barnes partner imaginable. But even without a top draft pick this season, there are better offensive guard options to pair with Barnes than VanVleet. Damian Lillard would turn Barnes into Basketball Jesus. Trae Young would fit the bill as an elite shooter, finisher, and passer. (His cutting leaves much, much to be desired, and would be a huge step back from VanVleet, so it’s not really ideal.) Zach LaVine would open space for Barnes as a screener. Gabe Vincent wouldn’t necessarily be better, but he would be very good, and he’d be much cheaper. There are options.
You’ll notice that very few of the idealized offensive partners with Barnes are players already on the roster. Poeltl is an exceptional player, particularly as a pick-and-roll partner with VanVleet, but he does less to free Barnes. He creates open drives for guards and open shots for shooters — and Barnes is neither. Siakam is actually a great partner for Barnes in some ways, but for it to be maximized long term, they would need to be the only non-shooters in the entire rotation. And that is very much not the case at the moment.
Barnes’ superpower is that he turns good moments on the offensive end into great ones. But he doesn’t often create good moments all by his lonesome. And Toronto needs to do much more to both have other players create those advantages that he can convert, and to make more dynamic situations that give him more conversion options. Siakam is a great cutter and finisher, and he is also the primary engine of creating advantages for teammates. But to capitalize on the pairing, Toronto would need to surround the two of Siakam and Barnes with so much movement and shooting that the entire roster would more or less be different. And the only means of revolutionizing the roster from a position of strength would be to trade one of Siakam or Barnes. That frustrating Catch-22 means though the pairing really does have many benefits to it, the Raptors don’t have a means of functionally capitalizing on it.
Zoom out, once again, to a thought experiment. Picture Barnes surrounded by everything previously described. Speed, shooting, cutting, finishing, athleticism. Toronto could be any type of team it desired. Barnes could vacillate between any position on offense, initiating, pivoting to a post-up, curling into a handoff, short rolling, spraying the ball to shooters. Surrounding him with successful context would turn his limitations meaningless. The offense would be fast and loose, taking on the characteristics of Barnes himself: rapid, flowing from action to action, dynamic and versatile.
So how does that happen? Picture a lineup with shooting and cutting surrounding Barnes. Let’s say a lineup of, just for kicks:
PG: Mike Conley
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SF: Bruce Brown
PF: Scottie Barnes
C: Myles Turner
Everyone is a cutter and shooter other than Barnes, and there’s just enough pull-up shooting and finishing to open up spaces for Barnes as a screener. I could have chosen a better guard partner, like Lillard, but that would miss this point: Sure, that would not be the league’s best offensive unit. But it would likely be better than any of Toronto’s high-minute lineups last season. And there would be no other stars required — all role players, but ones that fit perfectly.
This is not to say that Toronto can trade for these players. (It can’t.) But that is what the ideal context surrounding Barnes would look like. It could be even better with another star — like Lillard, or LaVine, or Henderson, or whichever star guard next demands a trade. Here’s something a little more realistic (much more), really just as a point of comparison:
PG: Fred VanVleet
SG: Gary Trent jr.
SF: O.G. Anunoby
PF: Scottie Barnes
There’s not as much cutting and speedy decision-making from Trent and Anunoby as you would want around Barnes, and VanVleet isn’t the finisher you would like. But this foursome checks some boxes. Shooting, really, is the major one. (It’s the only foursome from last year’s roster that could functionally surround Barnes with shooting.) Yet the offense rating for this foursome was middling last season. Why? They played 1020 non-garbage time possessions together, and none of them were with a shooting center. Perhaps the closest is Precious Achiuwa. And that group? Oh yeah, offensive points per 100 possessions of 121 (in very few minutes). It could work, theoretically.
Poeltl’s non-shooting doesn’t mean Toronto should dispense with Poeltl, but it does mean he might not be the best long-term partner with Barnes. Maybe Christian Koloko develops a jumper, but that’s seems unlikely, at least in the short- or medium-term. The best hope on the roster has to be Achiuwa, but his development — though with an insanely high ceiling — is no sure thing. If Achiuwa turns into a cutting, driving, shooting behemoth, he would be a perfect frontcourt partner with Barnes, so Toronto needs to prioritize their co-development.
The guards required to maximize Barnes are not on the roster, however. There’s no even close to enough shooting, movement, passing, finishing, or athleticism. Or, you know, just, bodies. Toronto has, what, two guards in the rotation?
There are dynamic young guards with size who could be available on the trade market. Orlando has a lot of point guards — could Toronto pry away one of Jalen Suggs or Cole Anthony? If Boston revamps its roster, could Malcolm Brogdon be available? Is New York married to Miles McBride? Brogdon is the only proven shooter there, but all those players have size and unique movement patterns. Bruce Brown would be ideal on Toronto, and it’s almost certain he declines his player option after his playoff performance. Could Toronto lure him with a full midlevel exception, which would be approximately double what he makes now? Probably he’ll be able to make more, but it’s worth trying.
The only certainty is that Toronto needs to rework its guard and wing rotation in order to fit best with Barnes. Shooters, quick decision makers, and rapid cutters are most important. The league is full of them. Toronto? Not so much. Until the Raptors modernize their roster around Barnes, the offense will remain clunky and prone to droughts — walking uphill to school both ways.
It would be wrong to say that Chandler invented hardboiled detective fiction on his own. Dashiell Hammett — who actually worked as a detective — helped popularize it alongside Chandler. And in fact, it had been invented but far from mastered years earlier, by Carroll John Daly, with his work in the Black Mask Magazine. But Chandler, at least insofar as his work has contributed to the evolution of hardboiled fiction into more modern works such as The Big Lebowski or The New York Trilogy, is probably the most definitive name in the field.
There’s so much time for Barnes to still become a definitive NBA star. His always-forward hips, soft touch, limitless length, and genius passing could define an elite offense in the league. It could result in any number of different types of offense, but there are a number of requirements to capitalize on Barnes. The future belongs to Barnes. But only if the Raptors bring the team into the present.