When his career is over, Matt Barnes believes his detractors will finally admit he was more impactful than he’s been given credit for.
The Memphis Grizzlies swingman has earned his hot-headed label, and his altercation last fall with then-Knicks coach Derek Fisher only added to his reputation as a temperamental fireball. Yet he has lasted more than a decade in the NBA because of his passionate style.
Barnes turned 36 last week and has played in the NBA much longer than anyone — himself included — envisioned as an overlooked player coming out of UCLA. He isn’t ashamed of his actions but realizes — especially when seeing the impulsive, quick-tempered players who have followed him — that he could have toned it down a little.
The Grizzlies are a banged-up bunch, but their defense-first, aggressive style fits Barnes perfectly.
“This team reminds me a lot of the team I had in Golden State, 2007, when there was a bunch of guys that kind of got thrown on one team that nobody wanted,” Barnes said of the eighth-seeded team that defeated the top-seeded Mavericks in the Western Conference playoffs. “We made NBA history that year. This is a lot of similar personalities, guys that play hard, talk hard, and just do everything hard. I think that’s what makes the transition a little smoother.”
Barnes’s transition was coming from the Clippers, for whom he was expected to be a defensive difference-maker. But he was caught up in coach/president Doc Rivers’s desire to make offseason changes after the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead in last season’s Western Conference semifinals.
Barnes was traded last June to Charlotte along with Spencer Hawes for Lance Stephenson. Charlotte, which didn’t have Barnes in its plans, traded him to Memphis shortly after acquiring him. Barnes wasn’t sure what Memphis had to offer, but the Grizzlies have made a series of roster changes this season, coincidentally adding Stephenson from the Clippers in a trade for former Celtic Jeff Green.
“I love [the mix], unfortunately we had to lose guys in trades and people getting hurt, but who we’ve brought in and the way they’ve come in and played, I take my hat off to them,” Barnes said.
Barnes isn’t exactly a voice of reason yet, but he understands that he needs to be a leader in Memphis. That isn’t a certainty, given his reputation, but he feels misunderstood, as if some actions overshadowed his actual persona.
“I think I’m probably No. 1 [misunderstood],” he said. “It’s got me 14 years in this league so far, and I wouldn’t trade anything. If you take the chance to get to know me off the court, you’ll see that I’m not the bad guy that everybody wants me to be on the court.”
But being that bad guy is in part why he has lasted in the NBA since 2003, despite not being an elite scorer or athlete.
“I wouldn’t do anything different,” he said. “I wear my heart on my sleeve. Sometimes I act off emotion, but I also try to speak my mind. Take it or leave it, really.”
That emotion cost Barnes two games for an embarrassing preseason incident in which he confronted Fisher at his estranged wife’s Los Angeles-area home and an altercation ensued. Fisher apparently was romantically involved with Barnes’s estranged wife and visited her on a break from Knicks training camp.
“Sometimes standing alone isn’t a popular thing to do,” Barnes said. “When I feel something isn’t right, I’m going to speak my mind and stand even if it’s by myself. I know a lot of people feel me, but with the politics and position people are in they can’t really agree with it at the time.”
When Fisher was fired by the Knicks in February, Barnes placed a photo of himself smirking on his Instagram account. There was no caption, and there was an assumption that it was meant to chide Fisher.
“That’s what I’m saying, everyone thinks they know everything about me or who I am when they get a small glimpse of two hours when I’m on the court or read TMZ or whatever other [expletive] is out there,” Barnes said. “They want to dramatize every story. It’s gotten me 14 years in this league. But my close family and friends know who I am and what I’m about. Everything I do comes out of passion and love.”
Age seems to have calmed Barnes — in most cases — and he realizes he has to contain his emotions in an NBA that closely monitors the behavior of its players.
“As you get older you get wiser, and I think I was a little more of a loose cannon early on, but I had to do what I had to do to stay,” he said. “Mixing it up with people, yelling at people, do whatever it took to stay. Now that I’ve got my feet firmly planted, it’s more of a controlled chip [on my shoulder]. There’s always going to be a chip because I feel like I’ve been overlooked, underrated, and been underpaid my whole career.
“You use the negativity as motivation, and when you ask any one of my teammates I hope they say I’m one of the best teammates they’ve ever played with.”
As the incident with Fisher showed, Barnes still has his hotheaded moments. But he is trying to be a mentor to Stephenson, another gifted defender with a mercurial reputation.
“Lance is 25 and I remember myself at 25 and I see some of the things they do out of emotion,” Barnes said. “I think it resonates when I talk to them because everyone knows I was there. I was a hothead early on in my career. For me it was to hang on, for other guys it’s just ego.
“Lance is the X factor of this whole team. He’s misunderstood. I see a lot of being misunderstood that I had when I was younger. But very talented. He told me this is the first time I have had the handcuffs off since I was in Indiana. You’ve got to take the good with the bad with him.”
The Grizzlies appear locked in as the fifth seed in the West. Despite a rash of injuries that has included Marc Gasol and Mario Chalmers being lost for the season, Barnes sees Memphis as a difficult playoff opponent.
“I think we’re a scary team,” he said. “We’re dangerous. I think we’re Golden State without the shooting. We all can do a lot of different things. We can all make plays. I think our key is on defense.”
Whiteside likely to be targeted
One free agent worth watching this summer is the Heat’s Hassan Whiteside. The center will be on the open market because Miami does not have his full “Bird rights” because of the two-year contract he signed. That means the Heat will have to use their available salary cap space to re-sign Whiteside, making them no different than any other club who will pursue the 7-footer.
It has taken Whiteside a long time to become a dependable NBA player. Although he will be 27 in June, Whiteside had played just 122 NBA games entering Friday. He was averaging 13.3 points, 11.7 rebounds (fourth in the NBA), and a league-leading 3.9 blocked shots. His impact as a rim protector cannot be understated. He leads the NBA in defensive rating (93, as in the Heat allow 93 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor) and is ninth in player efficiency rating, and the eight players ahead of him all made this year’s All-Star Game.
“I come in and try to bring value every minute I’m out there,” he said. “I feel like every game is getting more and more comfortable each time I play on the court. I feel like I’m getting better as an NBA player.”
A second-round pick of the Kings in 2010 out of Marshall, Whiteside was raw and immature, and he spent just two years with the Kings before being out of the NBA. He played two years in places such as China and Lebanon before being signed by the Heat in December 2014.
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A physically and mentally more mature Whiteside returned to the NBA, although he still has trouble controlling his emotions on the court at times. But when engaged, he is a game-changing defensive player. In a Feb. 27 loss to the Celtics, Whiteside had 13 points, 15 rebounds, and 8 blocked shots. He has blocked at least 10 shots three times this season.
“I would rather a guy just throw up a shot so I can block it for a fast break, but guys aren’t doing that too much nowadays,” he said, smiling. “I think the scouting report is out. It’s no longer a secret that I block shots. I think [it’s a sign of respect], I’m on the scouting report now. I think at first it was like, ‘Oh, he blocks shots,’ but I just took it to another level.”
Whiteside relishes his role. His free agency will be interesting because of the high demand for rim-protecting centers and the escalating salary cap. It has been difficult to find centers who enjoy playing defense and being intimidators. Whiteside is one of those players.
“I’m kind of there for insurance,” he said. “I’m sort of like State Farm. I’m like a shot-blocking agent.”
Decision time may be coming
The University of Washington recruited a bumper crop of freshmen. Two, forward/center Marquese Chriss and swingman Dejounte Murray, are potential first-round picks and will have difficult decisions to make following the Huskies’ NIT appearance.
Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas has kept tabs on both players from his alma mater. Thomas played three years for the Huskies before entering the 2011 NBA Draft.
Thomas’s decision to leave school was difficult but different. Because he spent a year in prep school, Thomas was already 22 and had led the Huskies to the Pac-10 tournament championship and the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I mean, it’s a tough decision period, but do what’s best for you and your family,” Thomas said. “If the situation is right, especially if you’re a first-rounder or top 10, it’s hard to pass that up. But also you have to look to your future and see what’s best for you. I just tell them guys, if the opportunity is there and that’s a decision you think you should make, then go for it. Don’t think twice about it.”
Thomas said the decision to leave school early can be tricky if your draft status is uncertain. Thomas was the final pick in 2011 and emerged this season as an All-Star. That journey was unlikely.
“The college [to draft] decision is definitely the toughest decision you’ll make,” he said.
The question for potential one-and-dones is whether 1. they are ready for the NBA and 2. whether they can develop into NBA players if they are not. James Young was drafted 17th overall after one year at Kentucky and has been with the Celtics nearly two full seasons and still hasn’t earned consistent minutes, spending a chunk of time in the NBADL. It’s uncertain whether Young will ever be a contributor for Boston.
So the decision to leave school early — even though you might be projected as a first-round pick — doesn’t necessarily equate to NBA success.
Thomas said the Washington duo could also develop into standouts by staying in school under coach Lorenzo Romar, who has coached numerous NBA players, including Thomas.
“No doubt, that’s what he’s good at, developing players,” Thomas said. “If you stay there, you’re definitely going to get better. And the good thing about it is, if they do decide to go back to school, they’re going to continue to get better and their stock is only going to rise and it’s going to be better for them in the future. But like I said, if a kid is top 10, it’s hard to turn that down.”
When asked whether he’s seen Murray, a silky scorer with length, Thomas said, “Yeah, we work out together. We play in the summer. He’s talented, man. He’s got a lot in his game and he’s going to be a great NBA player whenever he decides [to enter the draft].”
With former Celtic Marcus Thornton agreeing with the Wizards, all of the veteran players who were waived before the deadline in the hopes of making a playoff roster have been signed. The Spurs snapped up Kevin Martin and Andre Miller, and waived Rasual Butler. When the Pacers signed Ty Lawson, who had been waived by the Rockets, they waived former first-round pick Chase Budinger. Since Budinger would not make any playoff roster because he was waived after March 1, he was of little use to a contending team. So he signed with the lottery-bound Suns. The Celtics used their remaining roster spot on NBADL Maine standout Coty Clarke, but he may be headed back to the Red Claws after his 10-day contract expires . . . Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge hasn’t been around the team of late, instead scouting college players. He was seen in Tempe, Ariz., checking out the California-Arizona State game on March 5. The Golden Bears have two players — Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb — the Celtics could potentially target with their first-round picks. The Celtics are expected to have three first-rounders — Brooklyn’s pick, their own, and Dallas’s — in June’s draft. The Nets’ sudden improvement for interim coach Tony Brown — 6-8 in their last 14 games entering Friday — may be hurting the Celtics’ chances of landing a top-three pick . . . Meanwhile, Dallas’s pick is becoming more intriguing. The Mavericks appeared a lock for the sixth seed in the Western Conference but had have lost 10 of their last 15 games entering Friday and had the league’s 15th-worst record. The pick is top-seven protected for the next five drafts, and unprotected in 2021. The question for the Celtics is whether they would elect to use the pick this June or retain their rights to that pick for the future . . . Two intriguing prospects in the NBADL who could earn 10-day contracts are former Memphis draft pick Jarnell Stokes, who was traded twice and then waived by the Pelicans, and swingman Jabari Brown, whom the Lakers cut to make room for Metta World Peace. Brown spent most of this season with the Chinese Basketball Association.
Talent evaluators will have their plates full as the NCAA Tournament begins, trying to find the league’s next superstars. They should focus on some obscure teams, as seven of the NBA’s top 15 scorers hail from mid-majors or non-traditional basketball powers.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.