Backpicks GOAT: #28 Rick Barry

Key Stats and Trends

  • Elite scoring rates but only moderate efficiency for era
  • Presence repeatedly correlated with moderate improvements in team’s offense

Scouting Report

Rick Barry was a gunslinger, pinpoint passer and defensive pest. He also shot free throws like your grandmother.

That unapologetic style made Barry a 90 percent career free thrower, and in his final eight years in the NBA, Barry converted at 91.4 percent from the line, which would top the all-time career mark of 90.5 percent, currently held by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.1

Barry launched merciless midrange shots over defenders, using his 6-foot-7 frame and high-release point to bludgeon opponents, one long 2-pointer after another.

While many of these pullups evoke Jerry West, Barry didn’t attack the hoop like The Logo. Upon returning to the NBA in 1973 (after four seasons in the ABA), Barry shot a free throw for every 4.5 field goals he attempted, a rate far below West’s, who was closer to a free throw for every 2 field goals attempted during the heart of his career.

Barry’s iconoclastic foul shots overstated his skill as a shooter. After all, if he were a deadeye assassin, why didn’t he use his normal stroke from the line? In his final two seasons in the ABA, Barry made 92 of 323 3-point attempts (29 percent). While deep bombs weren’t as common back then, the best triplers of the time still shot in the mid 30s, and Julius Erving, a career 26 percent 3-point shooter in the NBA, managed to hit 34 percent of his 233 attempts in his final three ABA seasons. So while Barry lived off his midrange pullup, its accuracy was reflected in his typical 2-point field goal percentages, which hovered between 44 and 46 percent.

But Barry’s best attribute was his passing, slinging darts to cutters like few forwards in NBA history. Below is a collection of Barry’s passing from a single game, in which he hit a cutter for a layup, created two jumpers by drawing defensive attention, displayed elite court awareness after a steal and flicked a ridiculous touch pass. It’s the portfolio of an elite passer:

He only missed one high-quality pass in that game, and so many of Barry’s dishes ended in layups or free throw attempts. The second pass in that video demonstrates the meta-game value of his midrange jump-shooting. While those shots lack the efficiency of Steph Curry 3-pointers, they occupy the defense and can be leveraged for creation, which is exactly what Barry did.

He didn’t ramp up his passing frequency until returning to the NBA, balancing his quick-trigger scoring attempts with improved distribution and creation. His fantastic motor — he stressed defenses with constant movement and back cuts — and elite free throw shooting brought Barry just above league-average in efficiency on high-volume scoring.

Defensively, he had amazing hands and a knack for jumping passing lanes. These tendencies helped him lead the league in steals in 1975. His size, above-average rebounding and strong court awareness can be seen in highlights from this 1975 Finals game:

Barry evolved as a player, entering the league in the late ’60s as a gunner before rounding out his game in the early ’70s while improving his defense, per Sports Illustrated in 1972:

“The Warriors, who remember Barry as a nonstop offensive player who always left the other end to Nate, have been surprised to find that he apparently learned some defense in the ABA.” (November, 1972)

He maintained a high-level of play until his final season in Oakland before winding down his career in two forgettable seasons with the Rockets.2

Impact Evaluation

Barry changed teams during his prime more than any other player on this list, largely due to legal disputes. He fled San Francisco for the ABA after the ’67 season but was forced to sit out a year for contractual reasons, then played on two ABA teams before returning to the Warriors in 1973. During his comings and goings, Barry left a compelling case as an impact player.

With Barry aboard in 1966, the Warriors offense improved 3.5 points per 100, from 5.9 points below league average (rORtg) to a more respectable -2.4 rORtg. The venerable Alex Hannum still commanded the team, and veteran holdovers from the Wilt era, like Guy Rodgers, Tom Meschery and Al Attles, rounded out a roster centered around Barry’s scoring and Nate Thurmond’s defense.

Most players exhibit natural growth in their sophomore campaign (or around Barry’s age that year, 23), and the ’67 Warriors indeed graduated to the next level. When healthy, San Francisco played at a 56-win pace (5.3 SRS) en route to the finals.3 Barry authored the fifth-highest scoring rate of the ’60s — ahead of all but Wilt’s three most prolific years and Elgin Baylor’s abbreviated 1962 season — averaging 24.8 points per 75 possessions on +3.8 percent scoring efficiency.4 The Warrior offense improved to around league-average.

Barry played for the ABA’s Oakland Oaks in the 1969 season, missing 43 games and giving us some insight into the value of his volume scoring. With Barry in the lineup, the Oaks ticked along at a dominant 67-win pace (10.4 SRS). Without him, they were a more mortal 56-win team (5.3 SRS). This is the kind of impact we see from superstars who make good teams great.

However, that stretch was not all roses for Barry’s data footprint. The Warriors remained strong in 1968 without him, led by Thurmond, the emergence of another scorer (Jeff Mullins) and newcomers Rudy LaRusso and Clyde Lee. In 1970 (with Oakland now in Washington), the Capitols were slightly better without Barry for 15 games (2.3 SRS compared to 0.3).5 And as impressive as the split-season result was in ’69, the early ABA wasn’t a strong league yet. Although, when Barry left the New York Nets in 1973, they collapsed from .500 to a 25-win pace (-5.8 SRS) with little roster movement.

Barry returned to the Bay in 1973, joined a nearly identical team from the year before and again spearheaded an offensive improvement. Golden State jumped from a -2.8 rORtg to -0.2 and played at a 50-win clip when healthy, a threshold they would eclipse for five consecutive years. Despite weaker scoring numbers than his first stint with the team, Barry’s passing and creating likely made a difference for the marginally talented Warriors.

In 1974, the Warriors produced the first of four straight laudable offenses, climbing to a 55-win pace (4.3 SRS) when healthy and a +3.1 rORtg for the season. The following year, they shuffled the roster, surrounding Barry with a crop of young talent, yet the results were a similar offensive rating and another 50-win pace before catching fire in the playoffs and winning the championship. Teams were evenly matched across the league that year, so Golden State’s performance was slightly more impressive than the raw numbers suggest.

In 1976, some of that young talent blossomed — specifically Phil Smith and new acquisition Gus Williams — and Golden State played at a 58-win pace (6.2 SRS), Barry’s best team. It wasn’t until ’78 that the offense would dip below average again and the Warriors returned to .500, a decline that coincided with Barry’s drop-off as a player due to age.6

In the mid ’70s, Barry’s repertoire made him a premier creator, capable of bringing offenses to moderately strong heights. His multiple correlations with moderate offensive advancements are consistent with a high-volume gunner whose scoring style doesn’t scale too well but whose elite passing does. Regressed game-by-game results portray Barry as a star, although there is some variability in his data, likely caused by his lack of a consistent 10-year stretch in the NBA. Otherwise, the aggregate of his missed time (WOWY) and his overall statistical footprint reflect a general positive trend that support the case-by-case points examined above.

All told, I give him 11 All-Star level seasons and a weak-MVP peak, helping Barry pass a number of lesser-peak players in the 15 spots behind him. Depending on how much credit one gives his defense, he could move down a few slots, although it’s hard to see him leapfrogging any of the players ahead of him. He left two prime seasons on the table with his choice to sit out the 1968 season and his left knee injury in 1969, but still amassed sterling longevity for a player who (amazingly) debuted in the fall of 1965 and ended his career in the Bird and Magic era.

 

  1. Steve Nash made 92.1 percent of his 966 attempts in his last six seasons, Calvin Murphy made 92.1 percent of his 1,309 attempts in his final six seasons, Larry Bird made 91.6 percent of his 1,615 attempts in the final six years of his career and Reggie Miller made 91.6 percent of his 1,989 in his final seven seasons, so there is some precedent for the best of all-time improving in this area in their twilight years.
  2. The most notable element of his time in Houston: Barry surrendered the No. 24 to Moses Malone, so he wore No. 2 at home and No. 4 on the road.
  3. Bill Sharman replaced fired coach Alex Hannum, who SI called “the best pro coach there is” in 1967, while noting that Barry personally disliked playing for Sharman. Sharman was considered ahead of his time, and his players were resistant to his use of an “instant-playback TV set,” also known as film review.
  4. In the last 50 years, only Michael Jordan (1987) produced a higher point per game average than Barry’s 35.6 that year.
  5. Data courtesy of http://michaelhamel.net/boxtop/aba/aba1975.htm
  6. Golden State also lost Williams to Seattle in 1978, where he would make two All-NBA teams.

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