Simmons Throws Rick Barnes Under The Bus. . . BON Responds

This is one of the longer posts I've written on the site, so consider yourself warned. If you're not heavily invested in Texas hoops and/or don't care what Bill Simmons has to say about the players and their coach, by all means, I urge you to skip this one. Don't say I didn't warn you.

As regular readers of either BON or ESPN's Page 2 know, Bill Simmons has developed quite the affinity for Austin's hoop phenom, Mr. Durant. When I commented on this the first time, I noted my ambiguity about Simmons' crush, as I'm both glad to have Simmons (ESPN's most popular columnist) regularly feature Texas basketball and yet also a little bit uncomfortable with scores of "outsiders" drooling over "our guy."

(As an aside, Simmons -did- say in today's column, and I'll quote directly, "It's no secret that Texas has become my favorite college hoops team; my man-crush on Durant has reached the point that I should probably remain at least 100 yards away from him at all times."

Now, if we take what he wrote at face, Simmons is not just rooting for Durant - as appeared to be the case when he first started watching KD's greatness unfold - he's developed into a fan of Texas, the team. Truthfully, I hope he's actually adopted the Longhorns as his team. Remember when Simmons went through that long process of choosing a soccer team to root for? World Cup fever can do that to you, so I don't blame him, but he actually likes basketball (hell, he lives for it), so I'm rather hoping he goes all the way and decides to adopt the University of Texas as his college school to root for. Not just this year - but beyond.

Frankly, he should; it makes sense on a number of levels:

  1. Starting with Durant. Except for natural fandom of local teams, sports junkies get hooked on teams because a player captures their imagination. With Durant, Simmons has his hook. That's Step One.
  2. I'm far too lazy to dig through Simmons tome of archived stories, but one of his columns (maybe his Houston NBA All Star game review?) references Austin, with Bill talking about what a fantastic time he had visiting our fair city. We BON'ers can certainly relate, of course. Raise your hand if you find any other city to be as wonderful as Austin? Just a handful of you, I see. All Aggies.
  3. He attended Holy Cross for college, and while I'm sure Simmons' contract with the WWL includes complimentary ESPNU on his home TV, that's the only way he's got a chance of seeing his alma mater's hoops team play live basketball. And no one, not even ESPN employees, watches ESPNU. Further, Holy Cross isn't exactly prime time college basketball. I'll readily admit that it's -really- fun to follow small college hoops teams when you actually live in the same town as said team and can attend the games, but it's impossible from afar. Totally impossible. So he's without a natural favorite college hoops team he can follow.
  4. There are signs he's coming around to college football as a sport to be thoroughly enjoyed. If so (and c'mon, it's so much better than the No Fun League), with Texas he gets as good a two-for-one as you can get outside of Florida these days.
  5. Vince Young wins football games.
This has been a truly Simmons-esque aside, but I'm serious. Bill ought to adopt Texas as his college team to root for. We've got the great city, great sports, superstar talent (to feed any need he may have for near-pro level play), and - should Mrs. Sports Guy get tired of him - the best women in the country. Even after KD leaves, Bill - stick with us.)

Back to the issue at hand, Simmons has been blogging an awful lot about the 'Horns of late, including today's entry, in which he reviewed the Texas-Texas A&M classic. Among his bullet points was this scathing criticism of Rick Barnes:

So I finally fall for a college hoops team, and just my luck ... they have a crappy coach! It's like my destiny in life to root for poorly coached basketball teams. The way Rick Barnes butchers this team on a game-to-game basis is unconscionable. Seriously, did you SEE Wednesday night's game? What was your favorite bad coaching moment? Acie Law being repeatedly allowed to shoot game-tying threes from his favorite spots on the floor? Durant going 4-5 straight possessions in OT without touching the ball? D.J. Augustin being allowed to recklessly drive to the hoop again and again when he's playing with the most unstoppable college scorer in 40 years?

I asked this question a few weeks ago, and I'm asking it again now: How can you not run more plays for Kevin Durant? Post him up and he has 27 different ways to score. Curl him off picks and he makes 15-footers like they're layups. Spread the floor out, let him handle the ball at the top of the key and he can pull up and swish 25-footers over anyone. THE GUY IS A SURE THING!!!!!!!! Why are they giving him a degree of difficulty? Do they have plays in their playbook called "Durant stands frozen 25 feet from the basket while other guys dribble aimlessly" and "half-assed pick-and-roll that leads to nothing" and "Durant posts up while the point guards stare him down, then reverse the ball the other way?"

I can't handle it. Watching Texas screw up the Durant Era is like watching a guy spend three straight hours buying drinks and working it with a girl who already announced, "Sure, I'll sleep with you." In other words, WHY ARE YOU MAKING THIS HARD????? Seriously, I feel like Barnes should resign. He's overmatched. He's Dubya-esque. It's a disgrace. They're going to get bounced from the NCAA Tournament this month solely because Barnes has no idea how to get Durant the ball ... and even worse, doesn't seem to feel any pressing need to get Durant the ball. And since Durant is a good teammate, and he's not one of those guys who would scream at a teammate, "Look, get out of my way and give me the f---ing ball," we get to watch him stand around in close games while opposing coaches think to themselves, "Phew, I'm glad Rick Barnes is over there."

Long time BON'ers know just how tough AW and I can be on Rick Barnes - especially for the way Texas runs its half court offense at times, as well as our inability to execute an end-of-the-half play. Andrew and I have even metaphorically vomited on our keyboards following particularly brutal episodes of coaching. (For examples, see my '07 Nebraska review, or AW's morbidly depressing '06 A&M review, just two of many examples.) So it's not like we're exceedingly partial fans who seek to shield their coach from criticism.

With that out of the way, Simmons goes way over the top in this particular column, unfairly throwing Barnes under the bus by substandardly categorizing his general coaching acumen based on the play of a rotation of five freshmen and two sophomores. Let's take Simmons' favorite bad coaching moment questions in order:

"Acie Law being repeatedly allowed to shoot game-tying threes from his favorite spots on the floor?" The implication is that Coach Barnes didn't instruct his players to (1) overplay the high screens for Law at the top of the key, or (2) foul Law before the end of regulation miracle shot. Both accusations are without merit, though. Rick has talked endlessly about trying to get his guys to flash high on the screens to make the shooter at least move parallel (ideally backwards). Ironically, it's Durant who's failed most miserably in this regard during the season (see: Kansas State, game winning three pointer). And despite what friend of BON Chalmersfan says, Rick does know how to coach defense. I've seen it with my own eyes, and KenPom's 2006 Defensive Efficiency Ratings ('Horns ranked fourth nationally) confirm what close Texas observers already knew - Rick knows what he's doing as a defensive coach. To blast Rick for "letting" Acie Law shoot those miracle three pointers is a rookie mistake. To be fair to Bill, I guess he is a Texas basketball rookie.

On the second point, it's been widely reported that Barnes instructed his players to foul Law before he could get off any potential game-tying three point shots. Again, though, on Wednesday Durant was the guilty party, failing to tackle Law like he should have off of the inbounds play - opting instead for an attempted block. Dumping that mistake on Barnes, however, is like blaming me for making you read 3,000 words on this when I warned you before you even got started.

"Durant going 4-5 straight possessions in OT without touching the ball?" I'm not going to argue with this too much, as I agree with the sentiment generally (Durant needs more touches - more on this later), but the first overtime period was (with the exception of the Augustin turnover) quite successful for Texas. The 'Horns had 10 possesions in overtime, and I've charted the results for you:

  1. Damion James 2-2 free throws
  2. Missed three pointer Abrams
  3. James 2-2 free throws
  4. Augustin 2 point jumper
  5. 1-2 free throws for Durant
  6. Damion James turnover
  7. Damion James tip-in basket off Augustin miss
  8. Costly Augustin turnover
  9. Mason 1-2 free throws
  10. Abrams desperation floater that fell short
While Durant wasn't the main guy during that period, Texas scored 10 points, with six of the possessions having to be characterized as successful. Durant's clearly a superhuman freak of a talent, but it's silly to say Barnes is a crappy coach by pointing to the first overtime. Last minute collapse aside, we should all be elated with the first overtime period. In Simmons' case, I think his love for Durant has shielded him from the big picture. How do you watch the first overtime period, in which Damion James scores 6 of his 22 (career high) points, and say, "Barnes is a crappy coach."? Are you kidding me? It's a minor coaching miracle that Damion James has developed as much as he has. Unfortunately, that point was entirely lost in Bill's desire to see Kevin make every play, on every possession, all game long.

"D.J. Augustin being allowed to recklessly drive to the hoop again and again when he's playing with the most unstoppable college scorer in 40 years?" I conceded Bill's point about Augustin in my Oklahoma Report Card, and even blamed Barnes for not guiding DJ with in-game adjustments. With that said, I have no idea what game Bill was watching on Wednesday night. Maybe he was flipping too frequently between the Texas-Texas A&M and the Maryland-Duke game, because Augustin had his best overall game of the year since LSU. Augustin finished 8-of-16 from the floor and 7-of-10 from the line for 25 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 turnovers and 2 steals. Oh, and 48 minutes.

DJ had an outstanding game that was the polar opposite of his performance in Norman last Saturday, when I thought he -did- crash into the lane with no plan too frequently. But my take from Wednesday was that Barnes coached that out of Augustin, as he more or less totally avoided that mistake: Augustin went to the hole when it was there (and scored, or got to the line), and didn't when it wasn't.


That brings us to Simmons' last (and biggest) point: Rick Barnes isn't doing enough to run the offense through Durant. You know, I'm not going to argue much here. There were stretches in the second half, as the Aggies went on that ridiculous run as they started throwing junk defense at the 'Horns, when I just couldn't believe Barnes wasn't doing more to get Kevin the ball. Bill's criticism is a fair knock on Barnes, and I didn't write this long column to argue with Bill about that.

Andrew and I have both said - many, many times - that at times, Rick doesn't utilize Durant in the half court offense enough. Moreover, after watching Barnes coach for nine years, I know full well that he's not an elite offensive coach. No two ways about it.

But I -did- write this long column to note that Simmons' decision to leap from A (Rick's deficiency as a half court offensive instructor) to B (Rick is the basketball equivalent of - gulp - George W. Bush) was beneath him. A total fallacy. Unfair to Barnes. And flat wrong.

My feeling is there are two factors clouding Simmons' judgment here: First, I really think Simmons' gablillions of hours watching NBA basketball, where the half court sets seemingly flow with ease (despite ridiculously good defenders), have skewed his perception of how the college game is, and can be, played. Second, Simmons is totally lost in Durant-a-mania. It's certainly easy to do, and goodness knows I've got the fever as well, but it's not to be used as a crutch for blaming everyone around KD for every failing of the team.

I also have been watching Texas basketball obsessively for nine straight seasons during the Rick Barnes era.

  • Nine straight trips to the NCAAs. Starting with 2002, Texas has advanced to the Sweet 16 ('02), Final Four ('03), Sweet Sixteen ('04), and Elite Eight ('06).
  • Rick Barnes was one freak neck injury during a Gregory Gym pick up game from winning a national title. (TJ Ford, April 2003: the injury was scary enough that Ford had no choice but to ditch his desire to return to Texas for a junior season and go pro. If Ford had returned, Texas would have been considered favorites (returning the top eight in the rotation) to win it all.)
  • The list of superstars Rick's brought to, and developed in, Austin is stunning. Again since 2002: TJ Ford, Lamarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson, PJ Tucker, and now Kevin Durant/Damion James/DJ Augustin. It's hard to decide which is more impressive - Barnes luring Kevin Durant to Austin, or Barnes finding PJ Tucker in the middle of nowhere North Carolina, where he wasn't being recruited by the ACC, and helping him become the 2006 Big XII player of the year.
  • Barnes has brought credibility to a program that his predecessor, Tom Penders, left for dead.
  • Austin is buzzing with basketball enthusiasm these days.
  • Perhaps most importantly of all, his kids absolutely love him. If you ever watch Rick interact with his players, you immediately understand why they come to play for him. His bedside manner with his guys is tremendous, and one of his best attributes as a coach.
Add it all up, and the big picture of Rick Barnes' career - both before and since his arrival at Texas - is, I'd argue, undeniably impressive. And the hallmark of a great coach. Not perfect - no. But a far, far, far cry from anything on the wrong side of mediocre.

What confuses me the most is that basketball season is - as I noted extensively in my first Simmons commentary - when he, as a writer and analyst, really shines. There's no shortage of examples of Simmons (probably in large part because of his popularity) being caricatured as some sort of bit writer who relies on a bag of go-to jokes and pop culture references to get him through. Those characterizations ignore Simmons' excellence as one of the best basketball writers/analysts of our generation, however.

And yet, this analysis of Rick Barnes and Texas is B-grade. It's certainly not the caliber of nuanced analysis that we get from Simmons on the NBA. I'm thrilled that Bill's latched on to Kevin (and perhaps Texas) the way that he has, but if he's going to devote all these words to talking about the team, I expect his best. I want to be nodding along with Simmons - learning new things, even - as he writes about the team I also love. Writing this "Rick Barnes is a crappy coach" nonsense is no more insightful than the most casual NFL observer watching the AFC Championship game and writing, "Tom Brady just isn't a clutch quarterback."

And that's why I didn't blink writing 3,000 words about Simmons' column today. He's better than that. And - the more important point - Rick Barnes is better than that.

--PB--

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