Backpicks GOAT: #20 Charles Barkley

Key Stats and Trends

  • All-time level scoring efficiency
  • Spearheaded a number of elite offenses, but defenses were consistently poor
  • Questionable impact metrics, likely due to defensive deficiencies

Scouting Report

Barkley was a jaw-dropping athlete, equipped with bulldozing legs and arms that stretched for days. Standing at no more than 6-foot-6, he was a freight train in transition, power dunking off a drop step like a cyborg:

Barkley struggled at times scoring among the trees, but he counterbalanced that by carving out space with his hips (and backside) for high-percentage looks near the hoop:

His wingspan, explosiveness and nose for the ball made him one of the great offensive rebounders in history. Among scorers who also shot 3-pointers, Barkley owns the top offensive rebounding seasons on record.1 Among all top-1,000 scoring seasons in general, he’s outclassed by only Moses Malone and, arguably Shaq, as a second-chance generator.

Barkley was an above-average passer, particularly when he could survey the floor and see double-teams and cutters clearly. Below, his pass was so unexpected that it froze his own teammate, although, like most of his setups, lacked the velocity of a great passer:

This solid court vision and deliberate isolation approach made him a strong creator for a “big” — Barkley mostly played power forward — and his Box Creation peaked at 6.9 per 100 in 1993 (98th percentile among big men).2 He was capable of finding skip passes or the occasional brilliant setup:

Like most offensive centerpieces, Barkley’s passing improved throughout his career. The following two-minute highlight, from arguably his greatest game, captures most of his offensive habits — pogo-stick offensive rebounding, spins, turnarounds and clock-eating post ups. Note the nice pass to Green at 2:45 (after the lazy defense at 2:37):

Barkley was also a bit turnover prone, some from poor passes, others caused by his average handle. In the play below, he loses it on a drive (and travels), but he also shows blindspots in his vision, missing a quality pass under the hoop:

Most of his half-court offense originated with him holding the ball in isolation like this, sometimes for glacial periods. There were tradeoffs with this heavy time-of-possession approach, which milked the shot clock and eliminated contingency options when his isolation fizzled. Fortunately, Barkley’s on-ball scoring was prodigiously efficiently, so his teams often cleared out a side for him to play one-on-one, forcing the defense to counter with a telegraphed double-team.

The following play illustrates a number of Barkley’s tendencies; he’s doubled in the post, but opts to shoot instead of a throwing a diagonal pass to an open Danny Ainge. When Ainge does fire, Barkley’s length and quickness reel in the board before he creates a layup for a teammate — the kind of pass he failed to make earlier in his career:

Barkley’s shot selection was spotty, firing double-teamed attempts like this instead of moving the ball to open shooters. By the 1990s, he was spellbound by 3-pointers, launching his share of ill-advised bombs despite a 27 percent career mark from beyond the arc.3 These were understandable when wide open, but he often shot them early in the clock:

On defense, Barkley was chock-full of shortcomings. When he was younger, he was athletic enough to protect the rim (or goal tend):

Even in the 1994 game highlight above, he was still capable of swatting attempts around the rim, although he was never a prolific shot blocker.4 Naturally, he was a strong defensive rebounder, and from time to time used his length to deflect balls or interfere with passing lanes (as seen in the 56-point game above). But he was also prone to total breakdowns on and off the ball:

On the ball, he was easily taken off the dribble by smaller forwards, and later in his career, lacked the size or skill needed to bother post scorers regularly. Here, he implements the rarely used “pirouette defense:”

Even when his positioning was sound, he was fairly ineffective for the latter portion of his career as extra weight grounded his aerial game. Barkley’s repertoire remained similar throughout his prime, although his athleticism dwindled in the ’90s, leading to more backdowns and outside shots on offense, and slower rotations and weaker contests on defense.

Impact Evaluation

Barkley is a fascinating study. He scored with eye-popping efficiency, but was selective enough with his offense that he never reached elite scoring heights. He was a good creator for a post player, but more pedestrian among the great perimeter engines. And he never played on a strong defense during his prime.

Barkley joined a loaded Philadelphia team in 1985, a year removed from an NBA title, with a core of Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks and aging staples Julius Erving and Bobby Jones. In his second season, Charles played 37 minutes a night for a 50-win pace squad (3.1 SRS). As the old guard left, Barkley’s Sixers bottommed out below .500 in 1988.

Philadelphia was a middling defensive team during this period, and in ’88, posted a relative defensive efficiency (rDRtg) 2.2 points below league average. This was a trend during Barkley’s career — he would play on nine below average defenses in 10 seasons — and his best defensive squad was 1.3 points better than average (’93 Suns). Some of this, undoubtedly, was roster makeup (Barkley never played alongside an elite rim protector), but some of it was the cost of playing Barkley at power forward, where valuable defensive minutes could have been dolled out to superior stoppers. Indeed, that’s what Philadelphia did from 1990-92, when it brought in Rick Mahorn to bang around at the big forward and slid Barkley to the small forward. Unsurprisingly, this coincided with improvements in the defense.5

With his amazing efficiency and historically good offensive rebounding, Barkley made his impact on offense. The best attempt to quantify the value of his volume-efficiency combination pegs his five-year peak in the 96th percentile since 1978, slightly ahead of Karl Malone and three spots behind Reggie Miller.6 His spectacular level of efficiency — made possible by a plethora of free throw attempts, offensive rebounds and all of those power moves around the hoop — stands out when Barkley is compared to other great big men:

In 1989, Barkley outputted perhaps his finest statistical campaign: 24 points per 75, chart-breaking efficiency (11.6 percent above league average), the lowest adjusted turnover rate up to that point in his career (11.1 percent) and a personal-best augmented plus-minus of +4.1. This coincided with an offensive explosion in Philadelphia, as Hersey Hawkins provided shooting and Mike Gminski authored (arguably) his best season, regularly drilling midrange shots for Philly.7

The ’90 76ers remained a stout 5 points better than the league on offense, but the defense jumped to around average with Mahorn’s addition to the front line. This earned Barkley sudden MVP attention, which is symptomatic of two voting patterns in the history of this award: First, and often discussed, is that team record is paramount. Second, since team defensive efficiencies have been historically overlooked, offensively-slanted players (e.g. Allen Iverson or Derrick Rose) reap the benefits when teams upgrade defensively.

When Philadelphia lost point man Johnny Dawkins in 1991 to injury, Barkley upped his scoring and load, but it wasn’t enough and the 76ers offense regressed back to a +1.8 rORtg.8 Barkley himself struggled at times with injury, missing 15 games that year. With Charles, Philly was 4 points better on offense and their SRS improved by 3.7 points, a good but not outstanding WOWY result.

After a statistical dip in 1992, Barkley was traded to Phoenix for All-Star scorer Jeff Hornacek and two rotation players. Philadelphia grew even worse, while Phoenix, already one of the best offensive teams in the league, was able to improve on its 1992 season with Barkley aboard. On offense, the Suns posted an elite +7 rORtg during 52 full-strength games. More impressively, in 32 games without all-league guard Kevin Johnson, but with Barkley, they engineered a +5.2 rORtg while playing at a 58-win pace.9 Barkley took more 3s than ever, and as a result, his offensive rebounding declined. However, the slight improvement in his passing largely made up for his drop in efficiency, as he set a career mark for estimated creation.

By 1994, the erosion of Barkley’s athleticism took a larger toll, and he continued to shoot more 3s, grab fewer offensive rebounds and struggled to finish around the hoop more, posting his worse scoring year since 1986. The Suns would maintain an elite offense through ’95, but they did so with excellent offensive personnel. In his four seasons in the desert, Barkley co-captained (along with Johnson) postseason offenses that were 7.3 points better than the competition. These numbers are outstanding, and enough for me to anoint Sir Charles with a top-15 offensive peak of all time.

Barkley had one more hurrah in Houston, playing next to Hakeem Olajuwon on the best defense of his career (2.7 points better than the league). At full-strength, that Rocket “super team” played at a 57-win pace. Barkley’s scoring volume was the lowest since his second year, a shade under 20 points per 75, but despite a smaller role, his efficiency never returned to the levels of his late-’80s/early-’90s athletic days.

While he played most of his career before full play-by-play data was available, we have access to his plus-minus data for all of his seasons except 1993 (thanks to Harvey Pollack). In that time, his augmented plus-minus (AuPM) describes him as a good player who lacked a great peak. Here’s how his career impact metrics rank (by percentile):

Per these metrics, Barkley never authored a top-20 season, which isn’t damning, but suggests something was lacking in his impact otherwise not captured in traditional offensive box metrics. In all likelihood, his underwhelming plus-minus results are a byproduct of his defensive liabilities; Barkley was undersized at the big forward and too slow at the small forward. Game-level plus-minus studies portray him similarly; a good player on the edge of greatness.

I have reservations about how Barkley fits alongside other stars. His passing was adequate and his rebounding provided off-ball value, but his propensity to hold the ball in isolation would temper his lift around other elite players.10 His defensive impact is questionable, based on film analysis and the few plus-minus scores on record. It’s possible that, when younger, his athleticism and defensive rebounding made him more than capable on that end, but his general tendencies and awareness — and a major coaching decision to move him to the perimeter — suggest he was never a positive on D.

The evidence does imply that he’s a borderline all-timer on offense; his ’93 Phoenix result without KJ is head-turning. He wasn’t always in the greatest condition, which took its toll by the mid-’90s, but Barkley’s overall package — ball-dominance and subpar defense as a big forward — make it harder to construct a transcendent team around him. Because of this, I don’t think he ever had a strong MVP-level peak, which prevents him from passing players above him. I’d need a bevy of new evidence to think more highly of his defense, and as such, I can’t see an argument for him moving past 19th. Yet his offense makes it hard for me to drop him more than a spot or two lower, so he falls at No. 20.

  1. Among players with at least 100 3-point attempts in a season and a top-1,000 scoring season.
  2. This is in line with manually tracking his games, although it’s somewhat generous to call Barkley a big man in this comparison.
  3. Among players who actually took 3s, this makes Barkley one of the least accurate shooters ever.
  4. His block rate in his first 10 years of 1.5 percent would fall in the 69th percentile among all 1,000-minute player-seasons since 1974.
  5. Philly’s rDRtg in ’88 and ’89 was 3.0 points below average, but from ’90-92 it was 0.7 points below average.
  6. Barkley is 19th in five-year Efficere among 591 qualifying players who played five consecutive 1,500-minute seasons. Malone is 31st, Miller 16th.
  7. Amazing Gminksi fact: From 1986-89 he shot 88 percent from the free throw line. Only Dirk Nowitzki, Jack Sikma and Danilo Gallinari have had better three-year stretches among 6-foot-10 players or taller (minimum 900 free throw attempts).
  8. In 35 games with Barkley and Armen Gilliam in the lineup.
  9. That would have been the best offense in the league that year if sustained for a full season.
  10. Although it’s often credited to Mark Jackson, Barkley was the major player in the NBA’s five second “back down” rule implemented in 2001.

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