Matt Barnes poses for a portrait at Clippers media day.
Matt Barnes poses for a portrait at Clippers media day.

Matt Barnes enters the new season with a lot to prove despite coming off one of the best statistical years of his career. The 6-foot-7 forward signed a one-year deal with the Clippers in the offseason after a tough summer made him question whether he would ever play in the NBA again.

“I was just thankful for an opportunity after all the things I went through in the summertime and then really being hurt in the playoffs last year a lot worse than everyone thought,” Barnes said.

Despite being without a contract for much of the summer, Barnes put a renewed focus into his offseason training, incorporating a new weight program and diet to get back into shape. With his ankle back to full strength, Barnes worked with mixed martial artist John Marsh and spent a lot of time with the 42-year old MMA fighter during the summer training in Redondo Beach.

Basketball wise, Barnes worked on every facet of his offensive game with a focus on shooting from midrange along with layups and floaters.

“I was really hurt by the fact that I wasn’t signed earlier so I kind of felt that I had to, not regroup myself, but get everything together and say ‘Okay, no one wants me I’m going to show you a big season,’” he said. “That’s the way I looked at the summer and just worked my tail off to get ready for now.”

The addition of Barnes gives the Clippers a great luxury in being able to rotate three players who could start at the small forward position and give opponents different looks on both offense and defense. With Caron Butler the likely starter and fellow free-agent acquisition Grant Hill backing him up, the Clippers trio at the “three” will give Head Coach Vinny Del Negro a lot of combinations to play with.

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The Clippers’ acquisition of Matt Barnes is paying dividends so far this preseason. In five games the versatile forward is averaging 12.4 points and 6.4 rebounds and causing havoc as a defender.

On Saturday against the Jazz, he blocked three shots and was generally disruptive in passing lanes and on the ball. He scored a game-high 22 points, but point guard Chris Paul was most impressed by his new teammate’s ability to run the floor.

“It’s impossible to keep Matt off the court,” Paul said. “He’s probably the most in-shape player on our team. He doesn’t get tired. I told him early in the first quarter, because I missed him one time [on the fast break], that I’ve got to get used to that. I’m not used to playing with athletic wings like that who can run the court.”

After the game DeAndre Jordan also talked about what Barnes brings to the team.

“Matt’s going to be great for our team the whole year,” Jordan said. “He’s tough, he’s going to rebound, play hard and he’s going to run the lanes and get himself and everybody else easy shots. He’s going to be good for us to play a lot of [different] positions this year.”

Paul added: “From the best player to the worst, he doesn’t fear anybody and we need that and I love it.”

“Everybody does a little bit different things and at the same time we do a lot of similar things and we will wear people out,” Barnes said. “I think defensively it’s the toughest position to guard in the league and to be able to rotate three guys that can all play defense is going to be a benefit.”

Barnes’ tenaciousness and energy off the bench has been his signature through his career and a major factor to him sticking around the NBA for nine years.  Three weeks into training camp, the Clippers are already pleased with their investment in Barnes.

“Matt plays hard,” Del Negro said. “He rebounds the ball well. He does a really good job cutting. He’s played the ‘two’, ‘three’, and ‘four’ so far in this short training camp and he knows how to play. He makes easy basketball plays, so I’ve been real happy with him.”

Another component of Barnes’ game is his ability to guard three positions along with his knack for getting under opposing players’ skin. Barnes famously pump-faked a pass into Kobe Bryant’s face when he was a member of the Orlando Magic in the 2009-10 season, which was one of the many reasons Bryant later advocated the Lakers signing Barnes when he became a free agent in 2010.

Last year during a preseason game, Barnes and Blake Griffin got into an altercation after Griffin made a move toward the basket and Barnes shoved him, sending Griffin to the floor. Barnes was called for a flagrant foul. With Barnes now one of Griffin’s teammates, his role as an enforcer will be a welcome addition, especially for Griffin himself.

“I look at my team as my family and I will do anything for my family,” Barnes said. “This is a discussion Blake and I had before I got here because people thought we had a beef and we didn’t. I just had to explain to him the way I approach the game and he understood that and I wanted him to know I was his teammate so people aren’t going to be taking him down and getting away with it.”

From Purple and Gold To Red and Blue

After a solid 2011-12 season with the Lakers in which he averaged 7.5 points per game and shot 33% from 3-point land, his best output since the 2008-09 season with the Phoenix Suns, Barnes suffered a severe ankle sprain in a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder just before the playoffs began. The injury nagged him throughout the postseason and his production suffered as a result. He averaged just 3.5 points per game on 27% shooting, 16% from beyond the arc.

“It was hard to sit back,” Barnes recalled. “Going into the playoffs I was playing well and then I got hurt and played (badly).”

After the Lakers were eliminated in the second round by the Thunder, Barnes became somewhat of an odd man out after the team signed free agent Antawn Jamison. Suddenly the versatile forward was on the free-agent market and looking to join his ninth team in nine years. After considering teams such as Miami, Boston and Dallas, one visit to the Clippers training facility sealed his newest destination.

“After I came here and worked out one day, Chris (Paul) saw me and he thought I was still a Laker,” Barnes said. “I told him I wasn’t and then he told me I was going to be a Clipper and days later I was so I didn’t argue.”

On September 14, Barnes officially signed with the Clippers, the team he made his professional debut with in 2003.

Second Time Around

After being selected in the second round of the 2002 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies, Barnes was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers but was eventually cut. He played a season with the Fayetteville Patriots in the Development League, before signing with the Clippers in the 2003-04 season. He played 38 games, averaging 4.5 points on 45% shooting to go along with 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game. That team featured a starting five of a young Elton Brand and rookie Chris Kaman up front with Marko Jaric and Quentin Richardson in the backcourt. Corey Maggette was at small forward and led the team in scoring that year.

The 2012-13 version of the Clippers has a much different look and much higher expectations with two of the league’s top players (Griffin and Paul), including arguably the best point guard in the NBA. Barnes is well aware of Paul’s trademark desire to win and relishes the opportunity to play alongside the seventh-year point guard out of Wake Forest after two years playing next to another perennial All-Star.

“Playing with Kobe [Bryant], he’s an animal,” Barnes said. “His attention to detail, his focus and his desire to win is second to none and I’ve heard a lot of the same things about Chris so I’m looking forward to that.”

As for the rest of the team, the much lauded additions of Hill, Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom and Barnes himself make the Clippers one of the preseason favorites to come out of the West. The UCLA-product is anxious to go another season wearing the red, white and blue of the Clippers.

“It’s going to be great,” Barnes said. “My career’s come full circle having a chance to rejoin this team. It’s a lot different team then when I first got here. We’re a very deep team and a very talented team and it’s going to be fun. “