Harrison Barnes and the Max Player Gamble

Harrison Barnes found his usual spot in the corner, took a quick pass from Draymond Green, and swished a three-pointer over the outstretched arm of Serge Ibaka.  That gave the Warriors a 64-53 edge in the third quarter of Game 2.  Before long, Golden State had managed to tie their series with the Thunder.

That Barnes moment seems lost in time with the Warriors reeling and gasping, outplayed by the Thunder big men. In game 3 of the series, Harrison Barnes collected 2 rebounds, missed 6 out of 9 shots, had no assists and was a bystander to the Thunder tsunami that buried the Warriors and made Tuesday’s game a must win, putting all the pressure on the defending champions.

So who is Harrison Barnes? A max player on any other team who gets lost in the shadows? Or a player who often is forgotten about and disappears?

On a team as deep as the Warriors, Barnes comes across at times like a glorified spot-up shooter.  And at times, he’s a forward who provides value well beyond his stroke. Therein lies the inconsistency of his narrative.

Before last night’s horror show, Barnes was making his presence known during the playoffs by averaging 9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.2 assists.  That’s not quite in line with the stats he compiled during last year’s championship run that included an especially strong series against Memphis.  Even so, he never gets frustrated due to a lack of touches.  What’s more, Barnes distracts defenders from focusing on Green, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson.  Barnes’ statistics in Games 1 and 2 of the current series were very similar as he proved a steadying presence in the Warriors’ constellation of stars and role players. But in Game 3, he disappeared.

Harrison Barnes, WCF Points 3-Point % Rebounds +/- Defensive Rating
Games 1 &2 11.5 60% 5.5 +10.5 108
Game 3 7 33.3% 2 -9 134

There’s little doubt that Barnes would put up gaudier numbers on a less talented team.  Speculation abounds about how much he could score on a team desperate for offense.  Fellow Warrior Andrew Bogut gave him a glowing testimonial in a recent interview with the San Jose Mercury-News.

Bogut’s main contention: “Look, if he’s on a bad team, he’s averaging 20 a game, you know?”

Bogut may be aware that roster construction is out of his control, but he can’t help but worry about losing a piece of the core in the offseason.  He also called Barnes’ detractors “idiots” and highlighted the fact that Barnes is “shooting the ball very, very well from three.”  Bogut could have mentioned Barnes’ tricky crossover moves and even his deadly pump fake while he was at it.

Harrison Barnes, WCF Touches Passes Contested FG%
Game 1 34 24 66.7%
Game 2 46 38 62.5%
Game 3 42 33 33.3%

Even adjusting for missed time, Barnes’ regular season was a minor drop-off from how he performed during 2014-15.  On a per-minute basis, he actually scored a bit more and delivered slightly higher assist totals.  However, Barnes’ three-point conversion rate dropped from 40.5% to 38.3% and his overall field goal percentage fell from 48.2% to 46.6%.  His rebounding declined as well: after grabbing 7 per 36 minutes, he had less than 6 in 2015-16.  Barnes saw no increase in blocks or steals, either.  It’s hard to ignore that he missed 16 games with an ankle injury after playing all 82 the prior year, but Barnes didn’t really improve in his age-23 campaign.

Regardless, there are many teams who would love to import someone with his versatility onto their rosters.  It’s also a credit to Barnes that he can stay sharp even when he goes a long time between shot attempts.  He certainly contributes to a winning environment.  The lineup of Barnes, Curry, Thompson, Green, and Andre Iguodala had a better points differential than any combination with a minimum of 20 games played other than the Thunder regulars.   He is also very comfortable alongside Shaun Livingston, who made an emphatic one-handed dunk in the Game 1 loss thanks to Barnes’ court vision.

For a possible preview of how Golden State would look without Barnes, we can examine how they played while he was sidelined due to injury during the regular season.  The Warriors rolled along in his absence, going 14-2 between November 28 and January 2.  Of course, that stretch included a fair number of games against non-playoff teams in which the margin of error was higher.  Golden State set a league record with 73 wins overall, so the fact that the Warriors won 88% of their games without him is hardly proof that Barnes is fungible.  His ability to frustrate opposing power forwards on defense comes in handy especially during the playoffs.  Because of his quickness, Barnes is also able to score with his back to the basket.  That’s a helpful skill to have especially if the Warriors go cold from downtown.

Harrison Barnes, Regular Season Points 3-Point % Rebounds PER
2014-15 10.1 40.5% 5.5 13.4
2015-16 11.7 38.3% 4.9 12.3

Barnes’ place in the Warriors system makes his future value somewhat difficult to determine.  For one, the salary cap will rise from $70 million to at least $92 million next season.  Barnes already rejected a four-year extension worth $64 million after the Warriors offered it last September.  Teammate Marreese Speights recently joked about his pending free agent status by calling him a “future Laker” on Instagram.  In any case, it’s hard to imagine him not getting a better offer during the offseason when rumors are flying that Ryan Anderson could get $18 million per annum.

Whether the Warriors win another title or not, Barnes could miss being a part of such a dominant squad if he does accept a contract with another franchise.   It might come down to how much money Barnes is leaving on the table if he does end up back in the Bay Area.  League executives are sure to pursue his combination of scoring, defense, and potential.  Bogut was blunt, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that “Someone is going to give him close to the max.”  Considering the dearth of attractive free agents this summer, he may well be right.

There’s a chance Barnes will be able to stay put, and it’s well known that he likes the Oakland area.  Owner Joe Lacob would like to keep the core developed over the past several years but may be outbid for his services.  If Barnes does leave, the Warriors would be unlikely to obtain an equivalent player.  It will be a struggle between Barnes’ comfort level as a smaller cog on a dominant team and the temptation of free agent dollars as well as a bigger role in a new city.  Barnes is a talented player, but if he receives a max deal it will be based more on his potential than his raw stats to date.


photo via llananba