I have this annoyingly OCD-ish habit where I sprint (as fast as my fingers on the laptop can) to read every single movie review when a good flick ostensibly arrives on the big screen. Since movies cost more than a steak dinner nowadays, I tend to stay home and stream (legally, duh) whatever random features fall into my lap. So reading guys like Will Leitch, Wesley Morris, Roger Ebert (RIP), Alan Sepinwall, and Andy Greenwald (TV shows) gives me a small notion and a somewhat crass sense of what the images on screen are setting out to accomplish. Unfortunately, it sets expectations in a way that can shape how I watch the film, even as I'm watching it. That's minimally helpful if you're trying to construct an unbiased, original opinion.
American Hustle was almost immediately acclaimed as one of the funniest, most clever movies of the year. And after spending nearly three hours watching Bradley Cooper in extensions; it felt empty. It featured extraordinary individual performances from Christian Bale and Amy Adams (standard stuff), but failed to provide me the vision that was set for me in the words of popular paid writers. It was funny but not fulfilling - and since I'm not a movie critic, we'll leave it at that. And in no way am I comparing American Hustle to Harrison Barnes. There's no rushed plot twist in his game that clumsily concludes the movie.
But, like the film and the player, expectations, at least for me, have ruined what is and will be a product worth caring about. Barnes struggled last year in the regular season, posting and projecting what most were wary of when he struggled amidst a stacked team in North Carolina. Lacking a cliche'd term like "killer instinct", Barnes has struggled coming off the bench, lacking the dribble and shooting capabilities to provide the scoring threat role that Jarrett Jack excelled in last season. His peripheral statistics, layman numbers for me, are essentially the same as it was when he was a rookie.
I hear Harrison Barnes is wearing out Iguodala in workouts. No, wait; I hear he's wearing out everybody.— Peter Vecsey (@PeterVecsey1) September 18, 2013
So what happened? Expectations are a broad and general response but delving a bit deeper, we can place a modicum of blame on coaching. And not just Mark Jackson. Jackson has proven reluctant to play small, even in spurts, unless in desperate situations. However, the team has thrived with David Lee and small ball won't happen now unless injury strikes. It's not the most ideal, or even helpful situation for Barnes but if the team is winning, there's less of a concrete argument against the decision. George Karl and Gregg Popovich have been the culprits to the demise (let me be melodramatic). Unable to guard him (Denver) or not caring about him at all (San Antonio), Barnes' numbers inflated to the point where people started to extrapolate those statistics into his sophomore season.
Barnes went from averaging 7.8 shots in the regular season to 13.5 in the postseason and a whopping 15.3 (!) attempts against the Spurs. There was no sudden emergence of "killer instinct-ness". There was simply more open shots and mismatches against small guards like Tony Parker. Pop refused to send help, intent on allowing post-ups and inefficient fadeaway jumpers. Barnes piled up the points, and some in clutch situations, but one got the feeling it never worried the Spurs. Fans, and even some writers, mistakenly took this as how most teams would play the Warriors. As if they would refuse to send a double, crowd Barnes and play his dribble, or allow the Warriors to play small for even ten minutes.
And so lies the problem with Barnes' slow sophomore season. He's playing like the player he was last season. Small sample size is a phrase used to dispel varied and extreme reactions and we can safely, for now, slot the postseason explosion in that category. On the right team (say the Los Angeles Lakers)? Barnes would fulfill that potential, or in other words, become a gifted volume shooter like he was against the Spurs. But he's stuck behind Andre Iguodala and an emerging Draymond Green. Jackson calls plays for Barnes off the bench but he isn't nuanced yet to make the extra pass or make a confident move. Some of it is mental (confidence), some physical (dribbling), but most of it is what we wanted to see, rather than understanding what we had already seen.
Growth is a key aspect to any player, especially a young one like Barnes, but there are obstacles and excuses for every single one. It isn't Barnes' fault that we all expected him to spontaneously improve and develop into a player he isn't; similar in the way that it isn't Barry Zito's fault that the San Francisco Giants recklessly spent $126 million on a weak-armed pitcher (here's hoping the end result is the same for the Warriors). Hell, he can still become the Tracy McGrady, Andre Iguodala, Marvin Williams or whatever we're comparing him to nowadays. But as a 21-year old professional basketball player still trying to figure out the game at its highest level, and not currently slotted in the best situation, we can afford him a little patience and time. And also 140 minutes of Christian Bale's awful fake combover of time looping in my head that I'll never get back.
Statistical support for this piece provided by NBA.com, unless stated otherwise.