Where to begin with Harrison Barnes?
The 6'8'' small forward with a litany of talent, a former number-one-ranked high school player, Barnes has shown flashes of greatness in his four years in the NBA. Loads of athleticism. A solid three-point shot, at nearly 38 percent for his career. Versatility on defense, with the quickness and agility to guard point guards and twos and the strength to guard fours for a few possessions at a time. By all accounts, his character eclipses his abilities on the court.
Many believe he's overrated and has been since his days at North Carolina, when he couldn't even lead the team to a Final Four despite being a top recruit. He's the Warriors' fourth and often fifth option. I could make those wide-open corner threes, people claim. He's often indecisive with the basketball in his hands, hesitating: Should I drive? Should I take this jump shot? Maybe I should pull up for an awkward 21-footer (as he is wont to do)? He doesn't attack the basket, never averaging even 2.5 free throws per game for a season, nor creates efficiently for himself. If he's so versatile, athletic and agile, how come he can't average five boards or one steal per game?
This was supposed to be the season Barnes took "the leap" into playing as one of the top offensive options. With a rise in activity, numbers, and even a possible All-Star berth, he could parlay his success (along with the team's success) into a huge payday in free agency, either returning to the Warriors or with another team.
The stage was set prior to the season's beginning with Barnes rejecting the team's initial offer of $16 million per season, or 4-years, $64 million over the life of the deal. He would bet on himself, that he deserved more than Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, perhaps even Kawhi Leonard's annual salary. And with the cap rising to $94 million this offseason, it seemed a good bet. (Annual salary, while important to compare players, isn't as important as what percentage the salary takes up of the cap. Although Barnes' next contract seems exorbitant, it's going to take up a smaller percentage of the cap.)
As the Warriors sent chills down the rest of the NBA in winning a record 73 games this year, there's no doubt Barnes played a huge role in the team's regular season success. His athletic and shooting abilities helped the squad transition from playing with Andrew Bogut at center seamlessly to destroying opponents with the "Death Lineup." However, as Steve Kerr said earlier this offseason, the way the team racked up wins in bunches put a curtain over much of what the team actively needed to improve upon. His points per game took a modest rise, but aside from a few clutch shots there wasn't a consistent "wow" factor with Barnes this year. He didn't create a lot offensively -- for him or others, and many of his open shots came from the attention Stephen Curry and Thompson receive, not his individual prowess.
Most importantly for Warriors fans, and what he'll be remembered for if he does in fact leave, Barnes just could not make a shot in the final three games of The Finals. When the season was on the line, he couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat surrounded by the ocean. He clenched up.
Barnes shot 2-14 in the possible clinching Game 5, at home, missing all six of his shots in the fourth quarter. In Game 6, when the Warriors fell behind by 20 in the first quarter, he did not score a single point nor garner one assist. Infamously, he was benched for James Michael McAdoo, who had hardly played to that point in the playoffs. And in Game 7, with the Warriors desperately needing a spark offensively, with no Andrew Bogut, Barnes was so ineffective that Steve Kerr was forced to go to Brandon Rush with the season on the line. One solid performance and the Warriors may well have been champions again; instead, horrifyingly, Barnes disappeared completely.
Do three games a player make? No. But basically every team (save the Lakers) looks at players -- especially free agents -- on a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately basis. Despite the Warriors winning seventy-three games, a title, and being one win shy of back-to-back titles with this core, Barnes suddenly seems expendable. That, of course, is due to the free agency of Kevin Durant, who the blackjack-playing, venture capitalist owner Joe Lacob would probably bet they can sign. (There's also other viable options at small forward, as Nate and others have outlined.)
The pitch is simple: Look at your talent. You want to win championships? We have the coaching, the talent, the unanimous MVP to play alongside you. We were one win shy of a title, and our starting small forward couldn't hit a shot with the 'chip on the line. With you in place of Barnes, no doubt we'll win multiple titles.
Restricted free agency helps the Warriors, who can choose to match any offer -- but will the Warriors stomach paying Barnes a max salary, one he'll almost definitely get from a team desperate for improvement like Philadelphia? Would they stomach paying him a contract with a poison-pill deal? At this point in his career, the Warriors likely see him as a known quantity, while other squads see potential.
Hey, he did *make* the Olympic Team!
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