Why Harrison Barnes Could Be the Most Intriguing Free Agent of 2016


Harrison Barnes heard the chuckling when news broke that he had turned down a four-year, $64 million extension. “Everyone asks, ‘Someone is really going to pay all that for a guy who can’t run the pick-and-roll?’” Barnes tells Grantland, laughing. “But I don’t worry much. I’m confident I will get better at it.”

The mystery of Barnes, and the mystery of whether he’ll stay with Golden State, is that he may never get to show off that theoretical improvement on the Warriors. He’s a back-end option on a championship team of stars and expert passers. He’s a finisher, not a creator, and the team’s best bench player is his direct backup. He mostly stands in the corner for some of the easiest triples in the league, or cuts for dunks when defenses ignore him. “He has the potential to do more, but it’s tricky,” says Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “We have a lot of people who can really play.”

Barnes gets it, and Golden State’s coaches say he has never complained — not once — about his touches. Barnes was perhaps the most famous high school player in the nation five years ago, the next Kobe, and he’s squeezed himself into a role in which he uses only about 15 percent of Golden State’s possessions — a tiny number we’d normally associate with a limited role player. “It just may not be in the cards for me to create more here,” Barnes says, “but I can do it, and maybe this season there will be more opportunities.”

Barnes turned down $16 million per year, in the neighborhood of the new deals for DeMarre Carroll, Khris Middleton, and Tobias Harris — and a hair north of what Danny Green could have snared had he been willing to venture outside the San Antonio cocoon. Green and Carroll work as comparables for Barnes: ace spot-up shooters with shaky ballhandling chops who battle on defense, rarely get to the line, dish few assists, and slot into a supporting role. Barnes is only 23, younger than everyone in that group but Harris, and perhaps the best-equipped among them to defend power forwards — a key skill that unlocks small-ball lineups and switchy defenses for the Warriors. “His versatility is what the league is all about now,” Kerr says.

Even if Barnes never seizes a larger role, he’ll get better at the things that make up his current job. That improved version of Barnes is probably “worth” a bit more than $16 million per year, especially as the cap leaps from $70 million to $90 million next season — and then likely into the triple digits.

Barnes is right to bet on someone offering him a max deal — averaging as much as $23 million per season — if he gets to free agency. There is too much cap money for a blah free-agent class. That exploding money factored into Barnes’s decision to fire his old agent, Jeff Wechsler, and hire the powerhouse Jeff Schwartz. Barnes is pushing back against the standard 4 percent agent commission, league sources told Grantland last week, arguing that those old rules shouldn’t apply to new money.1

Any team dangling a max contract at Barnes will be betting there is a borderline star ready to smash through the walls that Golden State’s infrastructure places around him. It will scour the film for glimpses of that player and comb the numbers for signs that Barnes has made subtle advances in the skills any no. 2 option has to have.

The Warriors are right to bargain as if that player may never exist, and if Barnes won’t accept less than the max, they can let him enter free agency — and match any offer he gets. They will not lose him for nothing. But the higher Barnes’s price, the harder Golden State has to think about using that giant salary slot on two or three rotation pieces instead of one guy who falls in line behind Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. If Barnes can’t shoulder a larger burden on offense, he’s Jeff Green with a 3-point shot that is still semi-unproven outside the corners — a nice player, but not a great one. Small forward is thin leaguewide, and teams can trick themselves into overspending just to fill thin positions. That rationale can work in the right set of circumstances, but it can backfire when it costs you depth.

Remember: The league and union project the cap to fall from $108 million in 2017-18 to about $100 million the following year, and a work stoppage between now and then2 could rearrange the league’s entire salary structure. A max deal for Barnes signed next summer, under a $90 million cap, won’t hurt as much when the cap creeps up, but it’ll still hurt if Barnes can’t make a leap. With Curry’s salary set to nearly triple in 2017-18, every extra dollar of flexibility below the tax matters.

A leap would mean doing more with the ball, and the Warriors under Kerr barely let Barnes run the pick-and-roll. When Barnes grabbed a leading role, the results too often looked like this:

Barnes 2 (1)

Barnes was 7-of-24 out of the pick-and-roll last season, with an ungodly turnover rate, per Synergy Sports. Hell, even a lot of the successful Barnes-dominant plays ended with pull-up midrangers:

Barnes 10 (1)

Golden State pushed for the no. 1 spot in points per possession last season precisely by avoiding these shots. Critics envision a Barnes-centric offense as a hail of bricky midrange jumpers — a low-efficiency clunker.

Barnes just hasn’t looked comfortable driving with the ball, and he knows it. He gets tunnel vision, forcing up shots when easy passes are available. He doesn’t have the fluid change of pace the best ball handlers use to prod defenses open. He sometimes spooks at the first sight of a help defender, as if he’s afraid to make mistakes. He doesn’t appear to feel the game. What happens when defenses trap him against the pick-and-roll? Or go under picks, daring him to can off-the-dribble 3s?

The Warriors gave Barnes a bunch of chances at little elbow pick-and-rolls when he slid to power forward, and they too often went nowhere.

Barnes 13 (1)

“I’m terrible at that play,” Barnes says, laughing. “Luke Walton [a Golden State assistant] and I literally joke about how bad I am at it.”

A first or second option finds something there — a lob to Andrew Bogut rolling, a slicing drive-and-dish to Draymond Green in the right corner, or a pass back to Thompson on the left side as his man crashes down on Bogut. Every option is there for a beat, but Barnes was one note behind the ensemble. He’s adamant he can make all of those reads, and that he fell into a bad habit last season of getting trigger-happy when Kerr ran plays for him. “When you don’t get the ball much, sometimes you try to create your offense,” Barnes says. “That’s on me. I have to make the simple pass. I can make those plays.”

Maybe he’s right. Barnes has cycled through at least three Golden State player development coaches over the last year, and he’s spent the summer working on his ballhandling from different spots on the floor. Coaches say he has killed in scrimmages over the last month, and he showed hints last season of a more nuanced game.

Barnes 12 (1)

Shaun Livingston bends the defense just enough here to give Barnes a head start against a ground-bound center, but Barnes does the rest — the no-hesitation drive, the crossover, the soft lefty finish. He reminds one a bit of Kawhi Leonard two years ago in this way: Barnes plays in a flowing offense that naturally spits him out in places where he can catch the ball and shift right into playmaking mode. Barnes defers in those situations, passing the baton to the next guy. Leonard rose up once Gregg Popovich freed him to stretch himself when the offense organically presented an opportunity. Perhaps the same could happen for Barnes. Even a great team could use an extra dash of unpredictability.

“Now that we’ve been successful,” Barnes says, “maybe Coach Kerr will loosen things a bit.” Kerr likes Barnes’s pull-up game. Barnes can rise up over almost any wing player, and it’s the kind of hero shot every team needs as the clock winds down. But the Warriors know that things flow better with Barnes off the ball.

Good news, then: Barnes was much more decisive last season after catching a pass, and he leveraged his killer corner shooting into a weaponized pump fake:

Barnes 9 (1)

Barnes 8 (1)

The “Harrison Barnes, no. 1 option” ship has sailed, but if he rises to no. 2 status someplace else, he’s going to make plays like these after starting a possession off the ball. Viewed through one lens, they reaffirm every cackling criticism. Look how open the guy is! Oh, what life must be like chilling as Curry draws a double-team and kicks to one of the league’s best passing big men. When Barnes drives, he gets to attack the other team’s weakest defender. These luxuries won’t present themselves in Charlotte or with the Lakers.

And, holy cow, he misses both shots, mostly because he jumps at weird times and gets fancy with the ball around the rim. “It’s a constant source of frustration for the coaches,” Barnes says. “You probably saw 30 or 40 missed bunnies. I have a tendency to kind of move the ball around up there. I have to go up through contact. The coaches are always talking about free throws.” Barnes averaged just 2.3 free throws per 36 minutes last season, a career low, and that number has to be better. No one saw Jimmy Butler as a pick-and-roll threat worthy of a megadeal until he started putting his head down and barreling through suckers.

You could read those misses at the rim as encouraging: Barnes is super-explosive, so close to the spectacular. He watches a ton of film, and he’s searching for passes that might be better alternatives to these acrobatic finishes — drop-offs to his big men and skips to the opposite corner. “I have never met a player so obsessed,” says Darren Erman, a Pelicans assistant who worked with Barnes for two years in Golden State. “Harrison wants to be great.”

The same contact phobia infects his post game, which the Warriors view as a crucial tool going forward. They called for a handful of Barnes post-ups in the playoffs against Courtney Lee and James Harden, and Barnes was smarter about flashing into deep position for easier looks:

Barnes 16

But he’s not good enough yet at sensing when he has an opponent off-balance, and then pouncing. When Barnes goads a defender off his feet, he needs to nail him with some kind of step-through instead of settling for a meek fadeaway.

It’s not as if he’s allergic to contact. Barnes shot 29-of-57 on isolations last season, per Synergy Sports, ranking as one of the league’s best one-on-one players, and he has a nice touch on floaters amid heavy traffic:

Barnes 6 (1)

He maintained a strong shooting mark after two, three, or four dribbles, reversing a trend that saw his efficiency plummet whenever he bounced the ball, per SportVU data. But critics even spin this negatively: Barnes plays so much small-ball power forward, he gets to attack slower big guys off the bounce! Barnes’s reel of one-on-one glory is filled with him blowing past Dirk Nowitzki, Brandan Wright, and other plodders. He won’t be able to do that against wings.

Still, Barnes plausibly defending power forwards is a big part of his value. It separates him from most other spot-up wings, including his current teammates. The Warriors are deep, but Barnes is not redundant — especially as Andre Iguodala ages. If Barnes can defend power forwards, opponents face a choice: go small and risk losing a pace-and-space battle, or ask one of their two bigs to chase a wing player. If that player isn’t Barnes, hopefully it’s someone else — like, I dunno, Iguodala — who can exploit the speed gap.

Golden State has oversold Barnes’s work against Zach Randolph in the playoffs. He battled Z-Bo, but he needed near-automatic doubles in the post; that was the point of having Bogut play free safety off of Tony Allen. Barnes jostled with Tristan Thompson in the Finals, and though Thompson ate a bit on the offensive glass, the Warriors banked on Barnes doing just enough to tilt the equation their way. They were right. Barnes isn’t a great defensive player against bigs or wings, but he’s solid, and he should get better as the speed of NBA rotations — which can confuse him now — becomes second nature.

Barnes embraced the grunt work. He’s a good rebounder, and he could be a great one for a wing. He had never worked much as an off-ball cutter before arriving in Golden State, and he was a reluctant pupil at first. He ran half-speed, he says, unsure of where to go and when, or whether he’d ever get the ball. Walton pestered him during film sessions, and Barnes accepted his new lot in life. Seriously, watch him cut: He is hyperalert at hunting chances, and he jets to his spots. “He is a great cutter,” Kerr says.

We saw in Miami, when Dwyane Wade and LeBron James teamed up, that even stars need to cut when they join other stars. Barnes isn’t a star, but if any team sees him as a high-priced sidekick to one, it’s nice to have the skills already polished.

His hunger for drudgery gives the lie to the worst stereotype some rival executives hold against him: that his middle-class upbringing in Iowa turned Barnes complacent — that he doesn’t have “the dog” inside of him. “I hear that a lot,” Barnes says. “It’s funny to me, because to be a good rebounder or cutter, you have to do something five or six times before you see any reward.”

But Barnes has ambitions beyond his current role, and some team will pay him at that level if it gets the chance. There have been enough glimpses to justify that Barnes in his prime could be a versatile but expensive second option on a good team. The Warriors have already locked up a first and second option, and considering how often Green handles the ball, probably a third. Maxing out Barnes feels like a suboptimal use of resources. It will cost them quality role players at some point.

If Golden State can coax him into an $18 million annual deal now, it should. Barnes might accept that to lock in some security ahead of a potential lockout,3 and because both $18 million and $23 million per year represent a ton of freaking money in the end. If things go to the wire, Golden State could offer the same kind of fake max contract it gave Thompson — a deal that sets Barnes’s salary as a straight dollar amount equivalent to the current projected max, rather than a percentage of the cap. That worked with Thompson as a hedge against a last-minute jump in the actual cap, from $66 million to $70 million, and the same thing could happen next July. No one knows.

Cutting it that close to the max might not be worth Golden State’s while. At that point, it can let Barnes creep into free agency and match another team’s max offer — a deal capped at four years, with smaller annual raises. If he blows up in the meantime, the Warriors are thrilled to pay that deal. If he plateaus, they hold their noses, sign it, and trade him later — or work the sign-and-trade market with a team stoked to pay Barnes the max.

That would be a bad bet based on what Barnes has shown in the NBA. But he’s itching to show more, and even if he doesn’t, his basic skill set is worth at least DeMarre Carroll money — and probably more, given Barnes’s age. The Warriors are on the clock, and a league of potential suitors is watching.

Filed Under: 2015 NBA Preview, NBA, Harrison Barnes, Golden State Warriors, Steve Kerr, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA