With Andre Iguodala signing a lucrative deal with the Golden State Warriors, it’s possible fellow small forward Harrison Barnes will see a reduced role on the team. A starter in his rookie year while coming alive in the postseason, he now could come off the bench, sparking questions about how his production will be affected for the worse.
In truth, this could be a blessing in disguise for Barnes, one that ends with him taking home the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award. As the first player off the bench, he immediately fills needs for bench scoring, energy and defense, a combination that is rare even among the best bench players in the league.
Now, it’s possible that Barnes may not even come off the bench. The Warriors can bring out many different lineups to fit the style of play they choose. However, the most effective one involves Barnes being the sixth man, mainly because he's a better fit as a substitute than Klay Thompson.
Thompson, the other likely candidate to come of the bench, was so efficient because he is a shooter, not a scorer. While he finished second in the league behind Stephen Curry in three-pointers made, he also gained notoriety for missing shots closer to the rim. According to Hoopdata, Thompson made 24.6 percent of his shots between three and nine feet.
When looking for a viable sixth man, teams want a player who can score from everywhere, not just the three-point line. Based on information from Hoopdata, over the last six years, the lowest percentage from three to nine feet by the Sixth Man of the Year was 30.8 percent. Even this is considered low, as the next lowest was 36.1 percent.
Thompson is definitely behind, and even progression in that department might not bring him to a quality level.
In the starting lineup, Thompson would not have to be called upon to score inside as much due to Iguodala’s slashing ability and David Lee’s inside-out game (not to mention all of Andrew Bogut’s buckets). He would be mainly played to his strength of nailing the deep ball.
So Barnes should come off the bench. Now why does he win the trophy?
The short version is he not only is a capable scorer but also defends at a higher level than other potential winners.
In last season’s playoffs, Barnes proved he could put up points with efficiency from anywhere. The small forward averaged 16.1 points a contest while shooting 44.4 and 36.5 percent from the field and from deep, respectively. The percentages are pretty average, but considering it was his rookie season, one can expect those to improve as he becomes more comfortable in the league.
What made Barnes’ performance even more impressive was the fact that he played both on the wing and in the post throughout Golden State’s postseason run. That versatility allowed him to create mismatches, especially at the 4, and thus more opportunities to score. The following clip is a perfect example of the all-around offense Barnes brings.
Second, Barnes would bring effort and energy off the bench. By now, most of the NBA world knows of his nasty posterizations, from Nikola Pekovic to, most recently, Ryan Anderson. Expect the dunks and athleticism to keep coming simply because there’s no reason to expect them not to.
More importantly, this energy translates to effort on defense. According to 82games, Barnes held small forwards to just a 13.2 player efficiency rating per 48 minutes. The league average is 15, implying that Barnes is an above-average defender.
Considering he guarded the best starting 3s of the league last year (a.k.a. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and more), that’s fantastic. For comparison’s sake, the defensive PERs of Jamal Crawford and Jarrett Jack, the sixth man runners-up last year, were 16.1 and 15.6, respectively.
If the Warriors' recent tweet that Barnes will focus on defense this offseason means anything, fans have to be optimistic about his defensive ability heading into the fall.
Given all the statistics, there is still one player who challenges Barnes stat-for-stat: J.R. Smith, the winner of the award this past season. Historically, however, Smith’s chances to repeat aren’t good, especially after undergoing surgery on his left knee in early July.
Can you guess the last time someone won the Sixth Man of the Year award in two consecutive seasons? That’d be the 1991-92 season, with Detlef Schrempf taking the prize. Twenty-one years ago. Add the fact that players tend to see a drop in their statistics after a contract year (so much so that there’s an actual term for it on Wikipedia), and Smith is, at least on paper, facing an uphill battle.
All things considered, Barnes has a great shot at taking home the hardware. Based on a report from Sporting News’ Sean Deveney, he’s expressed acceptance in coming off the bench. With this positive mentality, along with the improved play that’s expected of him after the summer, he’ll be able to win it.