Harrison Barnes is not one of the Golden State Warriors' few best players, but he may have the biggest impact on the present and future of the team.
That might seem like a curious statement to make given Golden State's big acquisition of Andre Iguodala this offseason, the emergence of Stephen Curry as a superstar in the playoffs last year, the elite shooting of Klay Thompson, or even the solid (albeit one-sided) output of David Lee and Andrew Bogut.
Surely the Warriors have more productive players on the court, as Barnes’ PER of 11 was average among NBA small forwards last season.
So how does Barnes hold so much influence?
Because it's the buzzsaw, small-ball version of the Warriors that put a scare into the San Antonio Spurs and inspired championship hopes. It's that version of the Warriors that was born from necessity, and Barnes is the player who could make that happen again.
Small Change, Big Results
When David Lee tore his hip flexor in the opening game of Golden State’s first-round series, the Warriors went with a lineup that had played together exactly once during the regular season.
What would spell doom for most teams ended up being a boon for the Warriors, though, as Barnes shifted down to the power forward spot to create a vicious small-ball attack with Curry, Jarrett Jack, Thompson and Bogut manning the paint.
That lineup ended up being the most used lineup for the Warriors in the postseason, playing 108 very successful minutes together.
While the sample size is small, the results are hard to dismiss. The Warriors were able to generate significantly more three-point shooting opportunities (25.7 per 48 minutes compared to 19.8) and a better offensive (107.7 to 106.4) and defensive rating (96.1 to 105.5) compared to their regular-season averages.
Creating an Identity
The league’s best three-point shooting team percentage-wise last year (40.3 percent) could stand to find ways to take more attempts. The Warriors oddly finished 13th in total attempts.
While David Lee is a lot of things offensively—a deft passer, a skilled post player, a solid mid-range shooter—he is not a three-point shooter. He's made one three-pointer in his entire career. That said, Lee undoubtedly had a positive impact last year offensively for the Warriors, as his gaudy on/off differential of plus-7.5 points per 100 possessions proves.
The problems with Lee mostly exist on the other end of the floor.
For as skilled as Lee is offensively, he’s hapless defensively. Lee ends up in no man’s land on pick-and-rolls more often than not, failing to guard the ball-handler or the roll man. Lee isn’t a shot-blocker, either: Serge Ibaka had more blocked shots last season than Lee has in eight seasons combined. There is virtually nothing Lee does well defensively, with the exception of rebounding.
That’s a problem. The Warriors were 14th in the league in defensive efficiency last season, teetering on the edge of dangerous territory. In the last 10 years, only 32 of the 160 playoff teams had a regular-season defensive efficiency ranking below 15th. Only 11 of those teams advanced to the second round. None of those teams made it to the NBA Finals.
Help is on the way with an elite perimeter defender in Andre Iguodala and the hope that Andrew Bogut can stay healthy, but hope is not a strategy.
Utilizing the mobility of Barnes at the 4 defensively by switching and trapping more screens while adding another 3-point shooter on the other end could help the efficiency bottom line, and all at a much cheaper price. Barnes is set to make $2.9 million this year, compared to a whopping $13.8 million for Lee.
Can the Warriors really rush to trade Lee based the team having success with Barnes at the power forward spot in the playoffs? Probably not yet. Still, multiple realistic scenarios exist down the line in which Lee is dealt this season.
Barring a killer deal that brings back gobs of cap flexibility and valuable players/assets, which seems unlikely, Golden State's decision may hinge on Barnes and his performance early in the year.
If Barnes drastically outplays his current role and the team has success on both ends with smaller lineups (or without Lee), getting the last two years of Lee's remaining $31 million dollars off the books might become more of a priority, particularly with a new arena coming and all the dead-weight salary (goodbye, Andris Biedrins) already shed.
There's essentially no scenario in which Golden State is a premium free-agent destination with Lee on his current deal.
But as it stands right now, the Warriors are among the contenders in the Western Conference as currently constructed. Iguodala should help on both ends, and the furthered development of the young core could very well shoot the Warriors to the next level.
Basically, there aren't any pressing problems to fix right now.
But similar to the playoffs last year, if things don't go as planned or a glass ceiling is reached, moving on without Lee might once again become necessity, particularly if Barnes makes it so.