Settling the Harrison Barnes vs. Klay Thompson Sixth Man Debate Once and for All
Harrison Barnes did not play in either of the Warriors' first two contests of the 2013-14 season.
The second-year small forward's nagging foot injury allowed Klay Thompson to start in each game during the opening back-to-back, and Mark Jackson has expressed a desire to keep the starting lineup consistent this season.
As a result, the hottest debate amongst Warriors fans all offseason has been settled by default—which may be the absolute best result.
Not to make light of Barnes' injury, but all indications are that his return is imminent. Given that fact, this was the best outcome for both players' psyche. Thompson won the starting job, while Barnes doesn't have to feel like he lost it.
This would not be the case if things were reversed, however. If Thompson was the injured one and Barnes landed the job, Jackson's desire to keep the lineup the same for as long as possible would prove detrimental.
The reason for this is simple: Thompson should have been the starter all along.
Why Thompson Deserves the Job
Harrison Barnes is a bigger name than Klay Thompson at this point.
It's understandable why this is. Barnes has been in the national spotlight since high school and his fame only grew while playing at the University of North Carolina.
Soon after entering the league, he became widely known for his filthy dunks. Then, the playoffs came around and David Lee went down. The bulk of Lee's minutes and shots went to Barnes, who put up outstanding playoff numbers for a rookie (16.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG).
Despite his popularity, however, Barnes is not as accomplished an NBA player as Thompson. Not even close to it.
Thompson was not a McDonald's All-American, nor was he a superstar in college. He has never posterized anyone, at least not in the NBA.
What Thompson has done is drain 211 three-pointers in a season, the 22nd best total in NBA history.
He's done so while shooting over 40 percent from distance. He's averaged 16.6 points for a season. He's guarded the best opposing wing player for an entire season and done so effectively.
There's a reason that Andre Iguodala was never a real part of the sixth man debate over the summer. The nine-year veteran has clearly done enough in the league to start over both Thompson and Barnes, regardless of preseason numbers.
It should have been the same for Thompson.
Thompson a Perfect Fit in Golden State Lineup
It's easy to look back on last season and just remember the Warriors' success. That wasn't the full story though.
The team was 35-29 on March 9 and ended with an expected win-loss record of 44-38, which would have placed them ahead of the ninth-place Utah Jazz by one game.
The starting lineup featured one All-Star in Lee and one All-Star snub in Stephen Curry, but it was not without flaws. It lacked a No. 1 option on defense, a second ball-handler to bail out Curry, a secondary shot creator, a slasher and a finisher in transition.
Iguodala was brought in to cure all of these things—and to do so by replacing Barnes in the lineup.
Barnes was the Warriors best slasher, best shot creator and ball handler after Curry and best attacker in transition last season.
Thompson's role was entirely different. He was a floor spacer, a bail-out shooter, a heat-check guy and a high-post operator.
The Warriors did not feel the need to replace Thompson in these roles, nor should they have. He's above average to elite in each of those categories.
The one area in which Iguodala replaced Thompson and not Barnes is as the No. 1 wing defender. However, this simply means that Thompson in turn replaced Barnes as the No. 2 wing defender.
If Thompson were to be relegated to sixth man duties, the Warriors starting five would lose several key elements. Sending Barnes to the bench does no such thing due to Iguodala's presence.
Barnes a Better Fit Off the Bench
No matter who won the job, it was clear from the moment that Golden State signed Iguodala that he, Barnes and Thompson would play most of the team's minutes at the two wing positions and that those minutes would be distributed rather evenly.
Therefore, this conversation should really be centered around who makes the better sixth man.
As Barnes learned last year, starting doesn't mean playing top-five minutes on a team. Last season's sixth man, Jarrett Jack, would almost always spell Barnes upon entering the game. He would go on to play for 29.7 minutes a night—Barnes only averaged 25.4 minutes—and would almost always be on the floor during crunch time.
Jack got these minutes because he brought things to the Golden State lineup that it sorely needed: ball handling, dribble penetration, shot creation, ability to run the fast break, basically all the things that the team now gets from Iguodala.
This means that the starting lineup is clearly better than last season, but it also means that the bench is missing its captain.
As we've established, the 21-year-old can do many of the things that Jack did. While Jack did these things better, the presence of Iguodala makes that unimportant.
Barnes will still be a better creator of offense—both in the half court and in transition—than Thompson, and he will also bring perimeter defense, rebounding and a growing post game on both ends.
Carl Landry was the second guy off the bench last season, but he was more of a second-sixth man than a seventh man. Barnes' ability to thrive as a stretch 4 means that there will be no need for that this year.
In fact, Barnes played the power forward position so well last postseason that many believed he should have started over Lee.
This is simply more reason to bring Barnes off the bench. He has the ability to back up two positions for this team as the primary small forward reserve and co-backup power forward (along with Marreese Speights).
Thompson would not nearly provide this type of versatility off Golden State's bench.
Barnes a Better Sixth-Man Than Thompson
No NBA starting lineup features five guys who can create for themselves and others, but Golden State comes pretty close.
Curry, Iguodala, Lee and Andrew Bogut are all exceptional passers, while Curry, Iguodala and Lee are quality shot creators.
Thompson is neither a facilitator nor an isolation scorer. The only time that Thompson can work his man one-on-one is when he draws a mismatch, and he'll only draw mismatches with Curry on the court.
As a sixth man, Thompson would need to be able to carry the bench unit for stretches each night. At this point, Thompson has neither the quickness, handles or passing ability to stop teams from locking him up in these situations with double teams or long defenders.
Barnes is not a facilitator, but he's a fabulous isolation player and shot creator. He has the size and strength to post up smaller defenders and finish inside, while possessing the handles and burst to destroy bigger defenders off the dribble.
He has the type of game where he can score no matter who he's on the court with.
Why Thompson, Barnes Should Stick
What Would Have to Happen For Barnes and Thompson to Switch Roles?
Open competition is not a bad thing, and Jackson not announcing Thompson as the starter until after the preseason certainly has not negatively affected his game early on.
The fact is, however, that Thompson simply makes much more sense as a starter with this team while Barnes is a perfect fit off the bench.
Both players will get minutes and both are candidates to finish games. Answering the question of which five players should be on the floor to close out contests is much more difficult and is something that Jackson will likely spend much of this season figuring out.
Determining who to start is far less relevant.
The most important aspects of naming a starting five and sixth man are chemistry and morale. The best way to increase morale is by putting players in roles that will help them succeed, and the best way to facilitate chemistry is to keep players in the same roles as much as possible.
Since Thompson is better suited to start, Barnes has a perfect sixth man game and Thompson has already been named the starter, its clear that this setup is whats best for morale, chemistry and the entire team.
Not just for now, but for the foreseeable future.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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