The Golden State Warriors have carved an identity as a dark horse title contender in the NBA’s Western Conference, but their championship aspirations seem to be pinned to the performance of sophomore forward Harrison Barnes.
The 21-year-old isn’t in the midst of a sophomore slump, per se, but he has experienced an up-and-down year from a production standpoint. After starting 81 games for the Warriors as a rookie, Barnes was relegated to a bench role the moment Andre Iguodala was signed as a free agent during the 2013 offseason.
Some members of the NBA community—myself included—believed that moving Barnes out of the starting lineup threatened to stunt his growth as a player following a breakout performance in the 2013 playoffs.
Despite the pressure that accompanies playing on the highest stage, Barnes thrived during postseason action. After averaging 9.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists throughout his rookie campaign, the North Carolina product upped his production across the board in two straight playoff series.
He averaged 14.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists against the Denver Nuggets in Round 1.
In the Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs, the first-year pro played the best basketball of his young career. He averaged 17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists, primarily as a small-ball power forward with David Lee sidelined due to a hip injury.
For better or worse, Barnes is the key to Golden State’s title run moving forward.
During the month of January, Barnes has been wildly inconsistent.
He’s averaging 7.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists since the start of the new year. He's scored 15 points twice and zero points twice throughout that stretch.
Head coach Mark Jackson has no way of knowing what he’s going to get from his sixth man on a nightly basis, because Barnes has lost the level of consistent play he displayed in November.
|Harrison Barnes' numbers by month (2013-14)|
|November||50% FG||52% 3P||13.3 PPG||3.5 RPG||1.9 APG|
|December||37.2% FG||31% 3P||10.4 PPG||4.3 RPG||1.4 APG|
|January||37.3% FG||50% 3P||7.2 PPG||3.7 RPG||1.2 APG|
To be fair, Barnes’ role has been in limbo, because just about any injury to one of the starters would thrust him back into a starting role. His court time has capped at 44 minutes and bottomed out at 18 minutes.
At least to this juncture, it’s clear that Barnes is far more comfortable in a starting role.
Starter vs. Sixth Man
The youngest player on the Warriors roster has played 39 games this season—15 of them starts. The difference in production he’s posted in each role thus far is comparable to a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde scenario.
|Harrison Barnes 2013-14 Stats|
|As Starter:||15 games||45.3% FG||38.6% 3P||14.3 PPG||4.7 RPG||2.2 APG||105 ORtg|
|Off Bench:||24 games||39.2% FG||44.2% 3P||8.2 PPG||3.4 RPG||1.1 APG||95 ORtg|
As you can see, Barnes' numbers as a starter are superior nearly across the board when compared with how he’s performed off the bench. That’s to be expected, considering he’s playing alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Lee when he’s in the starting five. However, 12 of those 15 starts occurred with Iguodala sidelined—so the team wasn’t even at full strength.
Barnes has struggled to adapt to his new bench role, and the second unit as a whole is suffering as a result.
At the midway point of the 2013-14 season, the Warriors bench ranks dead last in the NBA by scoring 23.1 points per game, according to Hoops Stats. It also ranks last in assists (3.9) and 20th in rebounds (13.8).
With so much competition in the loaded Western Conference, depth is extremely important. That doesn’t bode well for the Dubs, because their bench unit has failed to take pressure off the starting five.
Barnes hasn’t displayed any type of comfort level as a bench player. Coach Jackson needs him to start leading the second unit by example, but can he be depended upon moving forward?
Do Warriors Overvalue Barnes?
According to Marcus Thompson (via Sulia.com) of the San Jose Mercury News, NBA teams around the league inquired about trading for Barnes during the 2012-13 season. Sources told Thompson, however, that it would take a “major offer” for Golden State to part with him.
Obviously trade talks involving the forward never got serious, because he played out the remainder of the year in Oakland.
Young players with untapped potential and a track record of postseason success don’t grow on trees. With that said, are the Warriors overvaluing their young asset?
One of the most appealing aspects about the Warriors roster is its youth. Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Draymond Green and newly acquired swingmen Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks are all younger than 26. The future is bright for this franchise, but one could argue that moves should be made to make a more competitive product in the present.
According to Lou Ramon Aguila of the International Business Times, the Warriors are mulling a potential deal with the Chicago Bulls that would net them veteran point guard Kirk Hinrich in exchange for Barnes.
Upon reading that, most Warriors fans probably felt their stomach churn.
Although the thought of moving a former No. 7 overall pick for a 33-year-old veteran shooting 35.1 percent from the field should make Dubs fans recoil in horror, would general manager Bob Myers swap Barnes for a more appealing trade haul?
It’s an interesting question, because G-State desperately needs another ball-handler behind Curry. The All-Star starter is averaging 4.2 turnovers in 37.9 minutes per game. Simply put, he’s being asked to do too much.
The addition of Crawford will help, but he’s not a prototypical floor general.
Golden State’s bench is hurting from the loss of veteran guard Jarrett Jack, so maybe the front office will decide to shake things up.
Barnes’ transition to a bench role hasn’t gone as smoothly as the Warriors organization hoped it would. Instead of establishing himself as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, the young buck seems to prefer a starting role.
The former Tar Heel has played sparingly as a small-ball 4 in 2013-14 after a breakout performance in that spot last summer, but the numbers suggest Jackson should lean on that construct more often.
According to 82games.com, the five-man rotation of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Lee has played just 40.8 minutes together this season. In that time, however, that lineup is outscoring opponents by 34 points while holding opponents to 0.96 points per possession.
Barnes was positively locked in during the 2013 playoffs against the Spurs. He took advantage of slower defenders (like Boris Diaw) by relentlessly attacking the basket. If he can settle back into that type of role, with the addition of Iggy to the roster, the Warriors will be a tough team to beat.
While trading Barnes for added depth is an option, the most obvious solution appears to be playing Barnes in small-ball lineups as a power forward—where his comfort level has translated to team success.
It won’t work in every scenario (i.e., against bigger teams), but that rotation has continued to play well.
Barnes saved his best performances for the playoffs in 2013. Perhaps he’ll do so again this year on the upstart Warriors' road to a title run.