Is Harrison Barnes the Biggest Problem for Struggling Golden State Warriors?

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Is Harrison Barnes the Biggest Problem for Struggling Golden State Warriors?
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Harrison Barnes hasn't had the kind of sophomore season he or anyone close to the Golden State Warriors hoped for, but the second-year forward is far from the Dubs' biggest problem.

You wouldn't know that from the overwhelming amount of scrutiny the 21-year-old wing has faced lately, though. Alarm bells are ringing in Oakland, and Barnes—a particularly self-aware, image-conscious individual—is feeling the weight of those overblown concerns.

Per Marcus Thompson II of the San Jose Mercury News, a rough year has weighed on Barnes: "I'm not going to front," Barnes said just before the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday in New Orleans. "It's been a challenge."

Things have been tough for Barnes because so much was expected of him after a solid rookie year and a postseason campaign that seemed like a breakthrough. Pressed into duty as a floor-spacing power forward after David Lee went down with a torn hip flexor, Barnes showed observers a new and valuable dimension in his game.

It appeared as though the Warriors had found something promising.

Barnes' lustrous playoff effort proved to be fool's gold. The extra space he enjoyed in Denver made him look quicker and more effective than he actually was. And with the Warriors largely abandoning small ball in favor of more conventional two-big lineups this year, he hasn't even had a chance to replicate his performance.

In a second-round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, Barnes benefited from a matchup with Tony Parker. As we all know now, head coach Mark Jackson can't resist a size advantage in the post. So Barnes got lots of touches, scored often and furthered the illusion he had turned a corner.

As Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN points out, we all mistook volume for efficiency: 

The result was plenty of points for Barnes (an average of 17.3 over the six-game series), but at a below-average 51.4 percent true shooting mark. Since raw point totals still command a lot of respect, many filed Barnes’ series as a breakout performance.

This year, Barnes has been playing more but producing less. That's not supposed to happen for a promising second-year player under any circumstances, but it's particularly noticeable because of the hype that attached itself to Barnes after last season.

 

Steps Backward

There's more to Barnes' underwhelming year than unmet expectations, though. He's newly hesitant on offense, frustratingly unwilling to act decisively and seemingly afraid of making mistakes.

Naturally, mistakes are exactly what have followed.

Barnes seems intent on making the perfect play, but winds up turning easy shots into difficult ones. He shies away from contact more than ever, negating his natural strength and athleticism.

Overall, we've seen marginal statistical declines across the board. 

On the positive side, Barnes is hitting at a higher accuracy rate from long distance. So, at least this year hasn't been a complete step backward.

Pinning the full blame on Barnes isn't fair, though. His role is all wrong, both in terms of what he's asked to do and with whom he's asked to do it. It's unclear where the notion of Barnes-as-creator originated, but we've got more than enough evidence to know now that the small forward should only score when set up by others.

That means his role as an isolation and post-up threat on an offensively bankrupt second unit is, quite literally, the worst possible situation for him. Thrust into such an ill-fitting position, Barnes has stalled the offense all year, failed to generate any game-to-game consistency and, worst of all, lost a lot of confidence.

Barnes' Points Per Play
Points per Play NBA Rank
Isolation .71 115
Post-Up .78 89
Spot-Up 1.07 82
Cut 1.15 109
Transition 1.29 35

via Synergy Sports

Just look at his effectiveness on different types of plays. It doesn't take the 2005 version of Mike D'Antoni to figure out how Barnes should be utilized on offense.

 

Angry Aussies and Perturbed Preachers

Fortunately for Barnes (and unfortunately for everyone else), the Warriors have bigger problems than the stalled development of a reserve forward. Andrew Bogut missed four straight games heading into the All-Star break with a shoulder injury, and from the sound of it, there's cause for concern:

There's no such thing as "day-to-day" for Bogut. His is an injury history that features long stretches of inactivity, not the odd game missed here or there.

Bogut checks in at No. 2 in the Dubs' "Indispensability Rankings," just after resident All-Star starter Stephen Curry. If he's not right for the stretch run, a lottery berth is very much in play for Golden State.

Making matters worse, there was a brief spat between Jackson and Bogut that played out in the media before the Warriors took on the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 10. Jackson made some fairly innocuous comments about the source of Bogut's injury, to which the ornery big man took exception.

This was the first instance of any potential discord under Jackson's reign, and the coach went way overboard in emphasizing the perfect unity of his troops.

Per Steve Berman of BayAreaSportsGuy.com, Jackson forcefully stated after the Sixers game:

Please don’t twist my words. Understand this also—you will never see a problem in my locker room. You will not see a problem in my locker room, with my group. We are tied together, we are committed. This is not the old culture. This is a new culture. Thank you.

The response was unquestionably defensive and might have revealed Jackson's awareness of the pressure coming down from on high.

The truth is, the Warriors don't really have a "big problem." But if you're looking for something that comes close, it'd probably be good to start with the man who uses so many possessives to define the team, the locker room and the players.

If Jackson insists on verbally claiming ownership over so many facets of the Warriors, he's the man who has to answer for things when they go wrong.

Warriors management isn't satisfied with this team's performance, and it's not unreasonable to expect a little tension between the front office and Jackson.

Especially with owner Joe Lacob saying things like this when Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News asked him about his thoughts on Jackson the day after those blustery comments:

I think you’re always evaluating everybody, whether it be the players, the coaches… It’s hard to know, if you don’t quite win a few games you should, is it the coach’s fault? Is it the players’ fault? It’s hard to say. I think we’ll have to look back on a body of work at the end of the season and look at that and make an evaluation.

I do think our coach has done a good job–we have had some big wins, a lot of wins on the road, and that’s usually a sign of good coaching. But some things are a little disturbing–the lack of being up for some of these games at home, that’s a concern to me.

Hardly a ringing endorsement.

 

Triage

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Overall, though, the Warriors are in good shape. They still have Curry, Andre Iguodala and an ownership group obsessed with pushing the organization into the league's elite. That's a lot more than most teams have.

Yes, Barnes is a disappointment, and if I had to bet on it right now, I'd say he's not going to develop into the impact player many thought he would. But he's 21; it'd be foolish to bet on anything about Barnes' future at this early juncture.

Golden State has to sort out Bogut's health and decide if Jackson is the right man to lead this roster. After that, it can worry about Barnes.

 

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