Harrison Barnes plays an aggressive style of basketball in a passive way. This contradiction has given him a false reputation as a guy who mentally floats in and out of contests.
His game is based on attacking. He is most effective when he asserts himself as a scorer and is incredibly gifted as an above-the-rim finisher, slasher, mid-range shooter and exploiter of mismatches. However, Barnes is not an attacker by mindset, only by skill set.
In many ways, the Golden State Warriors small forward has the mentality of a role-playing point guard. Think Derek Fisher. He doesn't demand the ball or even seem to want it most of the time. He hangs out on the perimeter and waits for the ball to come to him. When it does, he either swings it, takes a three or takes whatever space is given to him.
A player like the recently retired Fisher is designed to float. He can have a game in which he scores three points, and it's perfectly acceptable because he has spaced the floor and moved the ball, making things easier for the team's more aggressive players.
There are two problems that arise when a player like Barnes takes this approach to the game.
The first is that he doesn't have the skill set to play this style effectively. He isn't a knockdown three-point shooter (35.2 percent for his career), nor is he a high-level passer. He doesn't make quick, fluid decisions and doesn't do much dirty work.
The second problem is that Barnes is supposed to be the guy who the floaters are making things easier for. He should be the guy who uses the space created by the floor stretchers. He should be guy receiving the swing pass and attacking, not the guy swinging it.
Many attribute Barnes' inconsistent production to inconsistent focus. When he has one of his 16-point, eight-rebound games on 7-of-12 shooting, he is "engaged." When he puts up four points and one board on 2-of-9 shooting, he is "disengaged."
There is some truth to this, but the fact is that most NBA players bring varying levels of intensity on a night-to-night basis. However, few players produce as much variance in their game-to-game numbers as Barnes does.
That's not focus; that's all about a skill set not matching a mindset.
When Barnes has a good game, it's because his aggression has been enabled by others. Those "others" could be his teammates, coaching staff or the opposition, but it's almost never him. He is passive by nature. His instincts are those of a cerebral, yet physically inferior, athlete who takes what is given to him even though his body is that of a physically superior athlete who tries to grab what his opponent is focused on denying him.
It is common knowledge that the best stretch of Barnes' career came during the 2013 playoffs when he averaged 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 44.4 percent field-goal shooting and 36.5 percent three-point shooting.
An injury to starting power forward David Lee pushed Barnes to the 4, where he faced nightly mismatches.
As Stephen Curry, Jarrett Jack, Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut made defenses work, double-team, switch, scramble and contort, Barnes was left with easy decisions.
When he looked up at a post player like Kenneth Faried or Tiago Splitter guarding him on the three-point line, he knew to attack them off the dribble. When he noticed a diminutive defender like Tony Parker or Ty Lawson had switched onto him, he would take them to the post and overpower them, or simply rise up and shoot right over them.
This wasn't Barnes being engaged. It was Barnes being Barnes. He was assessing the situation, recognizing the mismatch and reacting accordingly.
It has been equally well-documented that the worst stretch of Barnes' career came last season as Golden State's sixth man.
After being injured to open the season and then starting in place of the injured Andre Iguodala, Barnes was Golden State's go-to guy off the bench from Dec. 17 to the end of the year. During those final 57 games, Barnes averaged 7.9 points and 3.9 rebounds on 36.1 percent field-goal shooting and 32.6 percent three-point shooting.
As the focal point of the bench unit, he either had to operate with the ball in his hands or play off the ball while Jordan Crawford or Steve Blake attempted to run the offense.
He didn't draw mismatches; he drew top defenders. He didn't have options created for him; he had to create the options himself. He struggled mightily.
This wasn't Barnes being disengaged. It was him being himself, and part of Barnes' makeup is that he is not inherently aggressive. He attacks when attacking seems possible or smart, and he defers when it does not.
Again, the problem is that Barnes has the skill set of a guy who should always be attacking while lacking the skills necessary to make a strong impact as a cerebral, conservative role player.
Barnes is unlikely to change his mentality; part of being passive is being unable to stop being passive. For him to have a bounce-back season and revitalize his promising, young career, he will need to be put in a role that will make it easy for him to attack.
That's where Steve Kerr comes in.
Former head coach Mark Jackson had a tough decision to make last offseason, and he made the right choice. He chose to start Thompson over Barnes, as Thompson's shooting and perimeter defense was more important to the starting lineup.
He also made the calculation that Barnes would be better than Thompson at creating his own offense off the bench. Thompson was never put in a position to do so and thus wasn't able to prove Jackson right or wrong, but it became clear that Barnes could not create much.
Jackson's biggest failing during what was an otherwise well-coached season was his unwillingness to shuffle Golden State's lineups. While the starting five was the best unit in the NBA, the bench was one of the worst.
Bringing Barnes into the starting lineup, or at least playing him with starters more often, would have worked wonders for his production. It may or may not have caused problems elsewhere.
It was a risk that Jackson opted not to take, which is a decision that Kerr would be wise not to repeat.
The most practical way of getting Barnes to return to form is by placing him in the starting lineup and moving Lee to the bench.
While the starting lineup would lose rebounding, playmaking from the post and inside scoring, it would gain floor spacing, athleticism and defensive versatility. Barnes can pull opposing big men out of the paint and create driving lanes offensively. His ability to guard multiple positions would be an upgrade over Lee, who can only guard very specific types of players with any success.
This switch could be a net gain, a wash or a slight loss for the starters. However, Lee is almost guaranteed to be a better sixth man than Barnes, thus bolstering the bench and making the overall impact a positive one.
Lee's ability to create his own offense, make plays for others, rebound and do dirty work would greatly enhance the bench unit. His production might dip slightly, but every other reserve player would benefit.
The only problem with this approach to rebooting Barnes is that Lee may not take kindly to being demoted to sixth-man duties. It's easy to brush this off and say, "He's a professional athlete, he'll deal with it," but Lee is also one of the Warriors' most important off-the-court leaders.
If he's not happy and there's tension in the locker room, one of the most harmonious groups in the league could become somewhat undone.
Unfortunately, there's no other viable way of getting Barnes into the starting lineup. Curry and Bogut are essential starters. Thompson still needs to start for the same reasons he did last year.
Iguodala is just as important to the locker room as Lee and just as likely to take unkindly to not starting. While he could, like Lee, thrive as a bench playmaker, he's not an efficient scorer or shooter and thus cannot play alongside other inefficient scorers and shooters like Shaun Livingston, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli.
If Lee refuses to go to the bench or Kerr decides against asking him to, the only other way to put Barnes in a better position is to play him with the starters much more often. If Kerr can keep his veterans happy by starting them, he may still be able to stagger the minutes so that Barnes ends up playing much of the game with the starters.
Jackson favored platoon swaps last season, bringing in his entire bench unit rather than integrating them with his starting lineup. This hurt his bench's productivity, but the idea was that it maximized his starter's effectiveness by keeping them together. He was also hoping that keeping the reserve group intact would lead to them becoming familiar with each other and comfortable in their roles.
This is another mistake that Kerr must learn from, especially if Barnes remains on the bench.
Everyone wants Barnes to be a certain way. They want him to be a ruthless scorer, one who is never afraid to attack his matchup, the lane and the rim all in quick succession. But this is not who he is even when he appears to be doing so.
That dunk is unequivocally the most famous play of Barnes' young career, and it is used as the example for who he could and should be. However, the play should instead serve as an example of who he is.
Watch what really happens on that sequence while keeping in mind that Barnes is, for lack of a better term, a passively aggressive player.
He does not destroy a top-notch defender, drive the lane with his head down and rise up despite a lurking shot-blocker. He is simply spacing the floor, hanging out on the perimeter while Lee draws a double-team in the post.
Barnes realizes that he has been left completely open and also notices that his man is nowhere between him and the rim. So he takes what is offered—a wide-open cut down the lane. As he receives the pass from Lee, he sees that Nikola Pekovic, who is generally a poor rim protector, is late rotating over. So he elevates, finishes, dazzles and stares.
This was not Barnes showing a flash of unabashed aggression. It was him reading the situation, taking what the defense gave him and using his explosiveness to execute a play that few others could.
It was classic Barnes, and the reason we saw plays like that far more often during his rookie season was not that he was more engaged. It was that he was put in a position where they came naturally to him.
Call him frustrating, disappointing, timid or otherwise, but Barnes is who he is. He will defer until he finds himself in position to attack, and it is up to his new coach to put him in those situations as much as possible.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com
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