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Golden State Warriors Smart to Be Shrewd in Harrison Barnes Extension Talks

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 28, 2015

May 19, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes (40) dunks the basketball against Houston Rockets guard Corey Brewer (33) during the fourth quarter in game one of the Western Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Rockets 110-106. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The temptation to overpay Harrison Barnes on a new extension is very real, especially for a Golden State Warriors team that deeply values continuity.

But giving in to temptation, to the allure of a championship status quo at any cost, would be a mistake—one that would ignore an equally important mandate of this Warriors regime: Pay players less than their market rates whenever possible.

The competing concerns of continuity and stinginess collide in the Warriors' dealings with Barnes, who will hit restricted free agency next summer if he doesn't sign a rookie extension before the end of October.

Golden State justifiably wants to keep its core intact, because there's a demonstrated value in growing a team over multiple seasons together. Players learn about each other, develop trust—you know, psychological stuff.

Or, as ESPN.com's Amin Elhassan describes it, culinary stuff:

In today's NBA, perhaps the most valuable commodity is continuity. Identity and culture can't happen if they aren't given a chance to develop organically and sustained. I often use the analogy of baking a cake, where you have to put the cake mix in the oven for 20 minutes at 400 degrees; you can't put the oven to 800 degrees and expect the process to occur twice as fast.

The Warriors and Barnes have gotten the time and temperature right so far, but the benefits of continuing to cook together now butt up against the colder reality of NBA finance.

Barnes passed on a four-year, $64 million extension from the Dubs earlier in September. The offer wasn't quite a low-ball pitch, but it clearly wasn't a no-brainer to accept either. Barnes' rejection is proof of that.

The new salary-cap math means an annual salary of $16 million is the rough equivalent of $11 million under the old system—more than the salary for an average starter, but not much more. Coming off of a career year in which he shot a higher percentage than ever and ably defended much bigger players in the postseason, Barnes might very well be much better than a league-average starter.

But he was (and is) also in an absolutely ideal position for success—a position the Warriors put him in after a disastrous sophomore season. Gifted the starting small forward job over the more established and effective Andre Iguodala, Barnes subsisted on a diet of spoon-fed threes and easy finishes set up by Golden State's more dangerous offensive stars.

The Warriors rarely asked Barnes to create his own shots in isolation or in the post, and it limited his ball-handling significantly. Flaws hidden and strengths emphasized, Barnes thrived as a role player.

There will be as many as 20 teams with at least $20 million in cap space to spend next summer when Barnes can hit restricted free agency. Surely a few of them will believe Barnes, still just 23, is capable of succeeding in a much bigger role—even if all of the evidence from his career to this point suggests his game is better suited to the smaller, deliberately limited one he played last year.

There will be gamblers willing to bet on Barnes as a star. And even if there aren't, there will be teams standing around with palms upturned and pockets loaded wondering what to do with their sudden salary-cap windfall.

Either way, it's perfectly reasonable to assume Barnes will field offers in the four-year, $80 million range in the summer of 2016—which is why he so quickly turned down the Warriors' smaller bid.

Golden State understands the changing financial landscape that contributed to Barnes' rejection, but it must also be a little miffed about it. After all, getting players to take less money than they might otherwise get on the market (in exchange for an ideal work environment, success and terrific culture) is something of a Warriors staple.

Stephen Curry is still playing on a four-year, $44 million pact. Klay Thompson took an extension for less than the max last summer, and Draymond Green left money on the table to sign for less than the max in July.

History shows the Warriors have no problem making long-term commitments and preserving roster continuity...as long as they can do it at a discount. Celebrate the shooting, the character, the defensive brilliance, the coaching and the ownership all you want; Golden State's ever-lengthening streak of team-friendly contracts is an integral part of its success.

The Warriors didn't get to where they are by submitting to the wisdom of the market.

Signing Barnes to an extension at or near the max would make him the highest'-paid player on the team in 2016-17 when that extension kicks in, and there's simply no realistic scenario in which he'll be anything more than the fourth- or fifth-best player on the roster. This is not a team likely to fracture because of financial jealousy, but that hypothetical scenario is jarring.

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 15: Klay Thompson #11, Harrison Barnes #40, Stephen Curry #30, and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors sit on the sideline during a game against the Denver Nuggets on April 15, 2015 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. N
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Losing Barnes in free agency would be a blow to chemistry and continuity, but if his exit comes about because he wouldn't take a discount like Curry, Green, Thompson and even Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala, perhaps it wouldn't be a surefire chemistry killer. 

Dubbed "The Senator" by Warriors color commentator Jim Barnett, Barnes is unfailingly polite and uncontroversial. If no extension materializes this offseason, he won't pout or poison the team with his dissatisfaction. But he might very well leave as a free agent 10 months from now.

Can the Warriors find someone on the market who'll shoot at least 40 percent on wide-open threes and defend power forwards occasionally? With something around $20 million in saved opportunity costs, that might be easier than you think. At the very least, they could allocate the money they would have spent on a Barnes extension toward multiple players who could fill those gaps.

Or on a wing to eventually replace Iguodala.

Or on a center to take over for Bogut if Ezeli doesn't sign his own extension.

Or on any number of other role-player needs.

Because here's the thing: Barnes is a role player, and while the possibility of him taking another step is real, that step would have to be unfathomably huge to justify a max or near-max contract extension.

If Barnes develops defensively, are the Warriors ever going to take the toughest assignments away from Green? If he expands his offensive game, would they siphon shots from Curry or Thompson?

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors celebrates a three pointer in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Six of the 2015 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NO
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

No way. Forget it.

Because of the talent already on the roster, Barnes won't be a star for the Warriors—certainly not during the four-year window of a potential extension. He can certainly get better at his role, which would undoubtedly strengthen the team. But unless he becomes a flat-out superstar on both ends, it will never make sense for the Warriors to pay him like one.

Whatever Barnes is worth on the market to teams in need of a potential star, he's worth less to the Warriors, who already have plenty.

Still, you can't begrudge Barnes for turning down the Warriors' extension offer. He's playing things the smart way, according to Marcus Thompson of the Bay Area News Group:

Why would Barnes do this? Perhaps because he can see the writing on the wall. He’s the obvious trade bait for Kevin Durant. He’s been hearing it for at least a year. So whatever Barnes gets from the Warriors, as long as it’s significantly less than the $30 million they’d sign Durant to, would be a deal. He already knows they are willing to pay max for his position. If Barnes gets $20 million a year, it’s still a tradable contract and would be a big savings for OKC if he’s sent there in a trade.

Shrewd.

The Warriors are being shrewd, too. They haven't made the mistake of negotiating against themselves after extending a solid offer, and they don't plan to pay max money for someone who, on their roster, can never produce like a max player—even if they think there's a plausible scenario in which Barnes is a key piece of the pipe-dream sign-and-trade deal that lands Kevin Durant next summer.

Barnes is right to chase a huge payday, and the Dubs are right to deny him one.

Follow Grant Hughes on Twitter @gt_hughes

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