Every now and then, we will tackle some of the hot topics being discussed in the Warriors World Forums.
By Angus Crawford (@gus_crawford)
Following his breakout performance across twelve games in the 2013 playoffs, many had penciled in Harrison Barnes as a staple of the Golden State Warriors’ starting lineups of the future.
Having averaged 9.2 points per game on 43.9 percent field-goal shooting during his rookie campaign, Barnes exhibited a well-rounded offensive attack in Golden State’s two postseason series against the Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs, en route to 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per contest. This spike in scoring volume was largely trigged by back-to-back 25+ point games in the second-round series with the Spurs, including an outing that featured a career-high 26 field goal attempts.
To an extent, Barnes’ burst onto the playoff scene was both impressive and unexpected. An untimely hip ailment for David Lee, in congruence with the team’s first-round upset and thrust into deeper playoff play, enhanced the North Carolina prodigy’s role in the rotation and prompted a hefty jump in minutes from 25.4 to 38.4 per game.
In a number of respects, though, a lot has changed for the Warriors’ and their second-year forward since a 97-87 overtime victory over San Antonio on May 12 (where Barnes netted a game-high 26). The addition of Andre Iguodala via an offseason sign-and-trade, the departure of last season’s veteran bench duo of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, health concerns, and an unwanted, stuttered start to the 2013-14 season have plagued the seemingly certain place in the rotation for the rangy wingman.
As a result, frustration – particularly on the Warriors World forum – has quietly bubbled in fan circles. The team clearly lacks depth on the frontline (exacerbated by the lengthy sideline stints for Festus Ezeli and Jermaine O’Neal), and the cabinet of future assets that could be used to swing a move is looking barren.
Overwhelmingly, the Warriors’ future financial flexibility is tied to David Lee – the productive yet overpaid four-man whose lengthy, albatross salary evaporates any room for free agency maneuvers to complement the roster’s existing core.
According to Sham Sports, Lee is owed $13.8M this season, and over $15 million each of the next two. Unless Golden State can come to terms with the notion of shipping out Klay Thompson (who is due a handsome extension of his own in the near future), then the case to be made for trading Harrison Barnes is inevitably tied to Lee’s cap-crippling contract.
Barnes, attached to his rookie-scale deal for this season and the next three, carries value that would be marginalized considerably if grouped with Lee in a trade. A look at some key data, however, highlights how sentiments of disappointment and gloominess related to Harrison Barnes’ play is not altogether warranted.
Here are his Per-36 breakdowns for the 2012-13 season, 2013 playoffs, and the 27 games he has featured in thus far this year, respectively:
13.1ppg 43.9% FG 35.9% 3FG 75.8% FT
15.1ppg 44.4% FG 36.5% 3FG 85.7% FT
13.6ppg 44.2% FG 41.0% 3FG 69.9% FT
Barring a clear drop-off in conversion at the charity stripe, those three sets of figures (relatively) parallel one another, no? There have been grumblings and complaints about the sophomore’s passing (or lack thereof) and hesitation on offense, though, so let’s take a closer look at the numbers.
Per NBA.com statistics, Barnes’ usage rate for the ’12-13 season finished at 17.6, near identical to his current mark of 18.0. Meanwhile, approximately 42.1 percent of his attempts from the field come from within eight feet of the basket – above the league average rate. This has risen from 35.2 percent in the 2013 playoff stretch. Moreover, his FTr (the number of free throws attempted per field goal attempted) has trended upwardly, when compared to the “breakout” postseason display. After recording a FTr of 21.6 percent in twelve playoff games, Barnes has bolstered that measure up to 25.8 percent in the 2014 season, courtesy of basketball-reference.com.
In addition to this, some of the available data suggests that Barnes has incrementally improved his propensity to pass the ball – at least relative to his individual touches. Last season, he registered an assist percentage of 7.2 percent and an assist ratio (the number of times a player assists a teammate per his 100 possessions on the floor) of 10.8. Those have been lifted ever so slightly to 8.8 percent and a ratio of 11.7 to date in 2014.
Realistically, Golden State is unlikely to discover a player equal to Barnes’ talent level on such a friendly deal (rookie scale), yet if the fans’ pressing worries about his stagnation and the dearth of frontcourt production are as tangible as they seem, it may be a worthy exercise to consider his market value. Let’s trawl through some hypothetical scenarios, with the aim to achieve one of two objectives – swapping Barnes for capable low-post player, and/or shedding the remaining two-and-a-half years of Lee’s contract.
Scenario #1 – Trading Barnes, Jermaine O’Neal, and Nemanja Nedovic to the Houston Rockets for Omer Asik
With O’Neal out indefinitely and Nedovic primarily plying his trade in Santa Cruz, this is essentially a straight-up swap of Barnes for the disgruntled Omer Asik. Houston reportedly shopped Asik hard – widely recognized as a defensive force on the interior – prior to their self-imposed deadline of December 19.
The Rockets were without success, but the Turkish seven-footer will have to be moved before the deadline. Flipping Barnes for the elite rebounding and post presence of Asik would represent a clear upgrade over the Warriors’ current 4 and 5 rotations, while affording the up-tempo Rockets the chance to slot Barnes alongside Dwight Howard in a stretch-four role.
Perhaps the main issue with this hypothetical: if Asik lost confidence and became discontented with reduced minutes in a bench role behind Howard, what’s to say he would be willing to accept a similar spot on this Golden State team? It would be highly unlikely.
Moreover, one of the foremost caveats of Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey’s Asik trade pursuits was an inherent desire to send the international big man to an Eastern Conference team. Clearly, a deal with the Warriors would neglect this fundamental condition.
Scenario #2 – Trading Barnes and David Lee to the Detroit Pistons for Greg Monroe, Charlie Villanueva, and Jonas Jerebko
This may be the most intriguing of the three listed ideas. A trade within this framework may force the Warriors to relinquish a greater sum of talent on paper, but would provide a younger, cheaper replacement for Lee, help to clean up the books, and potentially pad the bench rotation.
Villanueva’s $8.58 million contract expires at the end of this season, while Jerebko holds a player option worth $4.5 million for ‘14-15. The motivation for Detroit here would likely lie with avoiding Greg Monroe’s impending contract extension in the offseason. Monroe’s rookie deal is nearing its end, and depending on his play from hereon out, he could be a candidate for a max-level extension once he reaches restricted free agency.
That’s a lingering, head scratching problem for a team that is just recently coming off an expensive free-agency window, and must leave room for an eventual Andre Drummond extension.
With this, the Warriors could solidify the starting five for the future, without having to immediately commit to any burdensome long-term salary. Monroe is perhaps not as polished a player on offense as Lee, but the room for growth outweighs any difference in current production.
For Detroit, this generates the opportunity to build around a nucleus of Drummond, Barnes, Brandon Jennings, and Josh Smith, while only being tied to Lee for two additional seasons beyond this one. Both teams have entered the “win-now” mindset. Golden State is clearly further advanced in their ascension, however.
This would be an interesting case of two teams giving up on lottery picks relatively early, with the potential for it to bite back on either side. Could the Pistons legitimately talk themselves into a Smith-Lee-Drummond trio?
Scenario #3 – Trading Barnes, Jermaine O’Neal, and Ognjen Kuzmic to the Toronto Raptors for Amir Johnson
Golden State fans are all too familiar with the work of Amir Johnson. Across his last two trips to Oracle Arena, Johnson has average 19.5 points per game and 12.5 rebounds per game.
As a result of Johnson’s steady progress, valued defense, and increasing role in the Raptors’ organization, this is a trade that would likely have had to happen in July or August, rather than near the February deadline.
It was suggested earlier in the season that everybody on Toronto’s roster – bar Jonas Valanciunas – could be had for the right price. On the back of the Raptors’ recent play, division lead, and Johnson’s development, that might not still be the case.
Furthermore, any potential move centered on Amir Johnson would assuredly attract an insistence upon a first-round pick in return from the crafty Masai Ujiri, something that the Warriors do not have in abundance.
Moving Barnes for Johnson, with O’Neal and Kuzmic attached as salary-fillers, could theoretically deliver the rebounding punch and defensive consistency that fans are craving. But are the Warriors close enough to “contention” that acquiring the likes of Johnson could justify selling low on Barnes AND dispensing future picks? It doesn’t appear so, and going to the negotiation table with Ujiri hasn’t boded too well for opposing front offices in recent memory.
To recap, there are causes for the fans’ annoyance with Barnes’ perceived inertia. Barely a season and a half into his career and at 21 years old, moving Harrison Barnes at this juncture would reap a greater risk than any possible reward.
Although his play might have appeared to Warriors fans as overly passive, inconsistent and/or unreliable, attempting to convert his value on the open market into a form of frontcourt “solution” would be short-sighted, at best.
The team’s flexibility for transactions is heavily restricted, something that onlookers have been cognizant of since the all-in maneuvers of dumping salary (Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins) with future first-round picks, and penning Iguodala to a four-year deal.
Getting production from players on rookie-scale contracts is arguably the most valuable commodity an NBA team can possess, and Golden State would seemingly be best to ride out Harrison Barnes’ developing young career before making such a significant personnel decision.