Harrison Barnes’ free agency has generated plenty of interest and more than a little anxiety for some Warriors fans. Some of that concern stems from the uncertainty around the possibilities and process that are key factors in his restricted free agency experience.
I will do my best to fully explain what could happen without getting too deep in the weeds.
One of the larger questions surrounding Barnes’ free agency is whether he will be worth his next contract. On a basic level, he will be because the price for even a starting-quality player (much less an above-average one) is going to skyrocket in the very near future. The ballpark number to keep in mind is about $15-20 million per season for a league-average starter. However, the even larger factor for Golden State specifically is that it would be incredibly hard to replace Barnes if they decided he was not worth that kind of yearly salary.
While it is possible for the Warriors to clear the cap space to sign a certain someone who currently plays for the Thunder, that process would require losing players who have been vital parts of the team’s success. My operating assumption is that producing that kind of space would require losing two of Iguodala, Bogut and Barnes and that is not worth it for anyone but KD considering how fantastic this team is already. The Dubs will not create enough cap space to do anything of substance simply by letting Barnes go because of their other commitments.
Despite his disappointing performances recently (most notably against Atlanta on Tuesday with a distinctly not full squad), Harrison Barnes makes the Warriors better. He may be imperfect and sometimes maddening but that is very different than the alternative, particularly with so little cap flexibility. When a franchise is a title contender without the ability to add a replacement they simply cannot afford to let someone go without a much better reason for it.
This leads some people to think about a potential sign-and-trade involving Barnes. While technically possible, there are three major problems that must be addressed:
- Too much cap space around the league– The most common reason for a franchise to give up assets in a sign-and-trade is that they could not acquire the player outright with their own space. There are examples of teams basically securing a player for a contract the prior team was unlikely to match but the price in the current CBA has been very low. For example, the Pelicans gave up Greivis Vasquez to lock in a signed-and-traded Tyreke Evans. The Warriors acting like they will match could raise their haul a little but even a fringe starter would be a huge improvement over recent precedent and not enough to justify that kind of action by Golden State.
- Approval– When a restricted free agent is moved via sign-and-trade, both teams and the player in question must agree to it. That creates a lot of ways it can go wrong, especially with so many potential Barnes suitors around the league. In effect, HB must choose his team first and then those two can negotiate terms which again lowers the return.
- Valuation/Negotiation– Beyond the new team and Barnes agreeing to a contract, the Warriors and that team have to find a trade package they are both happy with. Considering how hard it would be for Golden State to replace his production, this would be incredibly challenging.
This leads to what could be the holy grail of crazy Barnes hypotheticals: the double sign-and-trade. Here, there would have to be a high-end free agent on the team Barnes wants to sign with that is interested in joining the Warriors. Presumably these fits would be Nicolas Batum and the Hornets or Al Horford and the Hawks. Beyond the problem of their current teams wanting to keep those players, this scenario would require desirable free agents take a meeting with a team that has zero way to acquire them unless Harrison Barnes chooses their prior team over everyone else. The July Moratorium stalling moves makes this a sliver of a possibility but still very pie in the sky. Also, it would mean that the Warriors would be hard capped so they could not spend more than $4 million over the luxury tax line. That unavoidable condition if they acquire anyone via sign-and-trade could constrain them on other summer decisions like re-signing Festus Ezeli and using other exceptions.
The Most Likely Scenario
Golden State has a potent combination of incredibly high stakes, limited replacement options and match rights. Without having a new starting forward already lined up, it would be shockingly imprudent for the front office to do anything other than match the best offer sheet Barnes can scrounge up. The Warriors could also offer Barnes the security of a fifth season (likely with a lower starting salary because of the larger raises a player’s prior team can offer) but I expect he would prefer a three year deal with a player option anyway since he could then become an unrestricted free agent at age 27.
The offseason calendar works to the Warriors’ advantage as well. This year’s July Moratorium is an astonishing eleven days, three longer than last summer’s interminable wait. The NBA’s rules prohibit Barnes from signing an offer sheet with another team until after the moratorium lifts so the three-day clock for matching cannot start until then. That means even if HB does not play ball in the slightest the Warriors have two full weeks to figure everything out. The front office will know if Durant chooses not to come (or even if he does and the team chooses Barnes over Iguodala and Bogut to be the other retained piece) in plenty of time to make an informed decision. In all likelihood, the Warriors would even have a window to feel out whether Barnes’ chosen team has any interest in making a sign-and-trade happen just to know even more before they decide.
The most likely scenario is that Durant does not join the Warriors and Barnes gets a lucrative offer from a team not willing to give up nearly enough to convince Bob Myers to let one of his starters go. That presumably leads to the Dubs matching on Barnes and him starting the 2016-17 season in Oakland. However, that would not be the end of the story. If Barnes continues to look like a reasonable value, there will be teams interested in acquiring him both at the trade deadline and the following summer (2017) which will have another cap spike and even more ridiculous salaries. The deadline possibility is remote because the Warriors will presumably be knee-deep in another high-stakes season and Barnes has the right to veto any trade in the first year after his offer sheet is matched. However, the Warriors could move Barnes that summer without his consent for some combination of players and draft picks. Golden State could conceivably come to an agreement with another team on draft night that involves picks, choose their guy and then consummate the deal in the summer once the restriction lifts. We will have to see how this summer shakes out but there are numerous logical trade partners around the league at that point.
That path allows the Warriors to stay competitive in the near term while maintaining the flexibility to go another direction when more options will be available. Plus, that process also allows them to keep Barnes if they determine he is an essential part of their success which is a very real possibility as well.
Even though it is awkward and murky, the Warriors are in a strong position with Harrison Barnes if they handle it with vision and pragmatism.