This summer, some NBA team is going to sign Harrison Barnes to a contract starting at, at least, $20 million annually. Some team might even sign him to a max contract, which will start around $23 million.
In related news, this summer some team is going to make a huge mistake.
Barnes is adjudged to be around the tenth best free agent available this summer, and likely higher when you consider that players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are unlikely to go anywhere. A dozen or more teams will have max cap room, thanks to the massive infusion of money from the new broadcast deal, and so, inevitably, somebody is going to give Barnes a ton of money.
If you watched Barnes for the first time last night, you’re probably dumbfounded. In an NBA Finals game in which he was the closest simulacrum for the suspended Draymond Green, Barnes played terribly. In 38 minutes he went 2-14 from the field, for an underwhelming five points and five rebounds. He went just 1-6 from three, even though he was wide open on five of those attempts. The other eight shots were vintage Bad Barnes: meandering drives, busted fadeaways over smaller players, and weak takes to the rim that were easily turned aside.
Of course, one game does not a career make, and Barnes’s best game of the playoffs was the previous one, Game 4 of the Finals. He scored eight of the Warriors first 10 points, brought great energy to begin the game, and put in a solid defensive performance. The box score says he shot 5-11 (4-5 from three) for 14 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and a steal. But moreso than Barnes’s stinker in Game 5, Game 4 illustrates the problem. The most compelling evidence for Barnes’s value is a tidy 14/8 performance. That’s what somebody is going to pay $23 million for.
This is where I note that the NBA is not a free market, and is in fact quite a distorted market. Part of the sticker shock at what some team will pay for Barnes’s services is due to the salary cap rising tens of millions of dollars, having nothing to do with Barnes specifically. And a ceiling on contract values means players like James and Kevin Durant are underpaid, and thus other players will get max contracts who don’t “deserve” them. But the point remains that somebody is going to pay way too much goddamn money for Barnes.
Per 36 minutes in the playoffs, Barnes is averaging 10.6 points on 41 percent shooting, and 5.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists. In the regular season those numbers were a tick higher: 13.6 points on 47 percent shooting, 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Those numbers weren’t much different the season before, and a constellation of advanced stats peg him as either a little above average or a little below average player. For instance, among players who played at least 500 minutes this season, Barnes had the 114th best Win Shares Per 48 Minutes, right above Eric Bledsoe and right below Solomon Hill.
Off the basketball court, or on the basketball court but not actually playing basketball, or when dunking on Nikola Pekovic, Harrison Barnes is the platonic ideal of a superstar. He has great size and athleticism, and looks exactly how the perfect modern wing should look. He tries to brand himself perfectly. He’s the heir to Kobe Bryant, or Scottie Pippen.
But on the basketball court, Barnes does everything just fine. He’s good from three and okay in the paint, but terrible at shooting anywhere in-between. He can bring the ball up the court and dribble under pressure, but cannot create his own shot. He’s a fundamentally solid rebounder, but rarely uses his impressive athleticism to rack up steals or blocks. He’s a solid defender on both the perimeter and in the paint, but cannot lockdown top wings.
Within the context of the Golden State Warriors, that’s good enough. On offense Barnes has to keep the ball moving and make his defender respect him by taking ten mostly-open attempts a game. On defense he has to spend a few minutes on the top wing but usually cover the second or third best, switch well, and occasionally battle with a big. He doesn’t have to be the best or even second best on the team at any one thing—that’s what Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are for on offense, and Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala on defense—but rather needs to do many important things adequately.
His role will be very different if he leaves the Warriors. When somebody pays him $90 million because they missed out on the Kevin Durant Sweepstakes, 14 points on 10 shots and seven rebounds a game isn’t going to cut it. Third or fourth bananas isn’t going to cut it. The Lakers, Jazz, Blazers, Hornets, or whichever other poor team that signs Barnes will do so expecting him to sometimes be the best player on the court.
One of the reasons the Warriors became a great team was because of repeated internal growth, as exemplified by Green. Between seasons one and two, he remade his body. Between seasons two and three, he remade his jumper. Between seasons three and four, he remade his handle. But in Barnes’s fourth season he’s largely the same player he was when he entered the league, albeit more polished. It’s actually remarkable how little Barnes’s game has changed:
This isn’t to say Barnes is incapable of growth or improvement—the average player peaks around 27, and he is just 24—just that it will take meteoric rise in his game to get to the point that he’s worth spending 25 percent of a team’s salary cap on.
If the Warriors don’t re-sign Barnes—and as a restricted free agent, they have the right to match any contract he’s offered—the most likely scenario is next season he leads some sad sack team to a 35-47 record, putting up 18 points per game on 40 percent shooting, robotically telegraphing his way to the hoop to get stuffed twice a game. And then repeats that for four years.