There’s been moments in the 2016 NBA Finals where Golden State’s Harrison Barnes has looked untouchable. Through his smothering defense he’s put on Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert and J.R Smith, to his compatible court awareness amid a flurry of offensive artistry. As he battles for a contract extension this off-season, Barnes is stepping up during a time when others have faltered. Not only that, but his spike in performance is a vital reason why his Warriors are knocking on the doorstep of NBA lore.
Four games into these Finals, it’s obvious that Steve Kerr’s vow to squeeze out every ounce of his roster on a championship team is molding into a true testament of skill, knowledge and adaptability. That’s because Barnes, so often the forgotten Warrior, has quietly been Golden State’s most consistent player in this series, averaging 12.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field and 42.9 percent on 3-pointers.
Barnes was especially effective in the first quarter of Game 4, when the Warriors were trying to adapt to the bigger and “re-energized” Cleveland lineup – the same blueprint that doomed them in Game 3. The four-year small forward and No. 7 pick of the 2012 NBA Draft scored eight of the Warriors’ first 10 points, including two 3-pointers, and added four rebounds. Early in the fourth quarter, with the Cavaliers having seized an 83-81 lead, Barnes set off a critical 13-1 Warriors run with a 3-pointer to snag control and never look back.
Not all of his production has been flashy, but Barnes’ versatility – by defending multiple positions, knowing where he is on the court and even branching out as a worthy shooter is extending the life of Golden State’s already deep lineup. His versatility has stood out in times of need, such as stepping up when stars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s production have been cut off, rising as a compliment for Andre Iguodala on the wing, or lending a hand when the Warriors seek an additional ball handler. Barnes has essentially evolved into Golden State’s integral force and also an impact player who demands a revamp of minutes.
Barnes’ use of cutting and court awareness has been masterful
There’s two terms that define the Warriors’ offense entirely: spacing and movement. They’re staples that exist repeatedly and without it, enables Golden State from reaching its fullest potential. In Golden State’s three wins this series they’ve outperformed Cleveland in fast-break points, holding a 15-point advantage, they’re also +27 in assists, and have shot 43 percent from three-point range.
A fine example of the Warriors and Barnes utilizing these two factors correctly is roughly two minutes into Game One, which is further explained in a GIF.
In the first one, center Andrew Bogut is backing down Kevin Love 12 feet from the basket. There’s nothing to exploit on his side, but at the same time, action is brewing near the top of the key, where Golden State’s guards begin to work off-the-ball. Trying to create separation, Steph Curry sets a down screen to the Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving. Somehow, LeBron James gets sucked up in the screen, allowing him to instantly lose his man Harrison Barnes.
While Tristan Thompson stays home on the backside, he commits to defending Draymond Green on the wing for a split second too late. Harrison Barnes recognizes the delay and exploits it by cutting to the basket making it an easy backdoor connection from Bogut.
The second and final GIF demonstrates precisely how Barnes has excelled so much in this year’s Finals. This time, Barnes doesn’t need his teammate’s help to get free and allow vertical movement off-the-ball, because he does it all by himself.
Golden State’s possession starts on a fast-break, however Cleveland does a commendable job of getting back that they negate any sort of run out. Unfortunately, the spacing throughout this play is awkward as four of Cleveland’s five players are left ball-watching on one side of the floor. So when that happens, a gaping hole on the weak side forms.
Barnes picks up that gaping hole by running the baseline and catches a pass from Draymond Green near the painted area. With the Cavs’ defense all out of sorts, they completely forget where they are on the court. Barnes takes advantage of this by driving around Kyrie Irving, who was Cleveland’s lone defender playing his position on the play. At the end of the day, the final result is an easy layup.
Barnes is handling the multitude of positions admirably
What makes Golden State so difficult to keep up with isn’t just the wave of bodies they’ll throw at you, but also the myriad of positions each one of them can play. Draymond Green, who is suspended for Game 5, takes on this role the best out of anyone on the Warriors’ roster. Green may be listed at 6’9”, but his length, quickness and range allows him to transition to all five positions on the court smoothly.
All of the same can be said for Barnes, too. While he may not feature the stature of Green, he does employ a shooting stroke, driving ability and passing prowess that converts him into several positions. For the regular season and into the playoffs, Barnes’ minutes were calculated at each position. In total, 40% of his minutes were spent at the SF spot, which is his primary position, 50% at PF and remaining 10% at C.
This inclination alone gives Steve Kerr options of how he wants to structure his lineup – either committing to a smaller lineup that enforces guards to shoot and forwards to penetrate – or going big – allowing centers to double-down on screens and isolation plays.
How does all of this translate?
The Warriors are like a well put-together engine; every piece has value and every section has its’ limits. On a team like Golden State, who’s roster is so fragile that any slight deviation could alter their play, it’s important their “engine” is maintained properly. This means that painful moves must be made in the off-season and contracts are eaten. In Barnes’ case, his situation is unique in the sense that his value is exponentially rises based off his remarkable performance in this year’s playoffs alone. This in itself makes him a sexy and valuable free agent this summer once his $3.8 million contract expires.
Barnes’ qualifying offer is slotted at $5.1 million and that can certainly be full-filled if indeed Golden State wants to pursue his assets. With fellow guards Leandro Barbosa and Shaun Livingston as well as center Festus Ezeli all entering free agency either unrestricted or dangling with a qualifying offer, it makes more and more sense that Golden State extends Barnes’ contract.
Unlike any of those three players listed, however, Barnes carries a plethora of skill-sets that makes him interchangeable anywhere on their roster.
Because quite frankly, Golden State is closing the book on a monumental season, one that witnessed smashing the best regular-season win total ever and adding their name to list of back-to-back champions. Through their run of revival and dominance, it’s been unsung heroes who’ve done the damage for them. Sometimes you must pay players like that. Harrison Barnes is one of those players, a player that grants the Warriors’ so much more than what lies at the surface.