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2016 NBA Free Agency: Weighing the strengths and negatives of Harrison Barnes

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Despite what many consider to be an average player at best, Barnes is set to command a max salary this summer, but it may not be a bad investment for teams like the New Orleans Pelicans.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Harrison Barnes was the joke of the 2016 NBA Finals.

We have to talk about this at some point, right?

After averaging 11.7 points (55.9% eFG), 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists -- numbers that were practically similar to his 2015 campaign -- everybody was expecting the same Barnes in the playoffs: wildly infuriating or salivating, depending on which game. Instead, he outdid himself and was sent to the doghouse far sooner than anyone imagined. In fact, in the Finals -- the biggest stage of them all -- Barnes shot 35% from the field (31% from deep), and with the exception of a few great rebounding games (against Thompson and Love, no less), Harrison Barnes was hot garbage.

That shouldn't bode well for him as he enters restricted free agency, especially after turning down a massive $64 million, 4-yr offer from the Golden State Warriors, but his most recent performance is not projected to affect his next contract.

Dell Demps, surely in the market for a suitable wing player to place beside Jrue Holiday and Buddy Hield (maybe even Tyreke Evans if he doesn't trade him) and to backup (or start ahead) of Quincy Pondexter, will look at Barnes as the "best" possible option owing to his age (he's only 24 years old), his ideal size for a big wing (7'0" wingspan, measured really well in the draft combine) and his supposed skill set.

Should he or should he not pursue Harrison Barnes?

The Good

It's always best to start with the good. Harrison Barnes is 24 years old. And he's long. Those two factors combined give one some hope that he has not finished improving. A 24-year-old is still young for an NBA player, as approximately four years of growth remain to reach one's theoretical prime (athletically and mentally).

Besides his physical profile, Barnes offers a lot of the things one would prefer from a modern wing. For instance, can shoot from deep (35.5% career 3PT) -- a hugely important skill in an Anthony Davis-centered offense. He shot 40.8% from C&S 3s over the past 2 seasons. That's elite level (Top 20), not precisely at a Kyle Korver/Klay Thompson level, but closer to Mike Dunleavy/DeMarre Carroll level. That'll help space the floor even more, especially after drafting The Teeth (we should make that a thing), Buddy Hield.

Barnes can also post up smaller wings and guards. When needed, he has a strong base that allows him to get good position in the post. He has that nice little turn around jumper that he likes to use when he settles and he has a couple of power moves he uses when he wants to be aggressive.

Harrison has the size to be a solid wing defender and he was tasked with guarding opposing wing scorers for the minutes when Iggy isn't on the court and in non-crunch time (when Klay usually takes the assignment). And for the most part, he was adequate enough not to be a detriment to his team. His team is just around 1 point per 100 possession better on defense with him off the court so it's not as bad once you consider who usually replaces him (Andre Iguodala).

That's about it, now let's get to the OTHER part.

The Bad

Harrison Barnes is "all hat and no cattle." He looks every part of the young budding star - the length (7'0" wingspan), the supposed skills and the swagger. And he is still young -- he is only 24. But in reality, he doesn't have cows for all that cowboy look he tries to sport.

His numbers over the past two seasons -- and in fact, over the length of his rookie contract -- are nothing short of underwhelming. Averaging 10.1 points (53.5% TS), 4.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists is underwhelming once you consider the fact that Harrison Barnes is playing fourth (maybe even fifth) fiddle behind Curry, Thompson and Green and yet still came out as an average scorer. Usually, low usage players have high efficiencies. Useful and important low usage players, that is. Harrison Barnes coming out as an average efficiency, low usage (15.3% USG) doesn't bode well for to expand into a larger offensive role. Usage and efficiency usually has an inverse relationship -- as usage increases, efficiency goes down. The really good scorers have flatter curves, the really great ones have flat curves (if that even makes sense).

What is Barnes' efficiency curve?

I decided to look at all the players who fit Harrison Barnes' profile: average efficiency, low usage players in their first 3-4 years who were suddenly asked to play a larger role in the years that followed their rookie contract. I stumbled on a couple of players that come to mind: Trevor Ariza, Marquis Daniels, Jimmy Butler and Gerald Wallace. In 3 of those cases (Daniels, Ariza, Wallace), they changed teams after their 3rd or 4th season. How did they fare after the increase in responsibilities?

First Few Years After Change in Role
Stat MP TS% USG% MP TS% USG%
Marquis Daniels 4217 51.7 19.6 4046 49.3 21.0
Gerald Wallace 1338 45.8 19.3 148846 56.4 21.1
Jimmy Butler 5048 54.2 15.7 4987 57.2 23.0
Trevor Ariza 6204 53.1 17.2 6579 48.9 19.2
Harrison Barnes 8622 53.5 16.3 ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

As you can see, there were players who had worse starts to their careers than Barnes. Marquis Daniels and Jimmy Butler are good comparisons because both played with great players in their first few years as average efficiency, low usage players. It bodes well therefore for Barnes, right? Once you consider that Gerald Wallace also had a great career in a bigger role?

I don't think so. Unlike Wallace and Butler, Barnes doesn't have the ability to draw fouls quite like those two. In their first few seasons as low usage players, their free throw rate was already good; Gerald Wallace sported a free throw rate of 32.2% in Sacramento while Jimmy sported a free throw rate of 48.8% in his first 3 seasons in Chicago.

That's not all. Those other two players brought something ELSE to the table outside of scoring. Gerald Wallace was an incredible rebounder for a wing in Sacramento, something which allowed him to be one of the first few small ball 4s in the league, averaging 11 rebounds per 100 possessions (and rebounding splits of 10/13/12). Those are numbers he maintained in CHA. It also helps that he was an amazing defender. Fun fact: he's only the 3rd guy to average at least 2 steals and 2 blocks for a season (minimum 50 games and 1500 minutes), the other guys being David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Jimmy Butler, on the other hand, was a great defender as a low usage guy. He was also able to showcase a semblance of a passing game in his 3rd year. Those two facets (defense, passing) combined with Jimmy Butler's free throw rate and off-the-bounce game was enough reason for the Bulls to expand Jimmy Butler's role, one that allowed him to breakout in a big way in his 4th year.

Harrison Barnes, has nothing of the sort in his repertoire.

Barnes isn't in the same class as Wallace in the rebounding or athletic department. Barnes averaged somewhere around 8 rebounds per 100 possession (about 4/13/8) with his best season coming in 2014-15, when he average 9.5 rebounds per 100 (5/15/10). He also doesn't have the sheer athletic defensive ability of Wallace, flying high for blocks on the weakside or the quick burst or instinct to get steals in the lane.

Barnes isn't in the same class as Butler in terms of playmaking skills. Barnes has averaged 1.5 assists over his career. The number of passes and potential assists are league worse level. He ranked 81st and 80th last season (2015-16). He's right in line with other shooters, whose job is to catch then shoot (JR Smith, Kyle Korver, Klay Thompson, KCP), and bigs (Ibaka, Drummond, Lopez), whose job is mostly to finish on rolls or to catch then shoot on pops.

He also isn't the playmaker Daniels was coming out of Dallas (when he excelled in that bench role) nor was he the defender Ariza was in ORL or LA (let's forget about his NYK stint). Which is to say if a scorer -- which Harrison Barnes primarily is -- isn't really good right now (average), and his prospects of getting better aren't really all that great --considering the things he needs to excel as an Option B/C offensive weapon aren't there (drawing free throws) -- why sign him?

Pelicans Prospect

The one thing I keep coming back to with Barnes is this: scoring is one of the most unpredictable skills in the game. Guys average 40% from deep one year then average 30% the year after before bouncing back to shoot 40% again (I'm looking at you, Aaron Afflalo). And you can be a weak finisher at the rim one year then suddenly be great. The truly great ones are consistent, but for most of the NBA, a lot of their scoring is haphazard, defined by the role they are placed in and the players they play with.

And yet when I look at Barnes, trying to remember how he played and when he excelled, I keep coming back to this: Barnes plays infinitely better as small ball big. He isn't the quintessential "playmaking" big that executives are harping about but he isn't also the slow-footed "stretch" 4 once beloved by a lot of teams. He lies somewhere in the middle.

Position MP % of Playing Time eFG% TS% PTS/36 REB/36 AST/36 STLS/36 BLKS/36 TOs/36
Power Forward 1095.2 54.3% 54.4% 58.2% 14.6 6.1 2.3 0.7 0.2 1.2
Small Forward 885.2 43.9% 51.4% 54.9% 12.3 5.2 1.8 0.8 0.1 0.8

Barnes plays significantly better as a power forward. His efficiency goes to elite level, his rebounding rate improves (which is a lot considering he is technically playing out of position) and his assists increase a hair. Could it be that as a SF, Barnes is completely average -- as everyone thought he was -- and completely above average as a PF?

I remember one of several instances that Barnes played well in the CLE series was during Game 3 and Game 4, when Barnes played a lot of 4 beside Draymond Green. Which makes me hopeful that if the Pelicans do choose to sign Barnes, he'll play less at SF (where his prospects of developing are quite small) and more PF (where he excels more).

Would I love the idea of Barnes in a Pels uniform? At one point, I did, back in 2012. Right now? There are better players out there who are more cost effective. That part about Barnes' possible signing never wavered. But while I considered it a doomsday scenario for the Pels to sign Barnes to a max contract (or at least, close to it), I don't now.

Barnes, like a lot of mid-tier guys, is very dependent on his situation, and I think the Pelicans, with Anthony Davis, are in an almost unique position (comparable only to GSW with Green, Timberwolves with KAT and maybe the KANGZ with Cousins), to offer an environment that would be conducive to luring out the productive side of Barnes.