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Harrison Barnes is Following Tristan Thompson’s Rules to Landing a Huge Contract

Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

Harrison Barnes and the Golden State Warriors have halted extension talks, according to several reports.

Neither side gave any indication that a signing was imminent, but to a casual observer the lack of an agreement might seem surprising. The Warriors were reportedly willing to pay $16 million per year to arguably their fifth-best player, someone who averaged 10 points and five rebounds in 28 minutes per game, and he turned them down.

Yet Barnes’s decision, while somewhat risky, will likely turn out to be the right one, as Tristan Thompson proved when he passed up a four-year, $52 million offer last summer.

If we leave the dollar figures behind for a second, it made a lot of sense for the Warriors to want to lock down Barnes now. The salary cap is about to explode to around $90 million thanks to the league’s new television deal, which means Barnes’s starting salary of around $15 million would’ve taken up just 16.6 percent of their cap sheet. That’s not bad for a core player who’s only 23 years old and fits well with the rest of the stars on the team.

It wouldn’t have been a bad salary for Barnes, either. He could’ve gotten some long-term security out of the deal, not having to worry about his health or regression in his play this upcoming season. A bunch of teams will have money to spend, so he’ll get a big contract from someone next summer, but it might involve moving on from the Warriors or going through a messy restricted free agency process if he suffers a serious injury.

So why did Barnes walk away from a guaranteed $64 million over four years? Because he could get a much larger deal next season despite not being a star, due to the circumstances involving his free agency. Barnes’s situation mirrors Tristan Thompson’s at the start of last season and a case could be made that he actually is better positioned to negotiate than the Canadian big man.

Thompson is a solid power forward who’d proved his worth at the NBA level, but never looked like someone who could be a quality starter on a good team. Barnes was awarded the starting position last season by Steve Kerr mostly to bring Andre Iguodala’s playmaking to the second unit, but he proved competent as a starter on a championship team.

They’re both young players who are emerging at the right time, on teams that’ll need them to remain contending. Both can be considered replacements to older players (Anderson Varejao in Thompson’s case, Iguodala in Barnes’s) who should start declining soon, settling for smaller roles. More importantly, both offer a skill set that’s missing at their position on their team’s rosters.

Thompson earned a five-year $82 million contract with the Cavaliers thanks to his play in the postseason. He rebounded like a maniac and emerged as a mobile defender who could anchor a unit decently on defense despite not offering elite rim protection. Kevin Love is a much better player, but he’s not the defender Thompson is. And while Timofey Mozgov is a terrific defensive anchor, he can be taken out of the game when opponents go small. Letting Thompson walk wouldn’t have doomed the Cavaliers, but it would’ve diminished their versatility.

Similarly, Barnes offers three-point shooting and solid defense from the wing. He can also slide up to power forward on small units and hold his own thanks to his length and tenacity as a defender. In a pinch he can create for himself but doesn’t need the ball to do so, which means he can play in any five-man unit without disrupting it. He’s a classic 3-and-D player at this point, which is exactly what the Warriors need. Without him, the perfect machine that destroyed everything in its path last season doesn’t work as well.

More importantly, the Warriors won’t have cap space to replace Barnes, just like the Cavaliers didn’t have a way to replace Thompson. The front office will surely guarantee the last year of Shaun Livingston’s contract, since he’s been a quality contributor and is making a small salary. They might waive Jason Thompson to save a few million, but they’ll need to get frontcourt depth if they do, which means re-signing one or both of Marreese Speights or Festus Ezeli.

When it’s all said and done, the Warriors will simply be better off keeping all their core players instead of scrambling to find replacements, even if it means overpaying Barnes.

Agents are beginning to realize that the leverage restricted free agency is supposed to give teams means little if they’re dealing with contenders and their clients are irreplaceable either because of their skill sets or lack of cap flexibility. They know they can hold out and eventually get a bigger deal in the next offseason than the one they’re offered in early extension talks.

Barnes is entering free agency at the perfect time. The cap is going up, he’s young and in exactly the right place, as he’s more valuable to the Warriors than arguably any other team. Just like Thompson, he’ll get his money, which is why he has no problem waiting until next July for it.

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