The Warriors probably didn’t know it at the time, but when they signed Stephen Curry to a four-year, $44 million contract on the eve of the 2012-13 season, they made individual sacrifice a founding principle of their culture.
Due an extension in what is perhaps the most player-friendly salary-cap window in league history, Harrison Barnes is now testing the strength of that principle.
Curry’s contract wasn’t some grand, magnanimous gesture on his part. Repeated ankle injuries made his future cloudy, and the thinking at the time was that the deal assigned risk fairly evenly on both sides. Now, of course, it’s probably the most team-friendly pact in the league.
Since then, Andre Iguodala has turned down more money to sign (a sign-and-trade technically, but one in which he dictated the destination) with the Warriors, Andrew Bogut has foregone free agency to ink an extension that actually decreases in annual value, Klay Thompson has agreed to a sub-max contract and Draymond Green has done the same. The Warriors’ best five players have all left money on the table in one way or another, and it’s not hard to see how Curry’s deal (and his staunch refusal to utter even the quietest complaint about it) set the tone.
That unselfish spirit has branched out into areas besides finance.
Iguodala doesn’t like his sixth man role, but he continues to play it because he understands it’s good for the team. Bogut sat out entire games in the Finals after playing an integral role all season, and he has yet to grouse about it.
Yet here’s Barnes, checking in somewhere around sixth in the Warriors’ hierarchy, turning down a four-year, $64 million contract offer because he’s confident (and should be) that some other team will offer him upwards of $20 million per season in restricted free agency next summer.
So much for sacrifice.
Here’s a critical point: Barnes is right to play it this way. He knows the league landscape is changing, and he knows there could be 20 teams with the cap room to pay him a near-max salary in 2016. So although it’s reasonable for Barnes to hold out until he becomes the Warriors’ highest-paid player, that decision could come with consequences in Golden State’s heretofore harmonious locker room.
You can sense the rumblings of dissatisfaction already.
At Warriors media day, Barnes jokingly asked Bogut how many cars he’d added to his collection. Bogut fired back.
Bogut to Barnes: "Once you sign your new contract, you can get yourself a gold plated (Black Falcon car)"
— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) September 28, 2015
Draymond: "The big money man Harrison Barnes, y'all are lucky to have him here. I'm excited to be in his presence." https://t.co/Is6NvKaoe5
— Diamond Leung (@diamond83) September 29, 2015
The Warriors aren’t fragile enough to let this dilute their chemistry—not in any significant way, and not with championship expectations. But if Barnes’ demands result in a higher offer from the Warriors—one that makes him the team’s richest player—shouldn’t we expect the guys who are more productive and who’ve already sacrificed to take at least a little bit of issue with it?
The jokes could get serious, especially because even if he collects a near-max salary, Barnes isn’t going to occupy the kind of role that typically accompanies that kind of cash. He’s not going to see his offensive touches increase because he’s too limited as a scorer and because only a lunatic would cut into either Thompson’s or Curry’s role in the offense. And defensively, though Barnes is valuable, he’s never going to be featured as the stopper; Green, Iguodala and even Thompson are better defenders.
If Barnes’ potentially bloated salary precludes the Warriors from making meaningful additions down the line, like, say, paying replacements for the aging Bogut or Iguodala, the unrest could grow.
We’ve sacrificed, why wouldn’t he?
This is a complicated situation made trickier by the fact that Barnes isn’t really doing anything wrong. He’s simply seeking what the market says he’s worth.
That this is the most significant problem facing the Warriors says a lot about how sturdy they are heading into their title defense. While other teams are shoring up weak rotation spots or worrying over coaching changes, the Dubs’ biggest concern is the possibility of minor jealousy between millionaires—which, by the way, exists on every NBA team.
But on a squad that has defined itself through sacrifice, Barnes’ conspicuous refusal to follow suit stands out. And we’d be foolish to think his teammates aren’t noticing it.