As you may be aware, the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Championship for the first time since 1975 this past spring. Not only did they finish atop the mountain, but they had one of the all-time dominant seasons in NBA history, with 67 regular season wins and a 10.1-point scoring differential.
The temptation for championship teams of all stripes is to “bring the band back together” for another run. Why fix what isn’t broken? Besides, fans grow attached and sentimental to winning rosters and don’t want to see anyone leave, even the role players.
Where this becomes problematic is that teams consist of real life humans who aren’t names on a stat sheet or pictures on a caricature T-shirt. These people have their own livelihoods to think of and that means difficult decisions have to be made when contracts are up. Champions tend to have more good and great players than non-champions and those players will look to get paid, either from the incumbent or elsewhere.
And that brings us to Harrison Barnes, entering the fourth and final year of his rookie year, at the bargain-basement price of just under $3.9 million.
At first blush re-signing Barnes would seem like a no-brainer. After all, the league’s salary cap is about to skyrocket, from $70 million this season to a projected $89 million next year and then $104 million the year after that, according to Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. With Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala both due to come off the books after 2016-17 and neither likely to be retained into their 30’s unless they agree to steep discounts, there’ll be plenty of room on the payroll to pay Barnes whatever he and his agent ask for, right?
Well, yes and no. Just because you can afford to buy something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.
Remember, Stephen Curry, the league’s reigning MVP, will be up for a huge (and well-deserved) raise after the 2016-17 season, for around $30 million annually. That’s going to be an $18 million raise. Also, backup center Festus Ezeli will be looking for a hefty raise as well–into the eight-figure range–and he’ll be Bogut’s replacement down low. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green both already signed lucrative extensions over the past calendar year, so they’ll be making over $15 million each as well.
In the same blog post linked above, both Kawakami and David Aldridge of Turner Sports speculate that Barnes and his representation will be looking for a deal in excess of the four-year, $52 million extension that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist just signed with Charlotte. Aldridge goes so far as to suggest that Barnes will be worth $15-16 million a year, comparing him to Utah’s Gordon Hayward and Houston’s Chandler Parsons.
Let’s stick with $15 million a year for the sake of argument and do the math for 2017-18. Thompson and Green will make a combined $34.2 million. Add $30 million for Curry and oh, $11 mil for Ezeli. That’s $75.2 million. Now add Barnes’ hypothetical number. That’s over $90 million now for the starting five, leaving less than $20 million for other ten spots on the roster. By 2017-18 the mid-level exception will likely be around the $8-9 million range. So you’re talking about filling out the 8-15 spots on the roster with league-minimum guys.
One of the Warriors’ biggest strengths last season was their depth. Coach Steve Kerr borrowed much of his basketball philosophy from mentor Gregg Popovich and he particularly made a point of copying Popovich’s coda of resting his main guys as much as possible, especially during the regular season. When the San Antonio Spurs won the 2013-14 title, no one on their roster averaged as much as 30 minutes. Curry led the Warriors last year at 32.7 minutes per game. Iguodala, who went on to win MVP of the Finals, was vital off the bench, as was Ezeli, Shaun Livingston, Marreese Speights and Leandro Barbosa. The Warriors bench will be on the books for north of $36 million this upcoming season. How much do you reckon a quality bench will cost two years from now?
Barnes, the seventh overall pick out of North Carolina in the 2012 draft, showed marked improvement in his third season. Whereas Kerr’s predecessor Mark Jackson had Barnes coming off the bench and running isolation possessions through him, Kerr decided to start Barnes and made him a strict catch-and-shoot player in the offense, a fourth or fifth option who rarely had to dribble or create offense for himself or others. Barnes’ shooting percentage soared from 39.9 to 48.2, his three-point percentage went up from 34.7 to 40.5 and he averaged a career-high 5.5 boards while slightly lowering his turnovers. He accounted for more Win Shares –6.7– than his first two years combined.
However, Barnes’ numbers dipped in the playoffs, he has yet to reach even a league-average 15.0 in PER (13.4 last season), and according to Real-Adjusted Plus-Minus he was the 22nd most worthwhile small-forward in the league, well behind Kidd-Gilchrist (who cannot shoot) and people like Matt Barnes, Al-Farouq Aminu and Otto Porter Jr., as well as, obviously Hayward and Parsons. In terms of WAR, Barnes ranked 16th, despite playing more games –significantly so in some cases– than the names above him.
When you isolate the lineup data, Barnes’ meager value becomes even more apparent. When Curry, Thompson and Green played in any lineup without him last season, including the playoffs, they had an incredible net rating of +17.8, over 621 minutes, according to NBAWowy.com. With him, it was +18.5, over 1,682 minutes. He makes them better, but not by an appreciable amount.
How did the Warriors fare with Curry, Thompson and Barnes on the floor but no Green? A +5.0, over 240 minutes. Now that’s a difference maker.
How did they do with Thompson, Green and Barnes, but no Curry? -2.3, over 89 minutes. That’s a superstar.
In an interview with KNBR 680 Warriors general manager Bob Myers said the team plans to keep Barnes “for a long time,” but unless he takes another rather substantial step forward in his development, it’s fair to question whether they should. The Hornets had to overpay for Kidd-Gilchrist. He’s one of their three best players and they’re not an attractive franchise for players. The Warriors on the other hand have three players who are better than Barnes and will be for the foreseeable future.
Let him try to be somebody else’s third-banana and spread over that money on the rest of the roster so that the money isn’t skewed so heavily to the starters. Who knows, Barnes replacement might already be on the roster in the person of Kevon Looney, their 19-year old first-round pick, though he’s going to miss most if not all of his rookie season following hip surgery.
The point is you can find another Harrison Barnes. They’re not exactly a dime-a-dozen, but they’re not worth $15 million a year to the Warriors either, no matter how large the cap is.