Coming into the season, a popular headline concerning the defending champion Golden State Warriors –22-0 now, if you’re keeping track– was how much injury luck, both regarding how few games their primary players missed and how badly their playoff opponents were inflicted, had to do with them winning the title. A couple notches below that narrative, though, was whether Harrison Barnes was making the right decision by rejecting a four-year, $64 million contract extension.
So it’s interesting, then, that those two storylines have merged over these past two weeks with Barnes having suffered a relatively severe ankle sprain at Phoenix on Nov. 27. He’s missed five games already, and will likely miss a few more. And the Warriors have continued to win –usually handily– in his absence.
Which raises the question: How valuable is Barnes, exactly, if he’s not impacting their won-loss record?
The Dubs have gone 5-0 without Barnes and beat three consecutive teams on the road that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today in Utah, Charlotte and Toronto. They have won those five games by an average of 11.6 points.
If you look at Barnes’ on/off splits at basketball-reference.com, you can see that he hasn’t been a dramatic difference-maker. The Warriors score 3.2 points more with him on the floor than off, and there is practically no drop-off whatsoever defensively. Even that 3.2-point differential has to be taken with a grain of salt considering how much Barnes has shared the floor with Stephen Curry.
According to NBAWowy.com, 372 of Barnes’ 512 minutes have come with Curry (and incidentally, 339 with Klay Thompson and 332 with Draymond Green). With Curry and Barnes sharing the floor the Warriors their offensive rating is 122.5, and their defensive rating is 100.1. That’s a net rating of 22.4. Take Curry away from Barnes however and in 140 minutes his offensive rating drops to 107.8 and his defensive rating spikes to 105.2, a net rating of just 2.6.
Now do the reverse. In 383 minutes without Barnes on the floor Curry’s offensive rating is 121.2, and his defensive rating is 100.3. That’s a net rating 20.9.
So basically Barnes is worth 1.5 points to the team over 100 possessions. For that he should command a $20 million annual salary? That seems ridiculous.
Granted, Barnes is more valuable to the Warriors than he would be to anyone else. Both Steve Kerr last season and Luke Walton this year have shown an inclination to use him to stabilize bench-heavy units when Curry and Green are resting. He’s a trusted and somewhat proven three-point shooter, even in big games and clutch situations. (There’s certainly an argument to be made that he’s more of a money player than Thompson has been in that regard.)
Perhaps most importantly, he’s an integral component of their “Death-ball” Voltron, a guy who can play as a “stretch-four” and body up slightly bigger forwards down low while holding his own on the glass. Barnes isn’t a great defender by any means, but he seldom gets overpowered, and he was showing glimpses of a more varied offensive repertoire, with some off-the-dribble scoring before he got hurt.
I’m just not sure all of that is worth the financial commitment he’s looking for—a contract that would likely surpass the extensions both Thompson and Green have signed the past two years and one that would, for a year anyway, have him making nearly double what Curry will earn in 2016-17 before he signs his monster max deal the following summer.
It would be so much easier to draw some conclusions with Barnes if only first-round pick Kevon Looney, who was ostensibly drafted to replace him, could ever get on the floor to show his wares. Unfortunately, he had hip surgery in the off-season and remains a ways away.
Perhaps the best gauge of Barnes’ value would come if the injury situation were reversed. What would happen to the Warriors if he were the one who was healthy, but Curry was out for an extended stretch? Or Green? My sense is that those two are truly the only two irreplaceable guys on the roster, with Andre Iguodala, Thompson and Andrew Bogut all being higher on the totem pole than Barnes.
Maybe the team’s philosophy is as simple as not wanting to mess with what isn’t broken. You can’t fault them for that. But the Warriors haven’t been broken, or even scratched, without Barnes in the lineup and if they continue to be unblemished throughout this road trip with stops at Indiana and Boston, then you have to wonder if Barnes represents more of a $20 million-a-year shiny hood ornament than a necessary valve of their engine.