The Warriors are the defending champions, and they’re off to a sparkling 5-0 start this year. With this reality, it’s pretty tough to throw too much criticism toward any coach, player or front-office guy.
So even though the Warriors don’t take a lot of heat, as a whole or individually, there is one player who seems to be criticized more than any other: Harrison Barnes.
His detractors say, in essence, he’s overrated. They say he’s not worth close to the $64 million he reportedly turned down and that his game is more limited than you think. They talk about how he floats for long periods of time and is invisible for other long stretches.
They say that without the benefit of playing with Stephen Curry, not to mention an assortment of passing teammates, that he’d be a shell of the player he is now. And the way they see it, his shell is pretty hollow anyway.
He’s not a great ballhandler; not a great passer; has no go-to move. In other words, they think Barnes leaves a lot of game on the table.
I don’t get it.
To me, what makes Barnes a terrific fit for this Golden State Warriors team are some of the same things that he gets criticized for. What also hurts Barnes is that some of the things he does well don’t scream out for attention.
The absolute cornerstone of Harrison Barnes’ game is something that used to never be a cornerstone of anyone’s game: Versatility. It used to be that a player had a position, had a role and had the certain skills needed to perform that role.
Barnes is different. Because of the way the Warriors are comprised, Barnes can’t possibly be the kind of player many fans want him to be: the kind that can take over a game, the kind that is aggressive game in and game out; and the kind who should be No. 1 or No. 2 in a team’s pecking order.
First question: How in the hell can Barnes be more of a consistent scorer when he has no idea from one game to the next how many touches he’ll get or how many times he’ll be in a position of offensive advantage?
He doesn’t get to make those decisions. Stephen Curry does, and to a lesser degree, the rest of the Warriors do. Barnes is at the mercy of his teammates offensively.
That’s versatility in my book – when a player selflessly adapts his game to exactly what the team needs, nothing more and nothing less. That’s not only admirable, it’s a strength and not a weakness.
This is what interim coach Luke Walton said:
“The style of game we play, we’re not going to sit there and call a ton of plays for anybody. We want the ball moving. It’s going to be a different guy every night that’s in the supporting role. For other guys, it’s moving the ball and sometimes it ends up with Harrison getting hot or somebody getting hot and them getting them more looks. And sometimes, it’s not.”
So, how did that play out Wednesday against the Clippers? Well, with eight minutes left in that game against LAC, the Warriors were down 97-87. That’s when Barnes, the player often maligned for inactivity, proceed to score 10 straight points and the next thing you know the Warriors are down just 1 with six minutes left.
Then, it was Curry time.
I look at what Barnes did against the Clippers, and what he does many nights, as a huge asset: The ability to be discarded offensively for most of the game, then deliver at important times when the ball may find you in a flurry. That’s not easy to do, but Barnes does it extremely well.
Another thing Barnes’ critics fail to realize is he actually has the perfect mindset, the perfect mentality for this team. If Barnes were more of a high-maintenance player he’d be talking about his lack of touches or need for a bigger role on the team.
He’d be forcing the issue on the court, perhaps trying to do too much. And can someone out there tell me why you’d ever want Barnes forcing the issue or being aggressive on a team with Curry? There’s only one ball, people, and Curry’s GOT to have it most of the time. Barnes knows how to deal with that.
I may have buried the lead but Barnes’ versatility on the defensive end is really what makes him special – yes, special – at least for the Warriors. Barnes’ ability to defend both 3s and 4s is where one of his core values resides.
Barnes’ ability to defend 4s competently helps the Warriors play the style that has become most successful for them: Put better basketball players on the floor than the other team, size be damned.
Think about how the Warriors substitute to start many games. Andre Iguodala comes into the game for Barnes at some point in the first quarter. Then, after Barnes gets a rest, he often returns to the game, replacing Draymond Green, the team’s starting power forward.
At that point, Barnes will usually defend the opposition’s power forward, leaving Iguodala to stay on the small forward, which is what he does best. Frequently, those are periods where the Warriors excel. And a big reason is because Barnes can hold his own against bigger players in the post at the defensive end and then exploit the hell out of them at the other end – but only when it comes naturally, through the Warriors’ organic flow.
Off the top of my head, I’m thinking about other NBA wing players … Rudy Gay, Paul George, DeMarre Carroll, Gordon Hayward, Lance Stephenson, Chandler Parsons, Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, etc.
Well, Barnes defends 4s better than any of those guys. Now, that’s not to say Barnes is necessarily a better player than any or some of those guys, just that he excels at an aspect of the game that they don’t.
And that strength helps allow the Warriors to be the Warriors. Golden State used a lineup of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Green to finish up against the Clippers, and that’s when they overcame a 10-point deficit.
Barnes had to match up with Blake Griffin for much of the fourth quarter. Griffin went scoreless. Was that solely because of Barnes? Of course not. In fact, the Warriors sometimes must double 4s when Barnes is defending them, but note: sometimes.
The fact is that Barnes can hold his own most nights at that spot. And Green can hold his own most nights at power forward and center positions, if needed.
That kind of versatility makes the Warriors unique. And Barnes is a huge part of it.
***Hey, if you made it down this far, this guy Matt Steinmetz co-hosts the Sal and Steiny Podcast, along with Bay Area legend Sal Castaneda, and a few people have said it’s pretty good. You can download ’em here: