Harrison Barnes is getting paid

May 26, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes (40) looks on during player introductions prior to the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game five of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
May 26, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes (40) looks on during player introductions prior to the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game five of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

The Golden State Warriors’ small forward didn’t exactly finish the season strong; he made just 5 shots in 32 attempts (15.6 percent) as his team imploded during the last three games of the NBA Finals. But, Harrison Barnes had a huge part in getting the Warriors to the precipice of a perfect season and he was a key contributor to their championship success last year too. Indeed, Barnes has served an important role for the team throughout his four years in Oakland, as exhibited by the fact that he has played more minutes than any other non-Splash-Brother Warrior during that period. Even in his debut season, Barnes made an immediate impact; he started 81 games as a 20-year-old rookie. It wasn’t just a coincidence that Golden State improved its record that season to 47-35 after finishing 23-43 the year before.

This summer, Barnes is a restricted free agent and he’ll be looking to cash in big.

The small forward market

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To anticipate just how much money Barnes might make on his next contract, we need to understand the market for him and his free-agent small forward counterparts. As television revenues continue to roll in, the league’s salary cap is on the rise again and scheduled to reach $94 million next season. There will be a corresponding increase in the salary floor — the minimum amount that each team must spend on payroll — up to a mark of $84.5 million, which is more than the cap was this year ($70 million). As a result, pretty much every team in the league is going to have money to burn this summer and the contracts are expected to get ridiculous.

But how many teams will be in the market for small forwards this summer?

To find out, let’s take a look at all of the players who spent at least 500 minutes at the small forward position (according to Seth Partnow’s positional playing time estimates) in 2015-16. Which ones are free agents this summer? Which ones are primed to be replaced?

The Small Forward Free Agency Market for the Summer of 2016, Teams Are Ranked by the Quality of their Primary Small Forward

Age = Age of the player at the start of the 2015-16 season

VORP = Value over replacement player

NBA Free Agent Market for Small Forwards
NBA Free Agent Market for Small Forwards /

For LAC: JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford also played 500+ minutes at “small forward” as part of 3-guard lineups

By my count, there are maybe 8 teams that are committed to their starting small forward:

San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard, 4 years, $77.5 million under contract
Indiana Pacers: Paul George, 3 years, $58.5 million
New York Knicks: Carmelo Anthony, 3 years, $78.7 million
Houston Rockets: Trevor Ariza, 2 years, $15.2 million
Toronto Raptors: DeMarre Carroll, 3 years, $44.5 million
Detroit Pistons: Tobias Harris, 3 years, $48.0 million
Portland Trail Blazers: Al-Farouq Aminu, 3 years, $22.5 million
Denver Nuggets: Danilo Gallinari, 2 years, $31.5 million

These teams are unlikely to go after a high-priced small forward this summer, although some might look to add a more affordable reserve. For example, the Blazers will probably try to re-sign their free agent backup small forward, Maurice Harkless.

That leaves fully 22 other teams who might be in the market for a new starting small forward in free agency. That estimate includes 13 teams that have a free agent small forward dipping his toe in the free agent pool:

Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James, unrestricted free agent — player option
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant, unrestricted free agent
Charlotte Hornets: Nic Batum, unrestricted free agent
Miami Heat: Luol Deng, unrestricted free agent
Orlando Magic: Evan Fournier, restricted free agent
Dallas Mavericks: Chandler Parsons, unrestricted free agent — player option
Golden State Warriors: Harrison Barnes, restricted free agent
Memphis Grizzlies: Matt Barnes, unrestricted free agent
New Orleans Pelicans: Alonzo Gee, unrestricted free agent — player option
Los Angeles Clippers: Jeff Green, unrestricted free agent
Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant, retired
Philadelphia 76ers: Hollis Thompson, restricted free agent — team option
Boston Celtics: Evan Turner, unrestricted free agent

Obviously, some of these teams will be trying hard to re-sign their small forwards, but for now, we have to consider them all potential Harrison Barnes suitors.

Another handful of teams might have to rethink the way they’re distributing their small forward minutes. On the following four teams, the minute leader at small forward posted a negative VORP, indicating that they did not contribute as much to the team as a replacement player would have (i.e., a player on minimum salary or not a normal member of a team’s rotation):

Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins, -0.1 VORP
Milwaukee Bucks: Jabari Parker, -0.2 VORP
Chicago Bulls: Doug McDermott, -0.5 VORP
Brooklyn Nets: Bojan Bogdanovic, -0.8 VORP

These guys are young and if these teams are in it for the long haul, they might not feel compelled to find replacement small forwards. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these four teams was looking for some help and considering moving these players to other positions in different lineup combinations. They, too, could conceivably be interested in Barnes.

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The other six teams have varied reasons for being included in the market. The Phoenix Suns (P.J. Tucker) and the Atlanta Hawks (Thabo Sefolosha) both have replaceable small forwards on the wrong side of 30, with expiring contracts of limited size. Both teams could be looking to bring in a new iteration of small forward for the future. The Utah Jazz have a solid small forward in Gordon Hayward, but he’s reportedly disgruntled and looking to be traded. If Hayward forces their hand, the Jazz may look for a replacement in the free agent market. Likewise, the Washington Wizards might already have their small forward of the future in Otto Porter, but did you know that Kevin Durant is from Washington D.C.? The Wiz want to bring him home! So, they’re on the market for now, too. Finally, the Sacramento Kings have Omri Casspi and Rudy Gay. But, they’re the Kings; so who knows what they’re going to do in free agency. I’m considering them in on Barnes, too.

Basically, the market is huge. More than two-thirds of the League might be looking to add a small forward of Harrison’s ilk. So, Golden State will have plenty of competition if they want to retain their talented restricted free agent.

Barnes is a perfect fit for the Warriors

If not for four minutes and thirty-nine seconds of scoreless fourth-quarter basketball, the Warriors would have won back-to-back championships this month and they’ve clearly discovered a winning formula in Golden State. Barnes’ contribution to the equation has been, in essence, spot-up three-point shooting and defensive flexibility. As an added bonus, he is able to kick in explosive finishes at the rim, midrange post-up offense, and hard work on the defensive boards, but these fringe benefits come in fits and spurts and they haven’t been fundamental to the Warriors’ success.

His long range shooting — hovering around 40 percent over the past two years — forces opposing teams to extend their defense and helps to open the space in which his more celebrated teammates operate. On the other end, Barnes has the quickness to stick with most small forwards off the bounce and the lower body strength to keep low-post bullies away from the basket. He is the starting small forward for the team, but his role as the backup power forward is perhaps more critical. Along with Draymond Green, Barnes’ ability to slide up a position on defense allows the Warriors to unleash the havoc of their small-ball lineup. Of course, in the Finals, Barnes’ struggle to shoot efficiently when left open and his inability to slow down LeBron James on defense made him look pretty useless. But, Warriors fans will remember that shooting and guarding bigger men were the things that Barnes did so well all season long and the reasons he has been a perfect fit for his team.

Below is a plot that shows Barnes’ four key attributes that have been important for the Warriors’ success (two-year averages, where appropriate):

  • His youth. At 24, Barnes is set to enter his prime and should be productive alongside his youthful cohort of Stephen Curry (28), Klay Thompson (26), and Green (26).
  • His height. At 6’8”, Barnes is tall enough to stand in the way of power forwards.
  • His three-point shooting. At nearly 40 percent from deep over the past two years, Barnes is one of the best three-point shooters in the League.
  • His defense. With a positive defensive box plus-minus rating over the past two years, Barnes has shown he can hold his own against small forwards and power forwards.

The Key Attributes of Harrison Barnes: Youth, Height, Three-point Shooting, and Defense

Harrison Barnes Attributes
Harrison Barnes Attributes /

Above, I’ve noted Barnes’ percentile rank for each of these attributes as compared to all other forwards listed on the NBA’s free agent tracker (this group comprised F or G-F, including some power forwards, but it excluded F-C). Each direction of the diamond (up, down, right, left) represents one attribute, with the minimum value attained by any free agent forward depicted at the center of the diamond and the maximum value attained by any free agent forward shown at one of the four corners. So, in Barnes’ case, his most outstanding attribute, his youth, extends closest to any of the corners (the top) and his least impressive attribute, his height, is the attribute that is furthest from a corner (the right) and closest to the center of the diamond. As you can see, his diamond is expansive, meaning that he’s got a pretty nice mixture of these traits relative to the rest of his free agent competition.

Barnes compares favorably to the Warriors other options

Obviously, LeBron and Durant are in a class by themselves in this free agent class. But, after these two outstanding superstars, the second tier of small forwards that will be available this summer includes Nic Batum, Chandler Parsons, and then, basically, Harrison Barnes. Again, given that there are probably 20+ teams interested in adding a small forward this summer, ranking in the top five players available at that position might end up being pretty lucrative.

But, that’s sort of a general ranking, right. Let’s take a look at who else besides HB might have the specific skills that the Warriors’ need from a small forward to best fit their current system. Below is a series of plots analogous to the one shown above for Barnes, with the same four attributes highlighted. The blue diamond is repeated in each plot and it represents Barnes’ skillset each time, as it did above. For comparison in each plot, the red outline of a diamond shows another free agent option that the Warriors might consider to replace Barnes.

The Key Attributes of Harrison Barnes Relative to his Stiffest Free Agent Competition

Small Forward Comparisons
Small Forward Comparisons /

I came up with 16 alternatives to Harrison Barnes that I believe the Warriors might consider as his replacement for next season. There is a range of player types, but all of these other options have spent some time playing small forward at some point in their careers. After examining the diamond plots, I grouped the candidates into four classes:

Too Short: Jared Dudley and Wesley Johnson are 6’7”, whereas Allen Crabbe and Kent Bazemore are only 6’6”. I’m not sure any of the four has the lower body strength of Harrison Barnes and I don’t think any of them could guard opposing power forwards the way that Barnes is asked to: without double teams, for heavy minutes, and against star players. But, man, it would be cool to have Bazemore bring his talents (and his bench celebrations) back to North Beach.

Too Old: Mirza Teletovic (30), Luol Deng (31), Joe Johnson (34), and Matt Barnes (36) are probably too old to be offered a long-term deal by Golden State, especially given the youth of the rest of the Warriors’ core.

Too Bricky: Maurice Harkless (25 percent two-year 3PT% average), Evan Turner (26.2 percent), Jeff Green (32.5 percent), and LeBron James (33 percent) are not great shooters from deep, definitely not as good as Barnes. Of course, these guys do some other things well. I mean, I’m not saying that the Warriors would pass on LeBron James. But, if your goal was to sub Harrison Barnes with a player who could excel in all the same ways that he has, then you wouldn’t look to one of these four as the replacement.

The Competition: Chandler Parsons played 33 percent of last season at power forward, so we know he can guard opposing fours. He’s as good of a shooter and as good of a defender as Barnes too, plus an inch taller. He would be a nice fit for the Warriors. Marvin Williams has made a successful transition from small forward (16.8 percent) to power forward (83.2 percent) in recent seasons and at 6’9” and 237 pounds he has the bulk to bang inside. He’s also an efficient three-point shooter (38 percent over the past two years). In a lot of ways, Williams has been the predecessor to his fellow lottery-picked, North Carolina Tar Heel counterpart, but he may end up being his successor, too.

Nic Batum might be the third-most sought after small forward in the free agent class. His three-point conversion rate has dipped a bit in recent years (34 percent over the last two seasons combined), but his personal-best season average of 41 percent from deep demonstrates his touch. Given how much space he would have to spot up while sharing the court with the Splash Brothers, Batum would likely flourish in Golden State. He didn’t spend much time guarding power forwards last year and he has a skinnier frame than Barnes, but he is 6’8” and a fantastic defender. A small ball lineup of Curry, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Batum, and Green would be a long-armed, turnover-inducing nightmare for opposing offenses. Then there’s KD; he’s outstanding in all four of the categories that I’ve identified as Barnes’ strengths and many others, too. I’m pretty sure the Warriors would be happy to have him.

Harrison Barnes is getting a max offer

If the Warriors find my diamond plots convincing and they decide that Harrison Barnes is their man, the max contract that they could offer him is $127.3 million over five years (for an average of $25+ million per year). Um, that’s one-eighth of a BILLION dollars.

Whoa. 127. Million. Dollars. That’s a whole lotta Moola.

Things you can buy with 127 million dollars
Things you can buy with 127 million dollars /

Take it easy, the Warriors aren’t going to pay that. They don’t really have any incentive to do so. Because Barnes is a restricted free agent, they have the ability to match any other team’s contract offer sheet. If Barnes signs with another team, his max contract will be a paltry $94.5 million over four years ($23.6 million per year). So, at most, the Warriors would be stuck matching this smaller offer if they really wanted to retain Barnes’ services. The only potential pitfall for this strategy from the Warriors’ perspective would be if an opposing team offered Barnes a two-year contract with a player option. If the Warriors matched this type of offer, Barnes would then be free to re-enter the free agent market with an even higher cap next summer and he would be potentially seeking an even higher max contract. The Warriors would find themselves right back where they started.

Of course, all of this speculation boils down to how badly Barnes wants to be in Oakland (and how badly the Warriors want to keep him there). The Senator is publicly announcing his desire to stay with Golden State this summer, but is he willing to offer the Warriors a hometown discount? Perhaps not. After all, last fall, Barnes reportedly rejected a four-year $64 million contract extension proposal from Golden State. But that still leaves quite a bit of negotiating room between the $16 million per year the Warriors were willing to spend and the $23 million per year that, say, the Lakers could offer him. If the Lakers were willing to shell out the max, would Barnes really turn it down in favor of something like four-years, $72 million from the Warriors? Would four-years, $80 million get the deal done for the Dubs?

I’m not sure. But, given the sheer number of teams that could be shopping for a small forward this summer, I think Harrison Barnes is poised to make a lot of money. Whether it’s the Lakers, the 76ers, or another team, I think somebody is going to offer him a max contract in July. It will be up to Barnes, the Golden State front office, and, maybe, Kevin Durant, to decide whether he takes it.

[note: VORP and DBPM stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference]

Next: Grading the 2016 NBA mock drafts