Matt Barnes saved his best for last on Friday, putting up a season-high 30 points and matching a season high in rebounds with 10. It wasn't enough for the Clippers, though, as they fell to the Grizzlies and were eliminated in the first round after a 56-win regular season. That sort of disappointing finish to the season could portend changes in Clipperland, even for players who exceeded expectations, like Barnes.
The gangly 6'7" forward spent last season "stuck in a bad situation," as he put it, under coach Mike Brown with the Lakers. That, coupled with legal trouble, left him unsigned into September. He was such a forgotten commodity that Chris Paul believed Barnes was still under contract with the Lakers when the two met up late last summer. When Barnes told Paul he was a free agent, CP3 sold the Clippers on the idea of signing him. Barnes was apprehensive, knowing the team was well-stocked with small forwards, but he relented and joined the Clippers for the minimum salary, which was all the team could give him after using all of its other cap exceptions.
The afterthought of a signing couldn't have worked out much better for Barnes or the Clippers. Barnes gave the team toughness and energy off the bench as part of perhaps the best second unit in the league. He often replaced starter Caron Butler as the team's small forward down the stretch, and saw plenty of time at power forward when the team went small. Barnes often shared the floor with the defensively challenged Jamal Crawford, prompting coach Vinny Del Negro to use Barnes on the other team's shooting guard if necessary.
He chipped in offensively as well, and not just with his 30-point outburst in the team's final game. Barnes scored 10.3 PPG this season, the best scoring average in his 10-year career. His shooting from the floor (.462) and three-point range (.342) exceeded his career marks. The only other season in which he scored more points per 36 minutes was 2006/07, his breakout campaign with the Warriors. Barnes tied his career high in PER this season, hitting the same 15.5 figure he posted last season in that "bad situation" with the Lakers.
His efficiency won't go overlooked this summer. Paul certainly won't be any less enamored with his play than he was last fall, and assuming CP3 sticks around, he'll likely continue to exert influence on the front office. Vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks, who's charged with calling the shots for the team's player personnel, will find it difficult to maintain the team's hallmark depth for next season. A max deal for Paul would put them over the cap, with Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups, Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf all hitting unrestricted free agency. The Clippers probably won't want them all back, but their replacement options are limited. They won't have their bi-annual exception, since they used it to sign Grant Hill last summer, so Sacks and company will have to make do with their mid-level exception, worth a starting salary of $5.15MM, to add free agents. Hill, too, could be gone if he elects to retire, as seems likely.
That would seem to make re-signing Barnes a priority, though it will be tricky. The team only has Non-Bird rights on him, meaning they can do no better than 120% of his minimum salary. That probably won't cut it, so the Clippers will probably have to dip into their mid-level to make it happen. At 33, Barnes won't merit a long-term deal, but he and agent Aaron Goodwin could be looking to maximize his salary for next season, since the former second-round pick has never made more than $3MM in any year, according to Basketball-Reference.
Other contenders probably envy what Barnes brought to the Clippers this season, and teams like the Knicks, Nets and even the L.A. rival Lakers, with Mike D'Antoni having replaced Brown, could all target Barnes with the taxpayer's mid-level exception of $3.183MM. That's just my speculation, of course, but Barnes could be tempted to leave the Clippers if another team dangles what would be the highest salary of his career. Matching such an offer would leave the Clips with just about $2MM with which to make upgrades, barring trades. The decision could come down to whether Sacks believes Barnes plus $2MM worth of talent would be better than someone they could sign for the full mid-level. Considering the return the Clippers got with Crawford using the full mid-level last season, they may be reluctant to split it up, signaling yet another change of address for Barnes.