Extension Candidate: Harrison Barnes

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Phoenix Suns

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The championship that the Warriors won this past season was in a way like a fancy dinner out. The meal could scarcely have been better, but now it’s time to pay the check. Golden State will still get off much more cheaply than it could have for this coming season and next, with MVP Stephen Curry tied to a discount contract through 2016/17. However, the fun of winning a title with starting forwards who combined to make less than $4MM is over. Draymond Green will cost $82MM over the next five years, and an extension during this offseason’s eligibility window for Harrison Barnes stands to be even pricier. Grantland’s Zach Lowe estimates that the Warriors and Barnes will negotiate within the space between DeMarre Carroll‘s new four-year, $58MM deal with the Raptors, an average annual value of $14.5MM, and the maximum, which for Barnes is projected to hit $20.4MM.

That’s a fairly wide range, and it epitomizes the back-and-forth career that Barnes has had. He was the top recruit coming out of high school in the 2010 Recruiting Services Consensus Index, but he slipped to the No. 7 overall pick after two years at North Carolina. He started as a rookie, but when the Warriors acquired Andre Iguodala the following summer, Barnes became a reserve, and his game stagnated. He was the subject of trade rumors in the middle of his second season, and his name surfaced in Golden State’s Kevin Love talks last summer, when it appeared that the Timberwolves weren’t as high on Barnes as the Warriors were. Enter new coach Steve Kerr, who made the tricky decision to start Barnes over Iguodala this past season. The gamble paid off and then some, with Barnes showing improved play and Iguodala performing so well as a sixth man that he became just the second bench player ever to win Finals MVP.

Of course, it’s not as if Barnes became a 20-point scorer or the sort of all-court force that traditionally commands eye-popping salaries. He barely managed to become a double-figure scorer for the first time in his career, averaging 10.1 points per game, and though he became more efficient, his 13.4 PER is still below the 15.0 mark of an average player. However, at age 22 for most of this past season, he was a plus defender, registering a positive Basketball-Reference Defensive Box Plus Minus, a victory for any wing player. The 6’7″ specimen with a 6’11” wingspan came in 12th among small forwards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus Minus, and he would have been ranked more highly if Green, rated No. 1, were listed as a power forward.

Kerr’s offense featured different shot selection for Barnes, giving him fewer mid-range looks and more from behind the three-point line and at the basket, as Basketball-Reference shows. The modernized distribution resulted in a sizable year-over-year leap in shooting percentage, from 39.9% to 48.2%. His 40.5% three-point shooting was the league’s 12th-most accurate mark in that category.

The Warriors, in a vacuum, would surely prefer to see if Barnes can keep it up rather than tethering themselves to a deal that would make him the latest Warrior to make more than Curry. Golden State does have the power to control the small forward’s destination beyond this coming season, but restricted free agency can be unpredictable, particularly if the Warriors have interest in limiting his cost. The prospect of unleashing Barnes into a market that yielded Carroll’s deal and $70MM over five years for Khris Middleton must surely be intriguing for agent Jeff Wechsler, particularly given the relative dearth of star free agents in next year’s class outside of Kevin Durant, Mike Conley, Al Horford and Joakim Noah.

Rookie scale extensions, particularly those that aren’t agreed upon in early July, tend to involve team-friendly terms and fall short of the max. So, even though the Warriors haven’t given out their Designated Player title to anyone yet, allowing them to sign Barnes to an extension of five years instead of four, it’s unlikely that weapon comes into play, since five-year extensions have to start at the maximum salary.

Golden State, under reigning Executive of the Year Bob Myers, has shown a preference for signing extensions rather than allowing key players to hit free agency, making preemptive strikes with Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut. The Warriors used the timing of the extension to their advantage with Thompson, convincing him to agree to take a starting salary that was his projected maximum salary at the time, but no more. It was, in essence, a plausible max extension, but the max turned out to be about $900K greater than the October projection, a savings of more than $4MM over the life of the deal for Golden State.

The Warriors seem unlikely to dance so closely with the max for Barnes, but what happened with Thompson demonstrates the team’s willingness to get creative to forge a deal. Barnes has motivation to come to a deal while his improvements and contribution to a championship are still fresh in the team’s mind, and to hedge against any regression, be it in his own game or the team’s performance. He’d be betting against himself if he did so, of course.

Jimmy Butler is the archetype for a defensive-minded wing player who turned down an extension, blossomed as an offensive player in his fourth year, and wound up with handsome rewards. Golden State will have to be aggressive in its offer, but I suspect the team will be. I don’t think the Warriors want to approach $20MM a year, but a proposal of between $16-18MM per season that would make Barnes the highest-paid member of his team would probably be enough to convince him to jump on it. Such a number would also be far enough from the projected max to give the Warriors hope that they’ll once more see a bargain when they look back on the deal and take comfort in knowing the youngest starter from a 67-win championship team is committed for the long term.

How do you see extension talks between the Warriors and Barnes playing out? Leave a comment to share your thoughts.

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