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Harrison Barnes has unlocked the Kings’ full potential

The versatile forward cures the most glaring weakness on the roster

Kimani Okearah

Since acquiring Harrison Barnes, the Sacramento Kings are 3-2, a solid mark for any random sampling of five games. But the performance has been even better; both losses have come on the road against the best teams in the Western Conference (#1 Golden State and #2 Denver) by a margin of two points each. The Kings have beaten the Miami Heat and the Phoenix Suns at home, and the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road. Barnes has been critical in each game.

Although starting at small forward before the break, Dave Joerger has now shifted Barnes to power forward. Some have questioned the move; now that the team finally has a proper small forward, the team moves him to power forward? Truth is, the Kings didn’t need a “small forward,” as antiquated as that label has become. The Kings had no shortage of players who could adequately play the 3 spot, including Iman Shumpert, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, and Justin Jackson. What they really needed a big wing who could both match the size and length of the league’s bigger small forwards and still bump down to the power forward position in speedy and spacey modern lineups. Shumpert, Bogdanovic, and Hield all lacked the size and length, while Jackson lacked the muscle mass. The 3/4 “big wing” has become a lynchpin of what modern NBA basketball looks like, and was completely missing from the Kings roster. Until Barnes.

The Kings now have the ability to stick Barnes on taller small forwards who can shoot right over their previous “small” forwards. Before, the Kings were at a size disadvantage every night. Even in the last few games, the difference between Barnes and the rest of the Kings’ smaller guards has been stark when one of the latter gets stuck on a switch. Watch here how Kevin Durant, at 6’11, casually shoots right over the top of 6’4 Hield virtually unimpeded.

Against the Warriors, Joerger tried to get cute and start the game with Bogdanovic on Durant. Durant practically scoffed at poor Bogdanovic, overwhelming the natural shooting guard to the rim with his size.

However, against the 6’8 Barnes, Durant no longer has as dramatic of a size advantage. Barnes’ size and length enabled him to bother Durant much more effectively on the perimeter.

It was the same story against Paul George. Against Bogdanovic and Hield, George has the option of shooting right over the top of the defender or driving for clean looks in the paint.

But against Barnes, George has to work harder to get to his spots. Here, instead of expending more energy to challenge Barnes off the dribble, George opts for a contested three from the corner.

Of course, superstars are superstars. When an all-world talent like Durant or George nails a tough shot in your face, you tip your cap and move on.

The key is to make it as tough as possible, and Barnes does an admirable job.

Even when Barnes is playing the 4 spot next to Bogdanovic at the 3, he’s still the main defender on bigger wings like Durant and George. Against the Warriors, the Kings defended Durant with Barnes as Bogdanovic defended either Andre Iguodala or Draymond Green. Against the Thunder, as Barnes checked George, Bogdanovic defended Jerami Grant, a spot-up three point shooter and cutter. Neither situation raises severe red flags on defense as a physical mismatch the way the Kings’ pre-Barnes options did.

Offensively, Barnes has yet to find his rhythm, shooting only 34% from the field overall and 25% from three in five games with the Kings. However, Barnes is an established three point shooter, shooting 37% for his career. That reputation demands respect, as teams are unwilling to leave Barnes open on the perimeter. Barnes still provides spacing for De’Aaron Fox to work in the paint in the Kings’ four-out lineups. As a bonus, Barnes has some handy shot-creation skills off the dribble and in the post; as long as Barnes avoids his old habits of gunning and tunnel vision, those skills are useful in a pinch.

Barnes, however, has truly unlocked the Kings on defense. The Kings’ current starting lineup, with Barnes at PF and Bogdanovic at SF, currently sports a +3.2 net rating in 39 minutes, an impressive feat given the level of competition the Kings have faced. Insert Marvin Bagley for Bogdanovic, and the Kings’ bigball lineup with Barnes at SF and Bagley at PF earned an impressive +22.8 net rating in 27 minutes. In the last 5 games, with Barnes on the court, the Kings have a defensive rating of 105.1, a mark that is significantly better than their season-long defensive rating of 111.3. With Barnes sitting on the bench these past five games, the defensive rating plummets to 111.2.

In my opinion, the most notable moment came in the game against Miami on February 8th: trailing 94-85 with six minutes remaining, Joerger inserted the lineup that would become the starters today, featuring Fox, Hield, Bogdanovic, Barnes, and Willie Cauley-Stein. That five-man unit suffocated the Heat on defense, allowing only 2 more points the entire remaining quarter and winning the game 102-96. The Kings had no business winning that game with their disastrous shooting, but were able to hang around and win the game on the defensive end. Barnes’ ability to play the PF position and defend multiple positions was key down the stretch.

Overall, the Kings are a much-improved team already with Barnes in the rotation, even given Barnes’ struggles on offense. There’s plenty of reason for optimism that the Kings still haven’t reached their ceiling as a team this season as Barnes settles into his offensive role. The bottom line is that Barnes fills a position for the Kings that is largely a staple of the NBA and its new brand of positionless basketball. The trade has already brought the Kings success, with the promise of bigger things to come as they vie for a playoff spot as the season’s finish line comes into view.