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Getting the best out of Barnes

Harrison Barnes has looked like two different players on two different teams. Which version are the Kings getting?

Kimani Okearah

Before coming to Sacramento, Harrison Barnes’ career could easily be divided into two parts. He was drafted by the Golden State Warriors in 2012 and spent four years in the bay area on his rookie contract. In 2016 he left California for a maximum contract and played two and a half seasons with the Dallas Mavericks.

The difference between those two parts of Barnes’ career was not just where he played, however. In fact that’s just a minor difference when compared to how he played.

With Golden State, Barnes was primarily a small forward. He was also never used as a primary option and always took fewer shots than Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and either David Lee or Draymond Green, depending on the year. He was utilized almost exclusively in spot-up and transition possessions. Barnes rarely ever created his own shots in isolation.

Everything was flipped in Dallas. Barnes primarily played power forward for the Mavericks. He was the undisputed first option for his first two seasons in Dallas. Only Luka Doncic took more shots than Barnes in this most recent year. He did most of his work for the Mavericks in isolation, and his spot-up and transition looks were greatly reduced.

Perhaps most importantly, there was an enormous difference in the performance and perception of the now 27 year-old forward. In Golden State, Barnes was an efficient 3-and-D player who was considered worthy of a big pay day. In Dallas, his reputation was that of an inefficient ball-stopper who was massively overpaid.

Of course, Harrison Barnes recently began a third chapter of his career when he returned to California via trade to the Sacramento Kings in February. The question arose quickly — which version of Harrison Barnes would the Kings be getting?

The answer should be very encouraging. While Barnes has only played 28 games in a Kings uniform, it appears very clear that Sacramento intends to resurrect the style and usage of the first half of Harrison’s career. Whether by examining his position on the court, his usage and attempt rate, or his shot selection and play style, the Kings have seemingly undone all the mistakes Dallas made with Barnes.

Time Spent at Each Position

Team SF PF
Team SF PF
Golden State Warriors 60% 40%
Dallas Mavericks 35% 65%
Sacramento Kings 62% 38%

Positions are a point of conflict for many basketball analysts. Some folks will tell you that each position requires a particular set of offensive skills. Others say that position is defined by who each player can defend. Even others will tell you that position doesn’t matter at all.

What definitely matters is common sense and results. The Warriors deployed Barnes at small forward most of the time, and would slide him up to power forward when they could create a mismatch. It’s worth noting that when Barnes did play the four in Golden State, it was on a team that was leading the small ball revolution. Even at the four, the responsibilities that Barnes were given still resembled those of a traditional three.

In Dallas, Barnes started at power forward and would slide down to small forward for about one third of his minutes. The Mavericks appeared to ignore Barnes’ weaknesses in rebounding and interior defense. He was often paired with Dirk Nowitzki or Dwight Powell in the frontcourt, and the lack of traditional big men skills in those lineups just didn’t work. Dallas did not have a Draymond Green type of defender to made the small ball style effective.

Whatever your personal opinion on Harrison’s natural position, it’s evident that the Kings are utilizing him in the way that has best worked for him in the past. They aren’t forcing him to the four when it doesn’t make sense, but rather using him there only when it creates an advantage. Barnes’ best years came when he started at the three, and Sacramento is looking to replicate that in the here and now.

Shot Volume and Usage

Team FGA/G Rank on Team Usage %
Team FGA/G Rank on Team Usage %
Golden State Warriors 8.5 4th-5th 16.3
Dallas Mavericks 15.6 1st-2nd 24.9
Sacramento Kings 11.1 5th 16.3

The importance of which position Barnes plays is paled in comparison to where he falls in the pecking order of offensive options. Whether he starts at the three or a four makes some difference in his performance, but the difference between taking 8 shots and 15 shots per game is downright massive.

That’s the jump he experienced when he joined the Mavericks. And not only did his volume of shots essentially double in Dallas, but he was also skyrocketed from a role player to a number one option at breakneck speed. He went from playing next to three superstars to being the sole focus of an offense where he had very little help.

Some could levy criticism on Barnes for being unable to efficiently make that leap — in fact many did. But all it means is that he’s not one of the few elite players who can put his team on his back and take them to the playoffs by himself. It doesn’t mean that he can’t be a starter on an championship team (he has), or that he can’t finish a season with 40% shooting from three (he has), or even that the can’t get hot and drop 30 points when he’s feeling himself (he has, 14 times).

It’s about understanding the type of player that Barnes is. He’s not a superstar, but he can be an elite support player when utilized correctly. It appears the Kings understand that, as they’ve already scaled his usage back down to what it was in Golden State — a reasonable 16%, rather than his ostentatious 25% in Dallas.

Play Type and Offensive Style

Team Spot Up Transition Isolation
Team Spot Up Transition Isolation
Golden State Warriors 27.70% 18.06% 12.04%
Dallas Mavericks 18.37% 7.03% 21.09%
Sacramento Kings 23.34% 19.36% 8.75%

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, getting the best out of Harrison Barnes means letting him play to his strengths in shot selection. Limiting his attempts doesn’t do much if he is still taking the wrong types of looks. Barnes’ most efficient play types have been consistent throughout his career. He is excellent in spot-up and transition, but average at best in isolation.

Golden State figured that out early. Barnes took almost 28% of his shots via spot ups and another 18% in transition when he was with the Warriors. The isolation game was his third, fourth, or even fifth most frequent play type in Golden State. But again, the Mavericks tried to fit a square peg in a round hole. The majority of Barnes’ shots came out of isolation when in Dallas, and he watched his spot-up and transition opportunities be cut nearly in half.

That was the real brunt of the problem with Barnes’ struggles in Dallas. By his last year with the Mavericks, his efficiency in isolation was well below league average, yet he was still being treated as an isolation scorer. This misuse of Barnes chipped away at his reputation around the league so much that he was eventually traded away in a deal that felt like a pure salary dump.

And yet again, upon his arrival in Sacramento, we saw a bounce back to the style of play that Barnes thrived in with the Warriors. In his short time with Sacramento his spot-up frequency went back up to about 25%, his transition frequency returned to about 20%, and his isolation frequency dropped back down to about 10%.

Looking Forward

The importance of Harrison Barnes getting back to his roots with Sacramento cannot be understated. The Kings desperately needed a quality small forward, and they got one by trading for a player who was miscast as a power forward. By brushing away the tendencies that did not work for Barnes in Dallas, they excavated a preexisting blueprint for a crucial piece of their future.

Reducing his usage made so much sense for this particular Kings team. While De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are by no means the Hall of Fame locks that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are, they do drive the identity of the Kings and they deserve to be the engines of the offense.

Marvin Bagley III is expected to be another primary option, and will be the best big man on the roster if everything goes according to plan. He will need at least as many shots as guys like Draymond Green or David Lee got when Barnes was in Golden State. Taking the ball out of Fox, Hield, or Bagley’s hands in favor of Barnes would simply be a mistake.

With the Kings, Barnes can go back to what he does best. Defend bigger wings, run in transition, and space the floor in half court sets for catch-and-shoot threes. No longer will he be asked to stop the ball and create something out of nothing in isolation.

The benefits of the changes have been evident already. In his 28 games with Sacramento, Barnes rocketed up to the 92nd percentile in scoring on his spot-ups and 89th percentile on his shots in transition. Even his few isolation attempts hit new highs in efficiency because they came when the mismatches were there, rather than using them as a first option.

The Kings acquired Barnes for pennies on the dollar, and now are allowing him to play the style that maximizes his value. Barnes is locked into a new 4-year deal at $85 million, with his salary declining each year. That means that the Kings will soon be paying only 15 to 20 percent of the salary cap for a player who has proven himself to be good enough to start on a championship level team.

As long as the Kings stick to the plan of using Barnes the way the Warriors did, the pendulum of perception around Harrison Barnes will swing back from a disappointing overpay to a valuable and essential piece of a young team with a bright future. In that way, we can expect Barnes’ return to Northern California to also be a return to his best self on the court.