The Warriors find themselves in the midst of their (likely) coronation as repeat NBA champs. A team that has helped revolutionise the game with small ball and a three & D dominant roster. Though few minds will be looking ahead of this Final series, for starting small forward Harrison Barnes, his mind has surely drifted on a few occasions to his impending summer of free agency.
As recently as June 4, NBA.com quoted the 24 year old as saying “I’d love to be here (Golden State). But there’s also some other factors that factor into that”.
Barnes almost perfectly typifies the blue print for the versatile player who can thrive in the modern NBA. His 6-8 frame echoes that of a young Scottie Pippen; long, lean and brimming with athleticism. He could be the second star on almost any other franchise. But here in Golden State, for now anyway, he’s the cog that doesn’t quite fit in the system.
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Understandably, playing behind Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, opportunities for the wing are sparse. Even in his fourth season, this must still be an adjustment for a player who was hyped as the next big thing in high school and a celebrated stud at the University of North Carolina. Expectations were, and continue to be, high for the seventh pick of the 2012 draft. And though glimmers of greatness shine through every once in a while, Barnes’ performances have been inconsistent.
Barnes is still the first player yanked from the line up when things get tight – just like in game seven of the Western Conference Finals, when he was replaced by Iguodala with the Dubs season on the line. Success in these Finals is vital for his career going forward. A hot start in game one, suggested he was ready to go and be a contributor. But after seven quick points in the first quarter, Barnes finished with an unspectacular 13 points and only amassed a further five in game two.
Sure, a second title would (or will, at this rate) be a huge accomplishment. But, after the confetti has settled and the lights go out, Barnes will embark on the most important off-season of his career so far. One that will dictate his future both on and off the court.
Kevin Durant has famously stated on multiple occasions that he has not thought about his impending free agency. Harrison Barnes is the polar opposite. Last September, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Warriors offered him a four year, $64 million contract extension. Barnes turned this down (pulling a Jimmy Butler), betting on himself to play at a level that earned him a much larger contract this summer.
The former Tar Heel also switched agents, unhappy with standard commission applied to NBA player contracts. Clearly, he takes his money very seriously. And why shouldn’t he? Athletes only have a small career span in which to maximise their earnings to keep them set for life.
As a result of the impending salary cap jump, this summer’s free agency is likely to see teams throw a lot of money around. And, despite his inconsistency, Barnes is likely to be in high demand. As a restricted free agent, Golden State will have the chance to match any offer he receives and retain his services. But, with Klay and Draymond already taking up a significant portion of their cap and Curry set to cash in on his success next summer, can the Warriors really afford to keep Barnes?
Coincidentally, KD’s free agency could impact where Barnes lands. Rumours have burbled for months now of a switch to the Bay for the former MVP. Though it seems improbable at best – the risk of destroying a team of proven championship calibre and historical greatness for a great player but severely limited cap manoeuvrability going forwards doesn’t seem worth it – if Durant was to switch to the Dubs, Barnes would be out the door.
Which brings us back to the Finals. Barnes needs to excel in games three and four (and any others if needed). He’s under the world’s gaze. He's also going head-to-head against the most dominant small forward of our generation in Lebron James. His success or failure in this match-up could be a significant barometer of his value this summer. If he wants to be a star and be paid like one, he needs to shine under the brightest spotlight.