With the No. 7 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, the Golden State Warriors took a chance. With his impressive spot-up shooting ability and positional versatility, Barnes immediately found a role with the team and started 81 games in his rookie season alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in one of the NBA’s most potent lineups. But when Coach Mark Jackson relegated the small forward to a sixth-man role the following year, Barnes struggled to create his own offense as the leader of the second unit — posting career lows in field-goal percentage (39.9) and 3-point percentage (34.7).
After Steve Kerr took the reins in 2014-15, Barnes started all 82 games and saw his field-goal percentage (48.2) and 3-point percentage (40.5) reach career-high marks — thanks in part to more assisted field goals and less time with the ball in his hands. And in the 2015 NBA Finals, Kerr utilized Barnes’ length and shooting stroke at power forward in a center-less, “small-ball” lineup that earned Golden State its first title in 40 years.
But this past season, Barnes’ limitations often overshadowed his strengths. The small forward once again settled into his role as a catch-and-shoot specialist, spotting up more than ever before. And with his record-setting backcourt teammates drawing the defense’s attention, 21.5 percent of Barnes’ 3-point attempts were wide open — significantly more than any other Warrior in the rotation. But once again, inconsistency reared its ugly head, as Barnes hit a disappointing 42.6 percent of his uncontested 3-pointers and 38.3 percent of all 3-point shots.
This was never more apparent than in the 2016 NBA Finals, when the Cleveland Cavaliers left Barnes wide open along the perimeter nearly 30 percent of the time. But time and time again, he missed — including a 2-for-22 stretch from the field in Games 5 and 6 — to finish the series shooting 31 percent from beyond the arc and 35.2 percent overall. And while Barnes’ shooting touch helped Golden State in its record-setting 73-win campaign, his struggles down the stretch arguably cost his team a championship and hurt his offseason value.
But this summer, Barnes’ market price will be dependent on more than just his performance. With the NBA salary cap projected to rise from $70 million to an unprecedented $94 million next season, nearly every team in the league has extra money to spend on marquee free agents. And with the cap expected to skyrocket to $107 million in 2017-18, many teams will be willing to take a chance on an expensive contract this offseason, knowing they can recoup $13 million in cap room a year later.
Enter Harrison Barnes.
Since Barnes is a restricted free agent, the Warriors can match any offer he signs with another team, forcing interested teams to heavily outbid Golden State. And as a four-year veteran, Barnes is eligible for a salary starting at 25 percent of the salary cap — putting his first-year earnings at $23.5 million and his fourth-year figure just under $27 million.
The Warriors have expressed interest in retaining the talented young forward, but a Kevin Durant coup this offseason would almost certainly mean a one-way ticket from Oakland for Barnes. And as talented as he is, Barnes’ abysmal playoff performance and pedestrian career numbers don’t scream “maximum contract.” But NBA owners have a long history of overpaying for restricted free agents, and with so many teams willing to ink mid-level players to max deals this summer, it would hardly be a surprise if Barnes signed on as the face of a faltering franchise.
Even if he signs a premium deal, he might never live up to his superstar billing. The talent is unquestioned and the tools are all there, begging to be unleashed as a transcendent scorer. But for six years, Barnes has struggled as the focal point of any offense, and he’s often been too inconsistent to shine as a complementary piece. Any team that pursues the 24-year-old as the cornerstone of its organization will do so without any assurance of stardom.
But it only takes two teams to bid and one team to buy — even if the price tag doesn’t match the product.