Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Revival of Harrison Barnes


Just last season, doubts swirled around the Bay Area as to the future of the seventh pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Harrison Barnes. A huge part of the Warriors playoff run in 2013, Barnes put up two 20-point games in both the San Antonio and Denver series. His production mysteriously bottomed out the following season.

In 2013-14, the former University of North Carolina star scored less than 10 points per game and under 40 percent in both the regular season and the playoffs. As if the roller coaster ride was over, Barnes has returned to 2012 form this season. New coach Steve Kerr entrusted Barnes with the role as a starter over All-Star Andre Iguodala. The decision has more than paid dividends for Barnes’ career and confidence who is sporting career-highs in many traditional shooting stat categories (points, FG%, FT%, 3PT%). A closer look at Barnes’ transformation in Steve Kerr’s offense and defense shows that this is no accident.

Re-establishing a favorable shot selection

Mark Jackson has already been critiqued a lot, most notably by the recent comments from Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob who said at a VC luncheon that Jackson “couldn’t get along with anybody else in the organization…you can’t have 200 people in the organization not like you.” I don’t want to harp on Jackson’s faults more than has already been done, but Barnes was one of the players most negatively impacted by the lack of offensive scheme and movement.

Take this shot, for instance:


The Black Falcon actually rimmed this shot in but it is far from a good shot selection. The mismatch that he had on Mo Williams is nice but you see LaMarcus Aldridge lurking in the paint and no weak side movement from the Warriors. This isn’t a bad shot for Carmelo Anthony but an iso post-up for a guy shooting sub-40 percent is not how the offense with threats all over the place should be run. Thankfully, Barnes is running with the first team #FullSquad on this one. More often than not, though, those types of shots last year ended up like this one:


From a Curry standstill dribble, Barnes is waiting on the wing with no movement or initial advantage on his defender. Bogut is already in the high-post/free-throw line area which is actually not a bad thing (as the Warriors have shown this season). The problem here is that Curry, not Bogut, is the playmaker. Diaw is a crafty defender but Barnes can certainly beat him off the dribble. Then Splitter sags off Bogut because the big man has a range of about three feet from the basket. In traffic, Barnes pulls up and misses.

When you’re a struggling scorer, these are not the types of shots you want to be taking. As recently as the 2014 Finals, we see how stars like LeBron would look to get their sidekicks like Wade back on track. Alley-oops and easy backdoor lay-ups were the way to go. It helped even then, although those Spurs made Miami look like a D-league team in the '14 Finals. And while the pedigrees for Barnes and the Warriors aren’t on LeBron-level, the premise is the same.

You’re saying we need Bogut as a facilitator in the high-post area, ideally no double team, and an easy backdoor lay-up? Let’s fast forward to 2014:

Bogut as a facilitator? Check. No double team? Check, unless you count two guys behind you. And an easy lay-up? Checkmate. The chess game that Steve Kerr plays leads to consistent baskets like this. With P&Rs mixed in with dribble hand-offs, backdoor cuts mixed with plays like this, Barnes and the Warriors get easy baskets. So when Charles Barkley proclaims that the Warriors need a post presence to get easy baskets, these are the plays I would point out to him.

And if it’s not Bogut as a playmaker, there’s Steph Curry, too:

Same theme as before. Barnes is not (yet) a shot creator like Steph Curry. What he can do very well, like his teammate Draymond Green, is make open to relatively-open shots. This leads to greater efficiency (hold that thought for now).

Quantification of Barnes’ shot selection supports this claim. And if you’ve read any of my other feature columns, you won’t be surprised that it's time we dive into some advanced metrics. Through 21 games, 73% of Barnes' baskets were off assists, up significantly from 61% last year. Translation: he’s getting a higher percentage of easier baskets.

Quality of shots is also measured by proximity to the paint. The mechanics to Barnes’ shot still have me slightly uneasy, but maybe that’s an off-season project for Alvin Gentry. It’s far from 2013-MKG but I still see room for a silkier shot. Remove the necessity to square up a shot by getting shots in the paint. Specifically in the restricted area, Barnes is shooting 70.4% vs. last year’s 55.3%.

Was he really that bad last year or has he just gotten lucky? Neither. Again, let’s take a look at the percent of those (restricted area) field goals that are assisted. Last year 59.6% were assisted, and this year, 73.7%.

One final measure of ease-of-shot that I find useful is looking at the number of dribbles taken prior to a shot. This gives a better distribution than simply “catch-and-shoot” vs. “lay-ups” vs. the other 10,001 ways shots can be classified. And it’s also valuable because it lumps together generally difficult shots and generally easy shots even if they’re different types of shots. A one-dribble post-move and a step-back three are both relatively easy shots even though the chance of making each shot varies tremendously. So while a three is a lower percentage shot (statistically) than a shot closer to the basket, it’s still relatively easy if it’s a catch-and-shoot three. In the words of Andre Iguodala (referring in this case to Klay Thompson), “I can get a dunk for 2 pts or a layup for 3 pts.” Barnes, like anybody, wants easier shots…and he’s been getting them.


Greater confidence leading to better efficiency and more overall success

Confidence is critical to shot-making, and more easy shots make the difficult ones less daunting. Barnes exemplifies this standard perfectly. The value of his increased efficiency is not limited to just zero- or one-dribble shots around the basket where those pump-fakes that he throws up in the paint work so well. He is shooting a staggering 45 percent from three this year, up 10 points from 35 percent last year. 64% true-shooting isn't half bad, either.

Barnes’ rebounding has also improved. In 31 minutes per game, he’s hauled down 6.4 rebounds per game. And as with his shot selection, not only has the quantity increased, but so has the quality. The rebounds that he’s getting are both closer to the basket and among greater number of contesting rebounders (ie more players going for the ball).

Rebounds:
2013-14 (Percentage)
2014-15 (Percentage)
With 0 Contesting Rebounders
75.2
71.4
With 1 Contesting Rebounder
22.2
20.3
With 2+ Contesting Rebounders
2.3
8.3
Within 0-6 Feet
49.1
63.1

Great example:


Rebound in traffic? Just a bit. 3920 pump fakes? I stopped counting after 1000. Great body control and footwork? Kobe would be proud. And a basket close to the rim? As close as you can get. This shot even got a nice little fist-pump from Steve Kerr.

Playing with the right lineups

Last year, Barnes was forced into a role as the primary scorer in a second squad. He’s not that player yet. Especially as a young player, he needed/needs the right situation and lineups. Kerr is bridging the gap and providing just that, giving Barnes time with both the starters and the bench players, and often with combinations of both. This is great for him because he gets the opportunity to build confidence as a third or fourth option. Then he can carry that confidence over to the second squad, something that will help build his individual talent as a primary scorer. He gets minutes with the starters (started every game so far) but also sees plenty of time with Livingston, Iguodala, Barbosa, Speights, and the bench.

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Each player has benefited individually from Steve Kerr so maybe the three Warriors that I’ve featured in columns so far should be under a series dubbed (no pun intended) The Steve Kerr Effect. Barnes’ change is unique, though, and definitely sticks out. Most every other player on the team was on a trajectory to improve (albeit maybe not at the rapid rate it has been). Barnes, however, was a huge question mark for the team after last year where his highlight reel was still really only that nasty dunk on Pekovic…a throwdown from 2012-13, the previous season.

That has changed. Barnes may not be a viable no. 2 scoring option on a team but he is a solid starter on a great team. Not many players can claim to be a starter on a franchise-record regular season win streak.


(Note: all statistics accurate through 21 games.)

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