One of the biggest questions on Mavs fans’ minds heading into this season is just how Dallas plans on expanding Harrison Barnes’ role within the offense as he begins the process of becoming a focal point.
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The hope is Barnes can eventually become a cornerstone-type player for the franchise, after inking a deal with the Mavericks reported to be worth $94 million over four years. But that will be a process. Barnes averaged a career-high 11.7 points per game last season for the Warriors, so there’s reason to believe and expect his scoring numbers to steadily climb with a bigger role, but it might take a year or two to reach the apex. The Mavs will work the 24-year-old Barnes into the mix with patience, especially while Dirk Nowitzki is still playing at a high level, and eventually the small forward could potentially take the reins.
But how will that process begin? It’s best to start with what Barnes can already do well, and what he’s already demonstrated he’s capable of during his four years in the NBA. In order to identify just what exactly that is and, more importantly, how that can translate over to the Mavs, it’s almost necessary to ignore most of what the Warriors do on offense. Due to roster makeup, Golden State plays such an unconventional style of offense that no other team in the league even comes close to replicating. In other words, no other team has sharpshooters like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and no other team has a point forward like Draymond Green.
That means there’s potentially a lot of noise when it comes to classifying Barnes’ game. He was used primarily as a spot-up shooter for the Warriors, especially when playing with the starting lineup. That has led some to believe that he simply cannot do anything else, which is a pretty outrageous conclusion to draw. Barnes has shown throughout his career — including and especially last season — that he can do much more than just catch and shoot. And despite how much of the Warriors’ offense is impossible for the Mavs to copy, Barnes showed signs playing alongside certain players last season that he will blend in comfortably right away in Dallas.
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Here’s a comparison that might make you scratch your head at first, but bear with me: Golden State’s “Dirk Nowitzki” last season — aka a jump-shooting big man — was Marreese Speights. Barnes and Speights shared the floor for 405 minutes last season, per nbawowy.com, and that’s when Barnes was used as more of an initiator within the offense.
Without Speights on the floor last season, more than 67 percent of Barnes’ 2-point field goals were assisted, per NBA.com. But with Speights on the floor, only 46.3 percent Barnes’ 2-point field goals were assisted, plus his assist rate climbed more than 2 percent. And despite playing less off of others, Barnes maintained a 51.3 effective field goal percentage and scored 1.11 points per possession, per nbawowy. Those are nice numbers.
But it’s Speights’ numbers that drive the Nowitzki comparisons home. When Barnes and Speights played together, the Warriors’ big man had a usage rate of 32.4 percent, meaning he used nearly one-third of the possessions for himself. Nearly all of the time they shared together came with Barnes at 4 and Speights at 5. When Nowitzki played center last season, he had a sky-high 26.9 usage rate, comparable to Speights’. And why not? Dirk can take advantage of centers, many of whom play like a fish out of water 25 feet from the basket.
Barnes and Nowitzki could (and will) see plenty of work together at the 3 and 4, respectively, but bumping them up a spot in the lineup could propel the offense a step forward. If the Mavs see a Barnes/Dirk 4/5 combo as something worth considering, they could hand Barnes the reins to make plays like this one — it’s simple offense, but difficult to defend.
For Barnes, this is a pretty easy read: The defense blitzes Barnes coming off the screen, doubling and pushing him toward the sideline, so he flips a pass over to Speights for three. The Celtics’ defense would have worked were Speights a traditional rolling big man, because Barnes would have had no passing option and would instead be facing a hard double-team moving toward the corner. That’s likely a turnover. But, like Nowitzki, Speights will happily fire an open 3-ball if he has the chance.
Now, if the defense would have switched, Barnes would have had a quickness advantage against his opponent. If Barnes’ man went under the screen, he could pull up for a jumper. And if he fights through well, Barnes could either take him into the post, pass out to Speights (Nowitzki) for a reset, or the Mavericks could incorporate another option like this one:
Or they could run a pin-down for either a big man or another jump-shooter.
Each of these three plays involved Barnes as the facilitator and Speights as the beneficiary. They can also be easily translated over to the Mavericks, who commonly ran post-ups for Shawn Marion back in the day, and as recently as last season ran flare screens for shooters (usually Wesley Matthews) while a player (usually Deron Williams) posted up. Even if Barnes doesn’t run a ton of pick-and-rolls, he can still be a focal point of the offense, just in a different way.
Barnes scored a career-high .905 points per possession in the post last season, per Synergy, which ranked in the 70th percentile league-wide. He was frequently able to take advantage of size mismatches when defended by a smaller player, and that could again be the case this season if the Mavericks want it so, especially when playing against switch-heavy defenses. He can score for himself and he can create points for his teammates.
If he has a four- or five-inch height advantage against his opponent, that could eventually prompt teams to try double-teaming him. Last season, Barnes demonstrated the ability to pass out of hard doubles, though he didn’t face many: He turned it over just once in nine chances, and his passes generated seven points.
The Mavericks have plenty of capable off-ball cutters on this roster, including Deron Williams, Devin Harris, and Seth Curry. Rick Carlisle has a versatile roster this season and can get pretty creative when it comes to designing plays, or his Mavs can stay within the flow offense if that’s what he prefers, too. Either way, Barnes can facilitate out of the post, and especially in combination with Nowitzki.
There are complications, of course, with playing Dirk at center for too many minutes. It limits the Mavs’ interior presence on the defensive end and could inhibit the team’s collective rebounding ability, as players like Andrew Bogut and Dwight Powell are proven on the glass.
But the positives are difficult to ignore. Nowitzki at the 5 would draw the center far from the rim, creating maximum space underneath for players like Barnes to take advantage of. And a Mavs perimeter combination of Barnes/Matthews/Justin Anderson could potentially protect the paint from the outside-in. Anderson, too, has Al-Farouq Aminu capabilities when it comes to protecting the rim like a center while playing as a small forward. It can be done.
That lineup is pure speculation, of course, but Barnes’ performance as a facilitator in combination with Speights and in the post provides some evidence to suggest that his growth as a facilitator this season could be steady and fruitful. Barnes showed signs, even in Golden State’s thoroughly unconventional offense, that he can be a productive player in a slightly more conventional system.