Harrison Barnes becoming a power forward wasn’t the plan, but Mavs have reaped rewards nonetheless

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Harrison Barnes did not come to Dallas to play power forward, operate in isolation at the elbow, and score 20 points per game on more than 17 shots a night.

Dirk Nowitzki did not start opening night believing he’d be playing center for the Mavericks during an 11-5 stretch in February as the club scratches and claws its way back into the playoff race.

Nope, none of this was expected. This has been one of the most unique seasons in Mavericks history given the volume of injuries, the influx of youth up and down the roster, and, perhaps most of all, the emergence of 24-year-old Barnes as one of the NBA’s most dynamic power forwards. He’s in the process of becoming the Mavs’ best player, but maybe he already is.

“I think we’ve passed that point,” said Mavs owner Mark Cuban before Dallas beat Orlando by 32 on Saturday night, “and no one’s happier about that than Dirk.”

Barnes is taking the torch from the 38-year-old Nowitzki, who’s been the face of this franchise for almost two decades. The German really doesn’t mind it, either. Part of his duties as the team’s best player has been addressing the media after almost every one of the 1,300-plus games he’s played as a Maverick. But after one January home game, when he and Barnes both walked into the locker room at the same time, well after the rest of their teammates had left, Nowitzki volunteered Barnes for the job of answering questions from the two lonely reporters left. Barnes jokingly objected, to which Dirk replied that he’s done it for 19 years, and it’s time he deserves a night off.

That’s been the story of the season for Barnes: He’s now doing almost everything Dirk Nowitzki did for so many years, while the legend himself is still on the team, the next locker over. The Mavericks run their late-game isolations for Barnes, not Nowitzki. Barnes leads the team in minutes, points, and shots, and he receives more touches per game than every non-point guard on the roster — he averages the most points per touch on the roster by far, and more than Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kevin Love.

Those three power forwards have for a few years been considered three of the best — if not the three best, period — 4-men in the NBA. Until this point in his career, Barnes has been a small forward almost exclusively. He barely ever played power forward in Golden State, though he did have success at the position when playing next to Marreese Speights, scoring 1.11 points per possession with a 51.3 effective field goal percentage in those situations. Those numbers have carried over into this season when the 24-year-old has played next to Nowitzki, and his success through 54 games ought to put him in the conversation for best rising young power forward in the league.

Barnes Drops 31

Harrison Barnes scores a team-high 31 points with four rebounds in the Mavericks win over Utah.

That is especially surprising considering he didn’t even think he’d play the position here, at least very often.

“I thought I was going to play small forward,” Barnes told Mavs.com. “The way the league is going, I figured I’d play some power forward for some small stretches. But due to injuries we just kind of threw an odd lineup out there, with Seth (Curry) starting, me at the 4, Dirty at the 5, and we’ve just been rolling since.”

The Mavericks are 11-5 since making that lineup change. The Mavericks almost stumbled into this happy accident, however. The plan was for Barnes to play small forward next to Nowitzki at 4 and Andrew Bogut at 5. But Nowitzki only played five games before Dec. 23, which left a 30,000-point sized hole in the lineup. Barnes stepped in at 4 and immediately seized the opportunity, scoring 31 points in his first game at the spot. After Nowitzki played two more games before missing the next month, Barnes scored a career-high 34 points against Milwaukee, and he never looked back.

No one in the organization will admit that Nowitzki’s absence was a positive at any level, as it played a huge role in the Mavs’ 4-17 start to the season. But if there was anything to be gained from that time missed, it was seeing how effective Barnes could be as both a go-to guy and a power forward.

“It was good to show what I could do, have coach have that confidence in me, and now we can kind of build in a different mold from what was the initial plan,” Barnes told Mavs.com.

The “initial plan,” as Barnes put it, was what the Mavericks showed in their season-opening overtime loss to Indiana. He scored 19 points on 14 shots, but six of those attempts were 3-pointers and a majority of his shots were assisted. In addition, he wasn’t used as a roll man to create switches, and he didn’t seem comfortable the one time he was posted up against a small player, ultimately turning the ball over. That seems like a lifetime ago now.

“I think that’s what would have been my role,” Barnes told Mavs.com. “With how we were playing, I would’ve been shooting a lot more 3s, not getting as many isolations. And then when Dirk went down, I was able to show coach a little of what I could do, and we kind of had some success at the 4.”

Now that Nowitzki is back and shooting well, and now that the Mavericks appear to be heading in a positive direction, it’s a little safer to describe the outcome of those early-season injuries as a happy accident: Barnes would probably not be doing what he’s doing if Nowitzki and Bogut had been healthy all along. He might have reached this point eventually, but certainly not right away. “We knew he could be special,” Cuban said. “We just didn’t know how soon.”

And with Barnes playing so well, Nowitzki doesn’t need to experience such a high usage rate as the focal point of the offense. Instead, he can post up when he has to and spot up on the perimeter at most other times, setting ball-screens to free up point guards and then waiting for the kick-out pass.

“The best part is we don’t rely on Dirk,” Cuban said. “Dirk gets his points in the flow, as opposed to ‘give it to Dirk and get out of the way.'”

It’s also put tremendous pressure on defenses. Most NBA teams, even the best defensive ones, don’t have two players who can guard Barnes and Nowitzki. They both bring such unique abilities to their positions — Barnes with his quickness, athleticism, and strength, and Nowitzki with his shooting and floor gravity — that the Mavericks appear to be pushing the envelope in an era when the game is seemingly evolving faster than ever. Dallas now starts five players who can all shoot 3s at an above-average rate, take advantage of size mismatches, and make plays off the dribble for themselves and for others. Seth Curry has been on a tear, Wesley Matthews is playing some of the best basketball of his career, and there are nights when Barnes looks like an All-Star snub.

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A good example of the strain teams feel these days is the Mavs/Jazz game from last week. Rudy Gobert was guarding Dirk all night and eventually fouled out, but not before Curry took him off the dribble for two huge scores late in regulation. That left Derrick Favors and Boris Diaw, two more traditional power forwards, to defend the quicker, faster Barnes, and he scored 31 points, shooting 9 of 10 from within eight feet of the basket. He cruised past the bigger players and got to the bucket with relative ease. Utah is one of the best defenses in the league, but Nowitzki and Barnes combined to score 51 points on 37 shots. A strong, aggressive wing like Denver’s Wilson Chandler (or Barnes’ teammate Matthews) is probably the toughest defensive matchup for Barnes, but overcoming that challenge is the next step for him — and there aren’t many players like them in this league.

Even better for the Mavericks, the nature of their free-flowing pick-and-roll offense tends to lead to teams switching everything instead of trying to navigate around all those screens. That’s given Barnes many opportunities to punish smaller guards at the elbow and on the block, if his initial man switches off. His biggest offensive challenge this season is determining how he’s going to play the possession, or how to exploit the mismatch, based on who’s guarding him. Each trip down the floor can be a new equation he must solve.

“Whoever I usually see at the beginning of the game isn’t who I usually see at the end,” he told Mavs.com. “There are so many switches, so many mismatches, there’s different things that go on. The biggest thing that I’ve had to learn is just be patient. Sometimes you have a smaller guy on you and you want to try to get to the front of the rim, but you’ve got to be patient and back him down. Sometimes you get a bigger guy, a slower guy, a more athletic guy who’s trying to get into you and that type of stuff. The biggest thing is being patient.”

That’s a pretty good problem to have. In less than one season, Barnes has gone from fourth option to first, from small forward to power forward, from peripheral player to the most problematic matchup on a nightly basis, and from big-name signing to potentially the Mavs’ best player. And he’s still only 24 years old.

“That’s why we signed him,” Cuban said. “He has so many places he can get better at. We haven’t even seen the beginning of Harrison Barnes.”