Lakers fans, and likely members of the front office and coaching staff, are divided currently about what to do with the team’s cap space next month and beyond into the free agency period. In one camp are those who think the Laker front office should chase Golden State Warriors restricted free agent Harrison Barnes, offering him the near-max contract he will likely command this summer. In the other corner are those who consider Barnes a third tier free agent not worth the money.
Who’s right? Barnes is a solid young player at 24 years old on a historically good team. He has shown flashes of promise since joining the Warriors, but is that due to his own potential or his situation? He’s far from the promises of future dominance media outlets spouted when Barnes was coming out of UNC, but he also has the potential to be a multi-positional tool that can defend from 2-4 (maybe even five in spurts if he follows his similarly statured teammate Draymond Green in development). He hits open threes, can dribble the ball, and shoot.
But the Lakers would also be betting on promise. Statistically, Barnes hasn’t improved that much over his four years in the league in terms of averages. He also has been inconsistent when he’s been given opportunities to flourish, with the most recent memory being Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Most of the talk surrounding Barnes has been that he’ll get paid this July, but only because he plays a position of need in a summer with an exploding salary cap figure. The narrative goes that Barnes, at a max contract, would have to be a team’s first option due to his cap figure, and he just doesn’t have the skills necessary to be that.
Barnes has negatives, especially at $20 million a year. But NBA executives aren’t idiots. If the consensus is that he’s getting paid that much, there must be something that makes him worth it. The market may be unbalanced, but people don’t get paid that much money for nothing. Where there’s potential, there’s value; ask Reggie Jackson and the Pistons or Demarre Carroll and the Raptors.
The true focal point, as it was for those two free agents in 2015, is where potential and value meet team situation. Demarre Carroll’s emergence might have been a product of Atlanta’s superior coaching and cohesive personnel, but he also was exactly what the Raptors needed to push their talent level to franchise-best levels. Reggie Jackson might have been unjustifiably disgruntled in the shadow of two legitimate superstars in Oklahoma City, but Detroit lacked an aggressive scoring guard. Both of those players got deals with skewed valuations. But both of those players played a role of need for their respective destinations. In short, they fit. The Raptors and Pistons weren’t just paying for their skills; they were paying for what Jackson and Carroll could potentially do with those skills in the right situation. Sometimes, the intangible aspects of the contract carry enough weight to affect the qualitative measures. Exhibit A: Tristan Thomspon.
Tristan Thompson gets into position for another offensive rebound. (Source: www.thecomeback.com)
Tristan Thompson is absolutely, unequivocally, indisputably overpaid. At least, that’s what everyone thought on October 22, 2015, a day after he and the Cavaliers agreed to a five-year, $82 million contract extension. From a fan perspective, the Cleveland vs. Thomspon and Rich Paul holdout was one of the most entertaining contract disputes I’ve ever seen in the NBA. Thomspon was backed into a corner after Paul, his agent, threatened he would leave Cleveland the next season if Thomspon was forced to accept the qualifying offer. Thomspon, of course, didn’t sign the offer, causing Paul to pivot and declare that Thomspon wouldn’t sign an extension for “a penny less” than his maximum possible contract.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers, still reeling from watching Lebron James drag an Irving-and-Love-less team to six games against the Warriors, had absolutely no way to replace Thompson’s role in the rotation; they were completely capped out. The stalemate lasted for months until the Cavs offered Thompson two million more dollars. It was a little more than a penny from the max (more like $12 million from the max), but Thompson accepted.
At the time, Cleveland GM David Griffin cited Thompson’s versatility as the heart of contract's value. “He makes us a Swiss Army Knife,” Griffin told Cleveland.com the Friday after the extension was signed. “We literally can deal with anybody in the frontcourt the way we’re built when we have Tristan in the fold. We have something for every type of big man we’ll come across.”
His defensive ability, offensive rebounding, and just relentless athleticism were all reasons Griffin and the Cavs gave him the contract. To be honest, comparing his regular season stats between last year and this year, you would think he has regressed. He’s played more minutes, but per 100 possessions has taken fewer shots, pulled down fewer offensive rebounds (supposedly his trademark skill), blocked fewer shots, and scored less. His usage rate also fell, meaning instead of becoming a larger part of the offense, he actually became more of an $82 million role player.
But his advanced stats tell a different story. In actuality, Thompson has been a more complete player this year. Less of his possessions end in turnovers, he assists on more of his team’s points when he’s on the floor, and he grabs a higher percentage of Cleveland’s rebounds. Both his offensive and defensive box plus/minus were positive this year for the first time in his career, and his 2.0 VORP was better than Kyrie Irving’s.
The stats help make a case, but the fact is that Tristan Thomspon’s contribution to the Cavs is hard to quantify. He fights for big offensive rebounds, takes a lot of attention from opposing forwards in box-out battles, and he gives the team defensive versatility. He’s athletic, aggressive, and plays his role perfectly. Is that worth $82 million dollars? Maybe not to other teams, but it’s obviously working out well for the Cavs. He can play center when Kevin Love is on the floor, and he can play the four when he’s on the court with Mozgov. He can switch onto smaller perimeter players from time-to-time and defend the pick and roll. Everything he does, the Cavaliers need. And what the Cavaliers need, he does well. His skill set is limited, especially for his price tag. But he fills a hole the Cavs desperately need a plug for.
Thomspon gives the Cavs two things. One, a skill that changes their offense completely in his elite offensive rebounding, and two, defensive versatility while he’s on the floor that’s unmatched by any lineup without him. Those two things have changed the Cavaliers’ identity, especially in the playoffs.
There’s another team with a gaping hole on both offense and defense. One that might not be in the playoffs, but is attempting to redefine their identity. The Los Angeles Lakers are entering into a new era, with a new coach, a new play-style, and a new featured cast. And they too have holes that need filling in order to take them to the next level of legitimacy.
What are the Lakers holes? First and foremost, there’s defense. Luke Walton will be preaching team defense to the young Laker roster, and versatility makes team defense that much easier. Barnes brings exactly that to the Los Angeles. He suffered a serious ankle sprain in late November this season that not only kept him sidelined until January, but also hampered his development as a main cog in the Warrior machine. Barnes showed steady improvement in his defensive rating and defensive win shares year over year until this injury-year caused him to miss a quarter of the season.
To put it short, defensively, it’s a dream come true. The Lakers don’t even have a plus defender on the roster right now. Barnes gives them someone who comes from the same defensive system they plan on instituting, with enough versatility that he could fit into any lineup. He can play next to Randle, a big concern for any forward the Lakers obtain, and the Lakers could even dispatch an Ingram/Barnes/Randle frontcourt for their own version of the Warriors’ death lineup. The possibilities may not be endless, but with Barnes, there are actually possibilities for defensive creativity, which is much more than we can say for the current roster.
What else do the Lakers need? Shooting. Barnes shot a career high 40% from three last season combined with his 57.3% true shooting percentage. One of the biggest knocks on Barnes is that he can’t create his own shot reliably enough to be a number one option, and that makes his shooting less effective. But in reality, the Lakers hope to institute a culture of free-flowing ball movement that likely won’t require Barnes to make things happen off the dribble more than he normally would. Plus, D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson are both ball-dominant guards with instrumental roles in the Lakers future; there’s almost no way Luke Walton will be taking the ball out of their hands just for the sake of turning Barnes into the Lakers’ star player.
The fact is Harrison Barnes fits with the Lakers. Offensively, he can play the three or four, giving way to Luke’s creativity to play with lineups. Some people are concerned that lining up Barnes at three would stunt Brandon Ingram’s development, but I’m apprehensive that’s a real issue. Ingram will have plenty of time to prove himself to the coaching staff before the season starts, and they’ll make the right decision. Maybe Ingram is better suited to start at the two until he bulks up, leaving Clarkson to run the point with Lou Williams and the bench; maybe Ingram is allowed to come into his own off the bench, rather than being thrust into the starting lineup initially. Barnes’s presence in the lineup doesn’t create some unsolvable playing time issue.
The argument that Barnes will need to be the first option on the team is also moot. Most Laker supporters, front office included, would much rather Russell come into his own as the first option and would possibly even put Julius Randle above Barnes on the totem pole. Barnes, currently at 24, will be hitting the peak of his prime right as Russell, Randle, and Clarkson are at the beginning stages of their own. While he will definitely be counted on to shoulder some of the offensive load, he wouldn’t be the savior to the Lakers’ offensive woes. He would be a bridge until the young Lakers come into their own. And along with that bridge comes continuity for Luke Walton, a championship winning mentality in the locker room, and, most importantly, talent.
Maybe Barnes can’t be the first option on a playoff team. Maybe not even the second. But he’s a lot closer to that level that Tristan Thompson. And if someone is going to pay him for what he brings to the table, why not the Lakers, who are hungry for exactly what he’s serving up? The price may be high. Especially for a guy that you hope eventually plays second fiddle to Russell, or even third banana to Russell and Randle. But someone has to play that role. And nobody on the Lakers is presently suited for the part. Sometimes, you overpay at the intersection of value, potential, and fit. Sometimes, you give Tristan Thompson $82 million.
The Cavaliers were forced to make their decision about Tristan Thompson. They didn’t have the luxury to decide for themselves whether he was worth the contract or not. Fortunately, the Lakers do have that privilege. And if they decide to take advantage of it by offering Barnes an offer too lucrative for the Warriors to match, the Lakers too can find themselves with a Swiss Army Knife that changes the way they’re built.