In the first nine games of the season, Kings fans feared the worst as Harrison Barnes looked unproductive and sluggish; some might even say he looked out of place.
Through that first stretch of games, Barnes averaged 9.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.9 assists while shooting a rancid 16.7% from beyond the arc.
It was difficult to overlook. This was the team’s third highest paid player and he was putting up numbers that had some wondering whether he should even be in the starting lineup. And in such a small sample size of games, it was easy to nitpick and get uneasy about it.
But the coaching staff never worried.
“A guy like HB, I’m starting him, I’m bringing him out quick, I’m putting him back in, and most times I’m putting him back in, but sometimes I’m not putting him back in,” Mike Brown said earlier in the season. “And that’s probably a little different than what he’s had in the past. As a veteran guy that’s been able to score in this league, he’s had an opportunity to play a long stretch of minutes initially, and that long stretch usually allows a guy like that to get in rhythm.”
Coach Brown puts a lot of trust in his guys; a vet like Barnes, it is safe to say, has a pretty long leash. It was admittedly hard to not get behind the idea that things would get better.
And they did.
In the last six games, HB has averaged 16.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.2 steals per game while also shooting 42.1% from three-point range. Plus, as the reader might be aware, the Kings won all of those games.
More than just putting up some nice statistical lines, Barnes’ veteran presence makes all the difference with the more sturdy chemistry that’s formed now. Often times, Barnes is the one getting into the paint when things happen to get stagnant, either getting himself a bucket, getting to the line (he’s averaging over 6 free throw attempts in this six-game stretch), or opening up an opportunity for someone else.
His ability to attack the paint in the third quarter of last Thursday’s game against the Spurs helped set the tone for the rest of the offense to close out the game. And his ability to consistently be a a steady on-floor force—from offense to defense to rebounding—in a clunky game against the Pistons paid huge dividends.
The struggles of the first nine games—which certainly seem bound to the concepts of newness and acclimation that come with a new staff and new teammates—are behind him, even on the defensive end.
Other than just failing to produce at the expected level, Barnes’ early struggles were also viewed as a major issue because of what it did to his value.
The contract for the veteran forward ends after this season, so the idea of exploring a way to flip him for someone who is locked up for next year has always been a potential option. Throughout the offseason—even in years past—fans were used to this topic of discussion. So when Barnes was playing poorly, it seemed the Kings would not only just have a subpar performer, but because of that, they’d never find the right trade.
While he is playing much better, James Ham reported that Sacramento is not in the midst of trade discussions regarding Barnes.
“They are focused on building chemistry with this group of players, and the positive start to the season,” Ham writes.
It makes a lot of sense to focus on building chemistry. The strides this team has made there have been astronomical, especially as they’ve won six straight. Keeping up the progress in that department could mean even better things come the winter and spring.
Monte McNair has indicated that, because “the NBA calendar never sleeps,” the front office is “always going to be opportunistic.” But if there was a potential deal that could flip Barnes for an asset of equal or greater talent that would also be under contract beyond this season then it’s safe to say the GM would go through with that, right?
It seems no such deal is feasible or available for Sacramento’s front office. John Collins might be unrealistic, not to mention his stats are down this year. And a 32 year-old Jae Crowder may not have much appeal in the context of looking down the road, especially if Barnes is playing better.
So the Kings do in fact appear focused on chemistry and that might be prudent, but even still, the elephant in the room is the fact Barnes is not under contract next year.
They have to be working on an extension for Barnes, right?
The upcoming free agency class doesn’t present many alternatives—unless Khris Middleton declines his player option, Barnes would be the highest ranked at his position—so it can’t be ruled out, especially considering the notion that the chemistry being formed this year could have continuity going into the next.
Of course, February is still months away and a trade could always materialize. There is a lot of time for realities and situations to change for different teams. Anything can happen.
But right now, Barnes is playing well, he’s a key part of the tight knit group, and 30 years-old is not even close to old man status, so the chemistry of this year could wrap around into next. Seeing him get extended sooner than later wouldn’t be all that surprising.