Is a Backup Wing a Bigger Priority Than a Backup 5?

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30: Harrison Barnes #40 of the Sacramento Kings looks on during the game against the Indiana Pacers on November 30, 2022 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Harrison Barnes has really turned a corner this month, boosting his scoring and making up for his slow start from beyond the arc. 

In the last five games, the Kings have averaged 135.6 points per game. Harrison Barnes is averaging 24 points in that time and was the team’s leading scorer in three of those five contests.

On Sunday night, he scored 29 points on 8 of 11 shooting and 4 of 6 from three. He also got to the free throw line 11 times, converting 8 of them, and set the offense on a good path in the first quarter. 

His importance—on both sides of the ball, really—is growing more and more clear, especially considering that this offense enters historic territory in regards to scoring when Harrison Barnes is producing at higher levels.

But the question of sustainability comes up for the veteran forward who turns 31 in May, and does so with added relevance considering the fact he played 39 minutes against the Spurs on Sunday.

“HB was good for us too,” coach Brown said, transitioning to Barnes in his initial postgame remarks after defeating the Spurs. “Anytime I play a guy 39 minutes, it makes me cringe a little bit. I wish I didn’t have to do that to him, but we needed it, we needed to get this win on the road.”

It’s safe to say the Kings are going to continue needing things from Barnes. As the stretch of games where the majority of opponents are sub .500 comes to a close, the schedule will get significantly more difficult. Not only will they have a larger slate of tougher teams, they’ll be on the road for the better part of a month. From the last weekend of January to the end of February, they’ll play three games in Sacramento; of course, they’ll have the all-star break, but in terms of scheduled contests, it’s a 3:11 ratio of home to away games.

And not to mention the intensity will be picking up as playoff positioning assumes a more significant prominence.

With the trade deadline just over three weeks away, is a suitable backup to Harrison Barnes on the wing the Kings’ largest priority?

It’s not exactly clear since the backup center role has been a more blatant hole. That is, of course, when Chimezie Metu hasn’t had his stretches of holding it down.

As it stands now, Sacramento has won all four games since Metu has reassumed the helm at the backup 5, and he was pretty good in all but one of those games. Though he won Defensive Player of the Game honors last week against Orlando, his defense has at times been poor, and it feels like he’s fumbled about three open dunk/lob opportunities, but Mike Brown has always appeared to have faith in the athletic player.

The head coach commended his current backup center for taking on a larger load of minutes against the Spurs after Sabonis was assessed his fourth foul midway through the third quarter, saying that he was “huge for us off the bench” and that he has been whenever he’s had the chance to play.

That easily could be the confidence-building of a coach, but Brown has often cited that he likes the energy and athleticism that Metu offers. Better, he likes the fact he gives the opposition a completely different look from Sabonis.

And the head coach also likes how Metu contributes to the length and athleticism of the second unit and what that group—which includes a nice mix of size and length with guys like Trey Lyles and KZ Okpala—can potentially do.

“I like the length, I like the athleticism, I like the speed,” Brown said Sunday. “It gives us a different look than the starters. It’s a little unfair for me to demand that they do it at a high level right now because, if you think about it, I haven’t played that group together a lot. So they’re still working the kinks out, and so are we. We’re trying to figure out what to do to help them offensively and defensively at times.”

In trying to get things to stick regarding his bench group, he claims he already likes the prospect of utilizing Metu and Okpala, both members of the Nigerian National Team Brown coached in the summer of 2021. He notes that miscommunications have hurt them, but with it suggests that’s due to the lack of play and practice time.

“I’m asking a guy like KZ in that group to guard the point guard eight out of ten times because we want to be able to switch him and Mezie, and already have a big guy on them,” the head coach continued in Sunday’s postgame presser. “And a couple of times, we’ve miscommunicated — whether it’s KZ or it’s Mezie in the pick and roll action — and guys have gotten downhill and so it looks bad, but those blow-by’s are on me because they’re doing something that we haven’t practiced a lot. And not only have we not practiced it a lot, we haven’t played that group together a lot, so I think in time it can be pretty good and we’re going to keep experimenting with it from here on out.”

Based on Brown’s comments on Sunday night, as well as his general disinterest in a big shot-blocking presence inside, a backup wing could very well be a bigger priority to him. It sounds like he feels he at least has something to work with in regards to protecting the middle and making up for not having Sabonis on the floor, and something that can work so long as he does indeed play defense. At the same time, he was saying he was forced to play Barnes 39 minutes though he wish he hadn’t needed to.

Considering both roles are sort of filled in by committee and/or based on matchups, they could be equal-sized issues. The backup 5 as described by coach Brown has a lot of working parts, it’s been a carousel of different guys getting a chance to fulfill it, and even utilizing Lyles as a small 5 has come into play from time to time. Meanwhile, the coaching staff has a couple of different options from Terence Davis to Okpala—even PJ Dozier—to fill in as Barnes’ reserve. 

Who knows? Over the next week, Davis and Okpala could start looking really solid while Metu trails off, or vice versa. Anything can happen. The point is that neither role has a sturdy answer here in mid January with the deadline incoming.

It might be hard to say a backup wing is a bigger priority than the backup 5 flat out, but it is undoubtedly another need, and one that sometimes gets overlooked.

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Dan Smith
Dan Smith
4 months ago

I’d personally like them to pursue a back up big, if we can end up moving Holmes also. Bamba or Plumlee are my favourites, I just think we could use some more interior defense & boards, especially with the 2nd unit. Great article though Tony, keep em coming!