Harrison Barnes’ level of play is a problem for the Dallas Mavericks

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images /

Harrison Barnes is posting great individual numbers, but the Dallas Mavericks have been better offensively with him on the bench. These struggles illuminate problems on and off the court for the Mavs.

When the Dallas Mavericks signed Harrison Barnes to a four-year $94.4 million offer sheet in the summer of 2016, it was a signal of intent from Mark Cuban. Dallas had failed to win a playoff series since its 2011 championship, and there was some clear stagnation. The team became infamous for missing out on big-name free agents, but Barnes was considered a big catch by the Mavs front office.

The signing signaled a state of intent, that Dallas was going to pay what it took to win games in an increasingly crowded Western Conference. Cuban is infamously against tanking and trying to stash draft picks, and in a way, Barnes’ addition signaled that business-like mentality.

While Barnes symbolizes the Mavericks’ desire to win now, he finds himself in a strange position with this current team. They finally sucked last year, despite the best efforts of head coach Rick Carlisle. Their reward was a top-five pick, which they turned into Luka Doncic.

Falling into a top-five pick epitomizes the opposite of the direction that Mark Cuban tried to take this team in, as he believed in continuity and aggressively attacking free agency, relying on scouting and Rick Carlisle’s wizardry to keep Dallas competitive. Due to stagnation, they were forced to build through high draft picks.

Many saw Doncic joining a franchise with some established veterans in place as a serious advantage for all involved. Barnes was supposed to be an advantage for the rookie, who would be playing with a talented, albeit overpaid player. A quarter of the way through the season, it is clear that Harrison Barnes is anything but a positive right now.

For starters, the Mavericks’ offense is 12.4 points better off per 100 possessions when Barnes is on the bench, per Basketball-Reference. Their assist percentage is also 4.3 percent higher, which matches the eye test. The Mavs’ offense with Barnes out there has been slow and stagnant, something that isn’t a good fit with Dennis Smith Jr., who has some issues playing off the ball, and Doncic, who is excellent with the ball in his hands at a high rate. As of now, the only player Barnes has a positive net rating with is Dorian Finney-Smith.

Since his return, Barnes has put up relatively good stats. The Mavericks broadcast was fawning over his 17.9 points per game and his 40 percent clip from 3-point range. Despite these good individual numbers, Barnes hasn’t contributed to winning basketball and hasn’t really played well with others.

The low individual assist numbers suggest this, as does the fact Dallas’ effective field goal percentage is nearly five percent higher when he is on the bench. The ball simply sticks, as the film study below shows. The beauty of NBA analysis these days is that we can look beyond box score stats in order to see if a player is actually contributing to the team winning. Barnes this year is perhaps the perfect example of why we need to look beyond the basic stats when analyzing an NBA player.

Dallas is top 10 in the NBA in passes per game. This is a team at its best when using ball screens to create space, and attacking in order to create relevant passing lanes. This is why Doncic has transitioned seamlessly to the NBA and has been so good playing alongside spot-up shooters and the Mavericks’ bench unit. He appears to struggle with Barnes because he can become a bit of a black hole on offense. The net rating between Barnes and Luka is -3.5, and the only player Doncic has a lower assist percentage with is Devin Harris.

Film Room:

The stats and metrics don’t paint Barnes’ play in a positive light, and the film is also frustrating to watch at times, especially offensively.

The play below illustrates some of the problems Dallas has had with Barnes:

This was a tough game for Dallas in Utah, but they run some ball screens designed to get Barnes a post-up. The post-up isn’t there, so Dallas runs a 1-5 pick-and-roll, which pulls the Jazz into the paint. Barnes receives the pass and begins to drive. The issue is, he doesn’t see Wesley Matthews and Doncic both wide open on the weak side. Instead, he drives into a five-man defensive wall the Jazz had created inside the paint.

Barnes has never really averaged many assists in his career and it is easy to see why: He gets tunnel vision and simply doesn’t read the defense well enough. This should have been an open 3 for either Matthews or Doncic, but instead, it ends with a bad shot.

The play below comes from the same game:

The Mavericks come out of a timeout and run a post-up for Harrison Barnes. Barnes gets no movement at all against Jae Crowder, and takes a terrible jump shot instead of re-setting the action. This play summarizes the main issue with Barnes on the whole. When he receives the ball, it stops, and he’s going to take the shot regardless of whether it is a good one. Sure, it’s not his fault that Carlisle specifically draws up this play for him, but this is not a good shot in any circumstance.

The Mavericks are using Barnes like he is an elite individual offensive player, but this is not really the case. Per Synergy, Barnes is in the 44th percentile on isolations and the 32nd percentile on post-ups. His strength is supposedly this one-on-one offense. Not only is this a bit false, but the continual crowbarring of him into this role is also lowering the Mavericks’ ceiling.

Barnes does have some value for this team as a spot-up shooter, as he ranks in the 70th percentile on this particular play-type. From a team-building perspective, paying someone $94.4 million to be a solid spot-up shooter and nothing else isn’t ideal. For that kind of money, you want an offensive-minded player to be doing more than just shoot at a respectable clip. Right now, any individual plays for Barnes are a complete waste of time. He doesn’t move people in the post, and he doesn’t see the floor well enough for his isolations to potentially end with drive-and-kick open jump shots.

Not only does Barnes find himself as a bad fit with the Mavericks roster from a schematic perspective, but he represents the conflicting philosophies within the organization. The Mas have two young cornerstones that need to be surrounded by team players who maximize them. Barnes was a potential cornerstone who was signed in a desperate attempt to win now and stay relevant. He still has two years left on his deal, and he hurts the team financially while being an awkward fit with Doncic and DSJ.

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Ideally, the Mavericks will need to surround them with spot-up shooters who can keep the ball moving. From Carlisle’s perspective, the team needs to just use Barnes as a perimeter player who can potentially attack inside on closeouts or against mismatches on switches. Dallas runs a lot of ball screens, so they are often going to get favorable switches, and these would provide the correct opportunities for Barnes to attack. Ball movement is the way forward for this young Mavericks side, but this is being spoiled by the play of Harrison Barnes.