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Harrison Barnes survived years of losing to help teach the Kings how to win

Harrison Barnes survived years of losing to help teach the Kings how to win

The news of Harrison Barnes being traded came in the middle of a game, trickling down from Twitter to the bench in a real-time game of telephone. Cameras caught the moment it hit Barnes that he was leaving the Dallas Mavericks — a team he was expected to help steer into its next era after Dirk Nowitzki retired — to head to the league’s most dysfunctional and playoff-starved organization, the Sacramento Kings.

With his eyes glazed over, mouth clenched shut, and face strained, it was clear Barnes was stuck in existential malaise. When the Mavs traded Barnes in 2019, it was a move to clear cap space to build around their budding superstar, Luka Dončić. The thought in Dallas at the time was that at 26, Barnes didn’t fit the team’s timeline anymore. That he was traded in the middle of a Mavs game only punctuated the ineptitude he was walking into with his new team.

Just over four years later, Barnes is far from any such dysfunction, serving as a cornerstone of the current Kings revolution and helping to fuel the NBA’s best offense with a scoring average of 15 points per game, a little under four points fewer than he was averaging with the Mavs when traded. Barnes’ contributions this season are one of the best arguments for the importance of veterans on a roster, as he has been one of the most underrated players in the league.

Barnes, 30, is the second-oldest player on the team after former champion Matthew Dellavedova. Having veterans was once considered obvious to teams trying to establish culture and continuity. But in the last few years, the median age of the league has dropped, getting younger and more talented as front offices choose to fill the spots at the end of their benches with youngsters brimming with untapped potential rather than aging veterans. Barnes is showing that mindset can sometimes be a mistake. His presence through the last four years in Sacramento has helped build winning habits that are finally paying off this year, as he’s brought championship acumen from his early time with the Golden State Warriors, and will use the experience he built in the Bay Area to try and help lead his younger teammates against his old teammates in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs.

Since he was traded to Sacramento in 2018, only he and De’Aaron Fox remain amidst seismic roster churn. Since arriving, Barnes has gone from an era where the team acted as a place where aging veterans went to end their careers or stat-pad for contracts while missing on draft pick after draft pick, to the electric Beam Team era now. His scoring output, minutes and general dependability have stayed almost exactly the same through it all. As the players who would become the Kings’ core like Davion Mitchell, Keegan Murray or Kessler Edwards arrived via the draft, Barnes has been the stabilizing force as one of the few long-term building blocks the Kings have invested in to teach the youngsters professionalism as they grow. His consistent output and effort have set an example to incoming young players like Davion Mitchell and Keegan Murray, who have benefited from having Barnes as their vet.

That Barnes has rotated through four coaches in just four short seasons is a sign of how dysfunctional the Kings have been until now. Even the general manager who traded for him, Vlade Divac, is gone. But under a winning GM in Monte McNair, the likely Coach of the Year in Mike Brown, and alongside more talented teammates, Barnes has been a key contributor toward the Kings breaking their 16-year playoff drought. Moreover, Barnes survived multiple seasons of institutional ineptitude while never trying to get out, no matter how bad things got in Sacramento. And once McNair took over in 2020, Barnes was among the few players he retained from previous administrations for his leadership and consistent play. The Kings even made him basically untouchable at the NBA trade deadline.

Barnes has started all five seasons with the team. This year he is averaging the second-highest win shares per 48 minutes of his career, and most since his time in Golden State. But most of all, he’s been a calming presence, never involved in off-the-court shenanigans or locker-room revolts. He comes in, does his job and plays his ass off every game. Now, the Kings have started to take on his workmanlike, efficient identity. Barnes has maintained a true shooting of over 62% over his past three seasons, and is at 63.2% in that category this year. This season, the Kings as a team are posting a 60.8% true shooting percentage, good for the second-highest true shooting percentage in NBA history.

His high-IQ, discerning shot selection is obviously rubbing off on his teammates. At this point in his career, his shotmaking comes either behind the three-point line or at the basket. He’s been unassisted on 41.3% of his two-pointers, showing he still has some of the three-level scoring that made him a lottery pick (7th) in 2012 and a starter on the Warriors’ 2015 championship team.

If you squint, the Kings mimic those mid-2010s Warriors teams Barnes slotted in on years ago, with Domantas Sabonis as the do-it-all center with advanced passing capabilities like Draymond Green, and Fox as the offensive superstar without equal in crunchtime, a la Steph Curry (Fox is leading the league in clutch-time scoring this season). The rest of the team is comprised of knock-down shooters (Huerter, Monk, Murray) and gritty defenders (Mitchell, Trey Lyles). Barnes’s passing abilities help keep the ball in motion until it finds the open shooter, much like the Warriors’ fluid offense runs under Kerr. Also, like the Warriors during their dynasty, the Kings are unafraid to light opponents up from deep, finishing in the top-six in both 3-point makes and attempts.

In his last year with the same Warriors core he’ll now try to dethrone in the weeks to come, Barnes was the youngest rotation player and starter, the versatile three-and-D wing who wanted a starring role when he joined the Mavericks. Seven years later, he’s persevered through all the turbulence of the trade and the ensuing seasons to play the same glue-guy role as he did with the Warriors, only this time, he’s content to shine within it. It’s hard not to imagine it’s inspired his Kings teammates to buy in just as hard. Even though his contributions have flown under the radar of Coach of the Year frontrunner Brown and All-Stars Fox and Sabonis, Barnes will get a chance to shine in the post-season, where his championship experience and clutch play will be relied upon. Maybe then, other teams will see the worth of investing in steady vets like Barnes, whose importance will only grow in April.

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