Lowell Cohn: The revival of Harrison Barnes
OAKLAND — When Steve Kerr became coach of the Warriors, he told Harrison Barnes there was hope.
Barnes did not play well last season, his second in the league. Kerr told Barnes he approached the game wrong, had become a one-on-one player on offense, an “iso” player — trying to isolate himself against the man guarding him. Barnes would pump fake and make all kinds of Carmelo Anthony moves, and the other Warriors stood around like stragglers at a bus stop.
There were reasons for the way Barnes played. He had been demoted to the second team, made into a bench player. When he finally came onto the court long after the game began, he wanted to make an impact. Wanted to make things happen.
The second team needed a scorer — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were on the bench — and Barnes would carry the load of scoring. He noticed something else coming off the bench. When he played alongside Curry and Thompson on the first team, he had infinite room for shots. When they were not on the court with him, the room became decidedly finite. The floor looked different.
Kerr told Barnes to forget last season. Kerr emphasized moving without the ball, working in the context of the team. He told Barnes the Warriors would play the style Barnes played at University of North Carolina, the ball in constant motion. “You can make a lot of strides,” Kerr told him. “I think I can help you. I’m not telling you you’re going to start, but I think there’ll be an opportunity for you to be successful.”
Barnes liked what Kerr said. “I was on the trading block,” he said after Sunday’s practice. “I’d had a horrible season. I was just trying to focus on improving.”
Kerr had given him hope. Not to be a starter. To be a contributor.
Last season, Alvin Gentry watched Barnes from the other side. He was Doc Rivers’ chief assistant at the Clippers and now he is Kerr’s top assistant with the Warriors. Gentry studied Barnes during last season’s Warriors-Clippers playoff series. “We didn’t think he played relaxed in some of the games we watched last year,” Gentry said. “It could have been he was putting pressure on himself. You come in and think, ‘I’ve got to do something to stay out on the floor.’ When you do that, it usually does just the opposite.”
Part of the reason for Barnes’ lack of relaxation was former Warriors coach Mark Jackson who never understood Barnes’ skills. Barnes is the player Jackson whiffed on. Jackson retarded Barnes’ game. Barnes never said this to me — he is too polite for that. I am saying it.
Kerr and his staff revived Barnes’ game, revived it so much that Barnes is shooting better than ever, defending better than ever, is a starter, a key member of the team. And he is the scorer the Warriors need in the front court to compensate for Andrew Bogut, not such a scorer. All credit to Andre Iguodala but he can’t score like Harrison Barnes.
“We saw him as a tough guy to match up with in the playoffs,” Gentry said. “Bigger guys he’s quicker than. We tried that. We also tried a 3-man (small forward) on him. We wanted Jamal Crawford in the game, but it was a tough matchup for Jamal defensively. Harrison is strong enough to be a 4 defensively but he also has an advantage in quickness. He’s quick enough to be a 3-man defensively and he’s strong enough to have an advantage there. That’s the niche for what Harrison is going to be in this league.”