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The Golden State Warriors are going to have a couple of very difficult decisions to make come this off-season when two integral parts of their championship composed team will enter free agency; Festus Ezeli and Harrison Barnes.
Both players will command significant attention from a lengthy list of teams that have substantial amount of cap space, a product of the recently signed and massive national TV deal that is pushing the league’s salary cap threshold to an absurd level. NBA cap experts have projected the salary cap to grow to 89 million this coming off-season which is a big jump from the 70 million this season.
In most cases a team that has formed a championship group will not part with any of their main pieces until they’ve exhausted their dominance and begun a downward slide. In the Warriors case however, if they want to retain both Ezeli and Barnes, they will have to pay an enormous amount well above the salary cap which then comes with penalties that exacerbate the cost to keep the team together. These are billionaire owners that own NBA teams but they didn’t amass their fortune by throwing their money away so there are limits to what they will spend on a roster.
While Ezeli will command attention his projected market value will not reach levels that will make the Warriors uncomfortable; Barnes on the other hand will get max offers from numerous teams which will cause the Warriors to really think about matching.
Barnes and the Warriors failed to come to terms on an extension prior to the start of this season which could have prevented the suspense this off-season. It has been reported that the Barnes camp turned down an extension in the 4 year-60 million dollar range.
While 60 million for a player that is currently 4th or maybe 5th in the pecking order seems more than fair, but it makes sense to wait it out with the pay day that awaits him at season’s end if he can secure a max deal that will average in the neighborhood of 21 million per year for a player with his number of years played in the league.
Barnes will be eligible for an estimated 4 years/85 million dollar contract in free agency from other teams. The Warriors can match any offer he receives and retain him.
The Warriors already have 66 million committed to their top 5 most expensive contracts on the roster for next season and 74 million for their entire roster even before they re-sign Barnes and/or Ezeli.
The 21 million dollar average salary would place Barnes at the top of the Warriors payroll, over Klay Thompson and MVP of the league, Steph Curry, which will be hard to justify that size of a contract for a role player on the team. They also have to take into consideration that they will have to pay through the nose when Steph Curry becomes a free agent 2017, a contract that will likely reach record breaking levels for an NBA contract. Some projections have his max deal reaching close to the 200 million over 5 years at the rate that the salary cap is growing. If Barnes is re-signed at max money, add Ezeli, by 2017 the Warriors team salary could balloon well above 140 million and more if you account for luxury tax penalties.
Barnes Current Role
Barnes is currently averaging modest numbers but they are achieved with great efficiency. The efficiency is in part playing alongside great players like Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green and part of playing in a great offensive system with the entire team buying into its philosophy.
A look at Barnes current team contributions and ranking:
Outside of just statistical contributions, Barnes is very versatile on both ends of the floor: he can spot-up-and-shoot, put the ball on the floor well and can defend both quick players on the perimeter and has the strength to guard bigger players on the block effectively.
The price the Warriors would have to pay for Barnes based on his usage and role on the team is obviously too high and not warranted based solely coming from a production prospective so the question then becomes can the Warriors afford to lose Barnes?
If you take the 16 game sample that the Warriors were without Barnes the answer would point to yes.
The Warriors have quite a bit of depth at Barnes’ position, most impressively with the 2015 Finals MVP and former NBA All-Star Andre Igodala coming in off the bench. The Warriors also have Brandon Rush and Shaun Livingston off the bench to fill the potential void that would be left by Barnes.
The Warriors seem well on their way to winning another NBA championship this season and by doing so it might make the decision to let Barnes walk a little bit easier with the fan base then providing more leeway to the organization. After all, it would be hard to justify paying a player max money and making him the highest paid player on the roster when his role on the team is to support the other 3 All-Stars on the team.
It would also make sense for Barnes to seek a bigger role on another team and getting out of the shadow of the star cast on the Warriors that have also suppressed his talents.
For teams looking to at add a talent it is definitely worth the risk of signing Barnes to an offer sheet and tying up cap space while they wait for the Warriors to match.
It will all play out in a few months but no doubt the Barnes-Warriors free agent story will be one of the most interesting of this coming off-season.