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Harrison Barnes is shooting and scoring — but not passing

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The Mavericks finally have Barnes in his optimal role as a mostly spot-up, three-point shooting scorer. But his passing has fallen off a cliff.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

For two seasons, the Mavericks tried to fit a square peg into a round hole by attempting to turn Harrison Barnes into something he’s not — a wing playmaker that can create offense for others.

The attempt to transform Barnes from a spot-up, isolation scoring machine was mostly due to how barren the Mavericks roster was in those two lottery seasons. Dallas didn’t really have much else of a choice outside of J.J. Barea and then later on Dennis Smith Jr. Barnes needed to pass, because there wasn’t much else going on for the Mavericks anyway. The Mavs gave Barnes a contract worthy of a number one option, so it made sense to see if they could coax it out of him while they toiled at the bottom of the standings.

It never seemed to truly work. Barnes never averaged more than 1.8 assists per game before arriving in Dallas and in those two seasons he averaged 1.5 and 2.0 assists, respectively. To be fair, those whopping two assists were somehow the most he had averaged for a season. While no one would mistake Barnes for Jason Kidd, he did show some glimpses toward the end of last season, playing a bit outside of his comfort zone of mid-range post ups and isolations. In March and April of last season, Barnes had games of three or more assists in six of the 17 games he played. It wasn’t much, but it was something and with the Mavericks lottery odds uncertain and the likely scenario being a draft pick spent on a center like Mohammed Bamba or Wendell Carter Jr., Dallas desperately needed Barnes to continue his slow but steady trajectory as a more well-rounded wing.

As we all know, it changed that summer. Luka Doncic was somehow available at the three spot and Dallas jumped up and stole him. Just like that, the Mavericks had their playmaker of the future. Barnes was no longer on the hook! This was good news, as ideally the presence of Doncic and second-year Dennis Smith would allow Barnes to fall back into the role he was born to play — a spot up shooter who would occasional bust out an isolation or post-up when the matchup dictated it.

To Barnes credit, he’s doing exactly that. He’s averaging a career-high 6.7 three pointers per game and making a career-high 41.7 percent of them. Of those 6.7 three point attempts per game, 5.1 of them are of the catch-and-shoot variety. Last season, he attempted 3.3 catch and shoot threes per game. The year before, it was 2.4. At this time last season, on Dec. 19 of last year, Barnes had attempted 134 mid-range shots in 31 games according to NBA.com’s stats page. This season? He has 49 mid-range shots in 25 games. That’s amazing! Barnes has basically chopped his mid-range shots in half while almost doubling his catch and shoot threes from a year ago. We should be singing to the heavens that Barnes has embraced his super-charged role player destiny.

Except for one little thing — Barnes is not passing, to an almost alarming degree.

It sounds like nitpicking, probably because it is. After two seasons of everyone pleading for the Mavs to abandon their Harrison Barnes, Playmaker fantasy, they’re doing exactly that and Barnes is responding wonderfully with his shooting. There just has to be a middle ground between Barnes The Playmaker and just never passing or moving the ball.

Barnes is averaging 5.5 drives per game this season, fourth on the team. On those 5.5 drives per game, he only passes it 13.1 percent of the time. To put that into context, Doncic passes it on 33.8 percent of his drives. Smith is 38.7 and Dorian Finney-Smith is 37.7. To no surprise, Wesley Matthews is 15.4 percent. It’s no wonder the ball can get awfully sticky when Barnes and Matthews garner touches that aren’t just catch and shoot jumpers.

Here’s some more blunt context: of all the players in the NBA averaging at least five drives per game and at least 20 games played, Barnes is second-to-last in passing percentage on those drives. Dead last is T.J. Warren of the Suns and ahead of Barnes is Kevin Durant. Somehow, it gets worse — Warren and Durant are both shooting over 50 percent on their drives. Barnes is shooting 40 percent, with a significantly lower free throw rate on those drives (68.2 percent for Barnes, over 90 for Warren and Durant).

While Barnes has always been like this to some degree, it feels especially amplified this season. When Barnes goes to the rack, he is determined as hell to get a shot up. For whatever reason, (maybe it’s having Doncic be the exact opposite) the instances feel more brazen this season.

The camera angle on this clip below isn’t great (thanks TNT!) but you can watch something Barnes does with shocking frequency — no chance layups against three or more defenders. In this play in the loss against the Suns last week, there are four defenders meeting Barnes at the rim and he puts up the shot anyway, despite having a relatively easy pass to Matthews in the corner Barnes is facing.

The next three examples follow the same pattern, with Barnes facing two or more defenders in the paint and missing obvious and clear pass outs behind the three point line. It’s easy to cherry-pick certain plays, but this happens to Barnes multiple times a game and it bogs down the Mavericks offense, especially when he’s sharing the floor with Doncic. Far too often Doncic turns into a bystander while Barnes goes 1-on-4 to the rim.

In all three of these instances, Barnes forces up a contested two-point shot. It’s no surprise then that while Barnes’ shooting has been scorching hot and from the right places on the floor, the Mavericks offense still stinks when he’s playing. With Barnes on the floor the Mavs score 103.6 points per 100 possessions, third-worst on the team. When Barnes is off the floor, that number shoots up to 110.8. Sure, some of that is due to the blistering play of the Mavs wonderful bench, but that’s still a significant gap, great bench or not.

As said earlier, there has to be a middle ground here. Barnes doesn’t need to be the playmaker the Mavs were prodding him to be the last two seasons, but he has to do better than this. He has to at least make simple reads expected of just about every NBA perimeter player on a good offense. Barnes doesn’t need to be racking up double-digit assists, he just needs to keep the ball moving instead of forcing up these extremely low percentage two pointers. Barnes is averaging under one assist per game in the month of December (0.8 per game) and that’s unacceptable for a guy that touches the ball as much as Barnes does in an offense that can be as flowing and well-spaced as Rick Carlisle’s.

It feels like when Doncic was drafted, Barnes just tossed out everything he was working on as a passer to focus on his shooting. Again, the shooting has been awesome — but there just needs to be a bit more balance here. It’s putting a ceiling on the Mavs offensive peak and it’s hard to imagine them having sustained offensive success with a blackhole like this. Teams are starting to get cocky with their double-teams on Barnes’ post-ups and drives, because they have zero fear Barnes will beat them with even the simplest of passes. At the rate Barnes is shooting and not passing on these instances, a Barnes touch that isn’t a three-point shot or transition basket might as well be a turnover. The worst thing you can do as an NBA offense is be predictable. Defenses thrive when they can sit on repeated tendencies to pounce and that’s exactly what Barnes is doing with these possessions.

Funny enough, the Mavericks offense looked amazing in Denver on Tuesday night and Barnes had 30 points and zero assists. So long as the ball is moving through Doncic consistently, the Mavs and Barnes can get away with this shoot-first-shoot-second-actually-always-shoot mentality. Unfortunately that isn’t going to always happen, whether by design or gameflow. Doncic can’t run every pick and roll and every set. He can’t make every pass, as evident by the offense stalling against the Nuggets in the fourth quarter. The Mavericks are getting the absolute best version of Harrison Barnes — they just need a little more.