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The complicated process of watching Harrison Barnes

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Barnes was brought in to bring some stability during the Mavericks first rebuild in over 20 years, which created difficult emotions around him.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When Harrison Barnes got to Dallas, real life in Dallas was way more top of mind than what Barnes’ game could bring to the Mavericks.

In July of 2016, a gunman shot and killed five police officers in Downtown Dallas during a peaceful protest against police brutality. Barnes arrived to, in his words, “a city in mourning.” A few months later, Barnes would host a dinner party with the city’s leaders, including the former Dallas Police Chief David Brown. When Barnes published his essay in The Players’ Tribune about his arrival, it really gave perspective to the kind of person he is and what he was going to mean to Dallas besides made shots or rebounds.

This continued throughout his time here. He hosted a camp with Brown in South Dallas. He rented out a movie theater for 150 kids to see Black Panther. If he wasn’t practicing or playing a game, you could almost guarantee that Barnes was doing something to better the city. Barnes dove into Dallas unlike most players had before him.

“It’s important just to get up in person with these kids and just talk to them about real life issues,” Barnes said during his camp in 2017. “They see us on the TV screen or from far away but to really actually get down — for them to be able to ask us questions, to see that we’re real people just like them — and encourage them to be leaders.”

Barnes the person was unquestionably good. That’s what made watching his tenure as a Maverick so conflicting, since the Mavericks lost a lot of games with Barnes as their best player. Barnes is off to Sacramento now, traded to the Kings for the expiring contract of Zach Randolph and a cheap young player in Justin Jackson. It seems pretty crazy to think after all Barnes had done in Dallas, his departure would be purely a salary dump — no draft pick or comparable talent returned to the Mavs.

The blunt truth is that the Mavericks were a bad team with Barnes as their best player. His fit as a lead guy, coming from being a role player on a championship team, was never the right one. He was maybe the most overpaid player in the NBA, garnering a max contract despite the Mavericks almost always being a worse team when he was on the floor. The past season and a half, the Mavericks weren’t just better when Barnes hit the bench, they were considerably better. For a team that was as bad as Dallas was the last three seasons, it was remarkable how much better they played when Barnes wasn’t on the floor.

Dallas Mavericks Net Rating with Harrison Barnes

Season On Court Off Court
Season On Court Off Court
2016-2017 -2.2 -4.4
2017-2018 -6 3
2018-2019 -2.3 5.2

To be fair to Barnes, none of this was specifically his fault. The Mavericks were rebuilding, so his contract didn’t matter — it’s not like his contract was preventing the team from anything as Dallas needed to lose games and get draft picks. Barnes being bad didn’t stop the Mavericks from accomplishing their goals. In fact, you could argue he helped achieve them! Barnes being up one or two rungs above where he should be in a team hierarchy helped the Mavs lose more games than they might have should and helped them get the pieces that led to Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.

That’s the push and pull that went with Barnes. It also led to an uncomfortable question most of this season — what do the Mavericks do with a guy who shouldn’t be paid as much as he is and isn’t as good as his role dictated previously? Barnes did just about everything the Mavericks asked of him. He took on a leadership role, took the shots the team needed from him with a talent starved roster and made some decent growth. How do you tell a guy that for all that work, it’d be best if he got a large pay-cut and less touches?

Because make no mistake, if Barnes was staying, that’s what had to happen. It was clear throughout this season, as Luka Doncic took control of the team and Barnes turned into a weird black hole. Despite Barnes turning into a spot-up dynamo (career-high 39 percent from three on a career-high 6.4 attempts per game) and giving up more of his favorite mid-range looks, Barnes still found a way to hold the Mavericks back with his anemic passing and ball-stopping tendencies. There’s no way the player Barnes is today is worth $25 million next season, which is what Barnes player option would have paid him. Then we’re back to the awkward conversation about the Mavs sitting Barnes down and asking him to take less despite him technically doing more than he ever had in his career.

Which brings us back to the off-court presence Barnes brought to the city. How do we properly quantify the intangibles a player brings to a team that we can’t calculate with stats or numbers? What is the value of Barnes being a community leader or an example for his younger teammates? Does that turn a $12 million per year player into a $25 million per year one? Is it $15 million? These are the types of questions I had any time I watched Barnes fail to pass to an open shooter or knock down another three-pointer.

This is why the trade had to be made. If the Mavericks held on to Barnes, they’d no doubt be tempted to bring him back for potentially more money than he’s worth or a role he’s not equipped to handle. Dallas won 24 games last year and it’s hard to think most of that roster was worth keeping for the next revival of Mavs basketball. It’s just business, but it sucks. Barnes deserved to be here when the Mavericks were good again but the fact that his presence almost guaranteed that would never happen was the ultimate basketball catch-22.

The Mavericks needed to move on and they did. Dallas the city definitely didn’t. We know the Mavericks are a better team tomorrow and the city of Dallas is a little bit worse. Sports are weird like that.