Maxed Out: The Lakers Potential Pursuit of Harrison Barnes

With the NBA Draft soon to be settled and the debate between Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram out of the Lakers’ hands, the next debate to ravage Lakers’ twitter is who the team should target in free agency.

No potential target is more polarizing than Harrison Barnes, a restricted free agent that is expected to command big money on the market this summer due both in part to his age and talent level as well as the huge jump in salary cap.

But is Barnes worth it? On the surface, he’s the fourth option for arguably the greatest team in NBA history. However, at 11.7 points per game, is Barnes worthy of the $20+ million annually a team will have to pony up for him this summer?

In a word: yes.

In a lot more words, Barnes fills a big need for the Lakers on the wing and would provide an instant upgrade to an 17-win team from last season (though, that won’t be hard to do).

Barnes is a the prototypical 3-and-D guy that the Lakers have needed since losing Trevor Ariza to free agency seven years ago. After the last handful of years of taking risks on players like Wes Johnson, having the injury bug bite Xavier Henry and plugging a square peg into a circle hole with Nick Young, Barnes would be the best Lakers small forward in nearly a decade (though, again, that isn’t a hard list to top).

Possibly the most appealing aspect of Barnes to teams targeting him this summer is his age. At just 24 years old, Barnes will be entering his fifth year in the league next fall. For the Lakers, his age means he can fit in with the young core they’ve assembled while his experience would make him a valuable asset.

More than anything, Barnes fills a huge need on the floor for the Lakers. His 11.7 points per game last season saw him can 1.2 threes per game, 82 in total in 66 games played. Here’s a look at his heat map and shot chart last season, both of which are what GMs yearn for in modern NBA wingmen.

With spacing and shooting the desire of every NBA franchise, Barnes provides just that on the offensive end. His 3.2 points per game on catch-and-shoots would have been third-best on the Lakers last season.

An underrated aspect of what would make Barnes appealing to the Lakers, and possibly what would make the Lakers appealing to Barnes, is Luke Walton. Aside from the obvious of Walton having spent years helping Barnes develop, Barnes also is familiar with the offense Walton is going to look to implement with the Lakers.

Barnes can step onto the court next season and be seen as a leader and teacher of the offense. The expanded role would be something that would likely appeal to Barnes, who has spent the last two seasons in the shadow of Draymond Green, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

Does all of the above warrant the contract Barnes will command this season, though? Under the current collective bargaining agreement, Barnes’ max contract will be 25% of salary cap. With the projected cap at $92 million next season, that would make Barnes’ max at $23 million annually.

At his current level, it’s probably safe to say Barnes isn’t a $23-million dollar player, but the Lakers aren’t paying him solely on what he was at Golden State, but also on what he’ll become as he continues to develop. The Lakers, and any team that signs him, is making the gamble that at 24 years old, Barnes is not done developing and a bigger role could see bigger numbers.

With $60+ million in cap space this summer and a young core needing more talent, the Lakers can afford to take a gamble on a player like Barnes. His floor, which is a 3-and-D guy who will have a clear role on any team moving forward, is a worthwhile gamble.

Fans simply can’t look at the value of a contract and determine whether or not the player is worth it going forward this summer. Is Barnes a $23-million dollar player under the current salary cap? Certainly not. But under the current cap, Barnes’ max would be $17 million.

With the salary cap, evaluating players based on contracts given won’t be fair to the player or the team going forward. The amount of money thrown around in the summer will be record-breaking, but such is the way of the new NBA off the court.

And under the new NBA on the court, Barnes is exactly the type of player the Lakers need. Even if the Lakers draft Brandon Ingram, which all signs point to being the likely pick, then having Barnes on the roster not only eases the pressure on Ingram to contribute immediately, but also give the Lakers versatility.

Walton could use Barnes as a small-ball four with Ingram at the three and Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell at the guard positions. You could also start Barnes at the two-guard and bring Clarkson off the bench, which also helps the team defensively as well.

At the end of the day, the biggest argument for Barnes is one that I’ve used many times this off-season. The Lakers were a 17-win team last year that needs talent. Barnes is a talented, young player with a host of potential that could immediately improve the Lakers.

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