The Golden State Warriors are in the middle of a thrilling second-round series with the San Antonio Spurs. Rookie Harrison Barnes, the 7th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, has had an increased impact in the postseason at both ends of the floor, averaging 19 points in the series and posting a stat line of 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting and seven rebounds in 39 minutes. Meanwhile, Dion Waiters is in the midst of offseason workouts. The 4th-overall pick by the wine and gold found out yesterday that he joined Barnes on the NBA All-Rookie First Team (and gained more points as well as first-team votes than Barnes) along with Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, and Damian Lillard.
While the media and Cleveland faithful are starting to rally around what they’re watching on their television screens and wish they had Barnes instead, it’s not as simple as that.
For full disclosure, on the night that the Cavaliers selected Waiters, I wanted Barnes after Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Beal came off the board.
However, by that time, we had all heard the late pre-draft murmurs on that Thursday about Dion Waiters being high on the Cavs’ list. Therefore, when the “pick out of nowhere” came for a second straight year (Tristan Thompson the year prior), I was way more prepared for it. I heard Byron Scott rave about Waiters, I read the Brian Windhorst “inside the draft room” article a short time after the draft, I talked to my uncle that lives in Syracuse and absolutely loves the kid, and I was suddenly not feeling so bad about the selection. You need two players on offense in this league that can create shots for themselves. You’ve seen what’s happened to the Thunder without Russell Westbrook.
What does Harrison Barnes have that Dion Waiters doesn’t? Well, he had a lot better supporting cast this year with Steph Curry, David Lee, Andrew Bogut, Klay Thompson, and Jarrett Jack. He also had a first-year head coach in Mark Jackson who changed things up after a 23-win season the year prior in 66 games. There would be a commitment to the defensive end of the floor (1st in defensive rebound percentage, 8th in effective field goal percentage defense, and 14th in defensive rating after being 27th just one year before). The result? The Warriors made the playoffs, grabbing the sixth seed after winning 47 games. They took care of the 57-win Nuggets in six games in the first round including a Game 2 win in Denver where the Nuggets had only lost three times all season. Now, they’re battling the 58-win Spurs in the second round, trailing 3-2 after last night’s loss, though they stole a game in San Antonio as well.
In the regular season, both players struggled with consistency. Waiters was used a lot more than Barnes was (Waiters – 26.1% usage rate compared to Barnes’ 17.7%) due to injuries to Varejao and Irving along with less shot takers and makers on the Cavaliers roster. Because of that, Waiters edged Barnes in PER and points per game along with assists and steals. Barnes posted better rebound numbers, a higher shooting percentage, and less turnovers. Barnes had a solid rookie campaign in a starting role, but he didn’t score more than 21 points in any game in the regular season. Meanwhile, Waiters did that 8 times and had a season-high with 33 against the Kings. Dion also did this playing 20 less games than Barnes due to various injuries.
Who is to say that Waiters couldn’t be doing this same thing given a similar situation? For the most part, Barnes is just taking more shots and being more aggressive in the postseason given some of the struggles of his backcourt that includes the ailing Curry. Barnes had the edge with shooting percentage, but anyone who watched the Cavs all season and saw how relentlessly Waiters attacked the hole and failed to get fouls called due to his rookie status knows the real score. If Dion was a third or fourth year player, that 41.2% shooting percentage would be at least as good as Harrison’s 43.9% clip. When Barnes disappeared, other vets and the young core were there to take the shots and pick up the slack. When Dion was struggling, he for the most part had to just keep shooting and playing through it.
So, watching this young, up and coming team, it begs the question, what is separating the Cavaliers from being a Golden State-type story next season? Well, health is certainly one factor. The Warriors were remarkably healthy this season. Their top eight missed very few regular season games: Klay Thompson (82), Barnes and Carl Landry (81), David Lee, Jarrett Jack, and Draymond Green (79), Curry and Festus Ezeli (78). Really, Andrew Bogut with 32 games played was the exception, though Curry certainly had nagging ankle injuries throughout. The young cores of Curry, Klay Thompson, and Barnes and Irving, Tristan Thompson, and Waiters don’t really differ that much in terms of ability. Golden State had health, more veterans, and a coach committed to changing a bad culture.
Most believe the Cavaliers will make some sort of move this offseason whether via trade or free agency to bring in a more veteran presence. If they can get lucky with health, I don’t see any reason why Mike Brown can’t have some of the same impact Jackson did this year in the Bay Area. Watching this Golden State team has been fun in the playoffs, and I hope they push the Spurs to a game seven and give them one hell of a fight. Because what I’m playing through in my head is the Cavaliers having a chance to be in that same position one year from now if the ping pong balls bounce right and Chris Grant gets busy.
Has Harrison Barnes been fun to watch? Absolutely, but the jury is still out and years away from determining who the better selection with the 4th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft ultimately was.
(Photos: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images and Jason Miller/Getty Images)