Any series that has Stephen Curry and LeBron James in it is all about the stars. The fates of the Cavaliers and Warriors are tied to those two and their sidekicks Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Yet the guys tasked with stopping them, while not as decisive, could prove similarly important. For the Warriors, that X-factor will be Harrison Barnes.
Draymond Green has been the most important role player for Golden State all year long and could have a huge impact in the Finals. Barnes is the one who will likely start out guarding LeBron, however, and how he does it could set the tone of the series early on.
Cross matching with Green on LeBron or using Andre Iguodala more are options but come with certain problems. Green is well-equipped to handle James in the post but could struggle on the perimeter and early foul trouble would hurt the second unit, in which Green often plays center. As for Iguodala, he’s been even worse as a shooter from outside than Barnes, which could allow James to roam on defense.
Kerr will certainly explore both options, but Barnes holding his own would allow for the rotations to stay the same and for Green to stay near the basket to try and keep Tristan Thompson off the offensive glass. For the starting lineup to thrive, it’s imperative for Barnes to be a solid option defending James despite being the lesser of the three players that’ll have a go.
The good news is James has struggled with his shot in the postseason and Barnes has been a decent isolation defender in the playoffs, in an admittedly small sample size. Barnes could, in theory, give James space to pull up and use his quickness to stay with him on drives and funnel him into help defenders. Unless James proves he can make shots from outside, the Warriors will live with off-the-dribble threes or long twos and pack the paint, making Barnes’s job easier.
The bad news is that after doing a great job in the regular season defending the post, Barnes has struggled greatly in the postseason while James has improved. The Warriors can have one of their big men help if James goes to the post often, but that would leave them exposed on the glass, where Timofey Mozgov and especially Thompson are deadly. How Barnes handles LeBron on the block will ultimately determine if he can survive with the assignment for enough minutes to truly be a factor.
Barnes’s impact won’t only be felt on defense. On offense it’s likely James starts the game defending him, and his job will be to keep him honest by hitting outside shots and burning him on cuts if he strays to help. Barnes’s three-point shot hasn’t been reliable in the playoffs, but his percentages — especially from the corners — are bound to improve and he can attack late closeouts well with straight line drives. Again, keeping James from helping will be Barnes’s main responsibility on the offensive end, at least when LeBron is on him.
It’s very possible that at some point the Cavaliers will have to switch either Iman Shumpert or James onto Curry. Kyrie Irving isn’t a good defender when healthy, much less when fighting knee injuries, so it’s unlikely he’ll be able to control the league’s MVP. If that happens, Irving will be hidden on Barnes, who needs to make the matchup work in his favor to prevent that tactic from being viable for Cleveland.
Going away from the normal offensive flow to go to countless post-ups for Barnes — something Mark Jackson tried to do in 2013 when the Spurs had Tony Parker guarding him — would be counterproductive. Not only it would take away the rhythm of other players and slow the pace down, but also expose Barnes as the poor post player he is (in the 26th percentile in the league during regular season and 22nd percentile in playoffs, per Synergy).
There are other ways to exploit Irving. One would be to have Barnes screen for Curry and force a switch, negating Cleveland’s strategy. The Warriors are used to having Thompson and Curry screening for each other so it wouldn’t be much of an adjustment to have Barnes do it. Curry is so deadly even with a sliver of space that switching is almost a necessity in those situations. The other would be to have Barnes crash the offensive boards, forcing Irving to box out. Even if it doesn’t result in easy points, keeping the bigger Barnes off the glass would put pressure on Kyrie’s already banged-up knee.
Inserting Barnes into the starting lineup was one of Steve Kerr’s boldest moves after taking over and it worked out. That decision will be put to the test in the biggest stage, as LeBron James and the Cavaliers will try to take advantage of the weakest link in a terrific Golden State starting lineup. If Barnes steps up to the challenge, the Warriors should be able to beat Cleveland without any hiccups. If, on the other hand, he struggles, the Warriors might be forced to change the rotation — and the identity — that has made them so successful so far.
There are several more talented players than Barnes in the Finals, but few who could be as important to the ultimate outcome.