With the trade deadline fast approaching, some assets have to be used now or they lose significant value. The Harrison Barnes trade was two teams swapping that kind of asset.
The Dallas Mavericks, cashing in on an asset while they still can, sent Harrison Barnes to Sacramento, getting Zach Randolph (who they may waive) and Justin Jackson in return.
The Kings, meanwhile, also cashed in on an asset while they still can. They used the functional remainder of their cap space to absorb a player who they’ll hope benefits from a change in scenery. The Kings were the only team with functional cap space going into the trade deadline, and they managed to turn it into Harrison Barnes for very little.
Oddly, because the Mavericks were so close to the cap originally, dumping salary brings them below the cap by a noteworthy amount — they’re actually currently below the salary floor to the point that they’ll either have to make an additional trade, sign someone from the buyout market, or pay the completely negligible consequences of giving more money to their existing players. That additional degree of flexibility is available to GM Donnie Nelson though.
Basketball-wise, the trade looks even weirder. Barnes is the obvious centerpiece, and the more erudite Dallas fans tended to be less fond of him. Barnes has managed the impressive feat of hitting 39 percent of his shots from 3-point range, taking 6.4 attempts a game, and still coming away with a below league average true shooting percentage (54.1 percent — league average is 55.8 percent). Even though attempts from 3 comprise 43.3 percent of his shots. He takes way too many mid-range looks, doesn’t get to the rim, and his contributions outside of his scoring are weak and worsening. The team defense that he was able to add with Golden State has almost vanished, and if you count up the guys with an assist percentage as poor as him and sort them by usage, basically the full list is Andre Drummond, Lauri Markkanen, and noted offensive black hole Antonio Blakeney. Even Serge Ibaka, who I once, years ago and perhaps erroneously, deemed the worst passer in NBA history, is outpassing Barnes this year. Volume is still valuable, and Rick Carlisle runs one of the most eclectic offenses in the NBA, so there’s definitely hope for value from a change in venue, but Barnes’ value is certainly difficult to ascertain as a result.
From the Mavericks’ side, Randolph likely will never play, so you have to look at Justin Jackson as the basketball motivation for the move. Jackson has actually a fair number of attributes in common with Barnes, even beyond the UNC connection. They’re similarly sized combo forwards that both can shoot the 3 but also take too many mid0range looks. Neither gets to the rim enough, and neither of them contributes enough to good basketball outside of scoring. Jackson’s best attributes are his age and his improvement from his rookie year to his sophomore year, but he should also benefit from being able to play a role that Barnes was already playing at some level, even if that role wasn’t optimal for him.
Basically, though, this trade boils down to the “use it or lose it” nature of some assets in the NBA. Barnes could walk this summer or could be an unwieldy large expiring sitting on the books, but he’s good enough for a team to take a chance on for free, so the Mavericks couldn’t hold him as an asset until next summer, hope he opts in, and then deal him as an expiring, because then he’d be treated like a salary burden. The Kings’ cap space, similarly, had to be used if they wanted to gain an asset out of it because the buyout market is more for teams wanting to add that last piece of the puzzle. Both teams were just making sure they got what they could out of the asset that sours in just a short time.