The Golden State Warriors have a problem.
The season ending hip flexor injury David Lee suffered in the first game of the team’s first round playoff matchup against the Denver Nuggets leaves the Warriors short 18.5 points per game; their only consistent alternative to the long-range scoring offered by the Splash Brothers backcourt. More importantly, Lee’s absence forces Head Coach Mark Jackson to come up with a functional offense that works without a power forward who has averaged almost 37 minutes per contest and factors into nine of the team’s top 10 most effective five-man units, according to basketball-reference.com.
Lee’s injury would present problems against any team, but against the relentlessly athletic Nuggets, it could be a disaster. As effective as backup power forward Carl Landry has been at scoring, he cannot handle the ball or pass as effectively as Lee, (the Warriors’ offensive and assist ratings falter when he plays). And although Golden State’s defense improves dramatically with Draymond Green on the court, he shoots a ghastly .327 from the field.
This leaves the Warriors with few conventional alternatives not named Richard Jefferson, who is (unfortunately) a non-factor at this stage in his career.
That being said, with expectations for the Warriors’ playoff run diminished, Lee’s absence could give Mark Jackson the opportunity to experiment with unconventional lineups that play to the strengths of his remaining players. More specifically, playing Harrison Barnes at power forward could help alleviate some of the offensive challenges presented by Lee-less lineups, as the former North Carolina star’s athleticism and length matches up well against a speedy Denver Nuggets squad.
Barnes played only 1 percent of Golden State’s total minutes this season at the four, but he has proven himself capable within that limited span. His effective field goal percentage jumps from .476 at small forward to .577 at power forward, and he averages more points (14.5 points per 48 minutes versus 10.9 points) on fewer attempts (11.5 FGA versus 14.6 FGA), according to 82games.com
With Barnes at power forward (and Curry, Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack in the backcourt), the Warriors now have a fourth shooter to stretch the defense, which could create some compelling opportunities for Bogut, whose superior passing skills would allow him to facilitate should he draw opposing defenders off the perimeter.
One clue as to how this might work lies in the small-ball lineup Jackson played for a spare 28 minutes this season. With Curry, Jack and Thompson packing the backcourt, Barnes moved to power forward and Lee moved to center, thereby giving the Warrior a potent combination speed and scoring with little to no defense on the on the other end. This lineup surrendered a horrendous 1.13 points per opponent possession; hardly surprising given Lee’s difficulties with interior defense. However, it more than outpaced whatever it lost by scoring 1.3 points per possession, which is more efficient than any other lineup featuring Barnes, according to basketball-reference.com.
With Lee absent, Bogut or Landry would likely play the five in that lineup. Golden State’s offensive output would slightly decline with either, but it would also make for a stingier defense (particularly with Bogut). Furthermore, in Bogut’s case, the Warriors would likely have to play at a slower pace than way would have with Lee, which may help them against the run-and-gun Nuggets.
All in all, a pretty compelling case.
Of course, Barnes has his share of flaws. For one, he remains extremely prone to turnovers, which could prove to be a disadvantage against a Denver team that loves to score in transition. His questionable ball handling skills would prevent the Warriors from using him as a passer and facilitator, two areas where Lee excelled. More importantly, Jackson barely used the five-man unit described above during the season, and Barnes may lack the experience to adapt to a new role on the fly. Despite his athleticism and obvious talent, the rookie is still very much a work in progress who struggles to play well consistently for prolonged stretches.
At this point though, what do they have to lose? Giving Barnes a bigger role in the playoffs may prove to be a key step in his development, particularly as the Warriors evolve into a more serious contender going forward.