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Harrison Barnes showed he can score like a No. 1, now says he must be playmaker

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Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban looks like Nostradamus on Harrison Barnes.

“I think he can do a lot more than he’s been asked to do, and that’s what we expect to see,” Cuban said after signing Barnes to a four-year, $94 million max contract last summer. That was a deal signed on the heels of a dismal playoff performance from Barnes where his shot was off, and he overcompensated by trying to do more than his catch-and-shoot role — then struggled mightily with that. He got benched.

The doubters were plentiful back in July. “You saw him in the playoffs and then you gave him $94 million? He’s the face of the franchise after Dirk Nowitzki?”

Barnes has silenced them all — 20.4 points per game, a solid 53.3 true shooting percentage, he has stayed efficient while his usage rate has jumped to a career high 26.4, he’s had to create more in isolation than ever before, and he’s doing it well.

But he knows playmaking is the next step.

“This has been the largest role I think I’ve ever had,” Barnes told NBC Sports during an interview, which you can hear all of on the most recent PBT Podcast. “I think being able to score consistently, that’s the big first step. Now it’s playmaking, knowing when to get other guys involved, knowing when to score, making that decision.”

The playmaking process is more mental — he can go to the gym in the summer and work on his handles, but playmaking is something learned in game.

“Now that I’ve shown I can score consistently, teams are going to send more help, there’s going to be different schemes and situations that I’m going to see,” said Barnes, who has signed on as an endorser of McDavid Hex and Shock Doctor to help him deal with the physicality he deals with now. “So making sure that I can deliver the ball to the open guy, get my teammates shots, just kind of knowing when to pass…

“You just have to learn it in game. I mean I watch a lot of film, trying to learn that way as much as I can, but it just has to be a feel thing. You just have to be playing, you have to be in games, you have to see it, do it multiple times. And that’s where the organization has been great with me, just having the patience, my teammates have been patient, just understanding that I am getting better.”

A lot of things have been a mental shift in Dallas for Barnes, he admitted. In Steve Kerr’s offense he was an off-the-ball threat, a corner three guy who could also kill teams in transition and defend well. Rick Carlisle is asking a lot of different things from Barnes — things some around the league were not convinced he could do. That starts in isolation — 29.4 percent of Barnes’ plays come that way, according to Synergy Sports, and with passes the Mavs score at a very good .957 points per possession pace on those sets. When Barnes shoots in isolation he hits 50.9 percent.

“One of the biggest adjustments I had to make in my mentality, being a go-to guy, was free throws. There’s so much more on you too, one, get your team into the bonus quicker, or two, to get to the free throw line. And the only way to do that is to get to the paint. It’s hard to get to the free throw line shooting threes.

“The game has become so much more physical, so much more aggressive, That’s why I like wearing the McDavid Hex protective arm and leg sleeves – I know I am protected. And I prefer Shock Doctor’s Basketball mouthguard because it fits like a custom mouthguard, so I don’t even know it’s there,” said Barnes of his new business partner. “Just because any type of injury, any type of bumps and bruises, that can have an opportunity to take you out. And one of the biggest things you lose when you get out is your rhythm, and that’s one of the hardest things to get back.”

With that massive contract, Barnes becomes the guy in line to take over as the face of the Mavericks’ franchise once Dirk Nowitzki steps away (which could be at the end of this season). Nowitzki has only been on the court for three games this campaign, but Barnes said one of the reasons he signed in Dallas was to learn from the future Hall of Famer, and the big German has not disappointed as a mentor.

“He’s on every single day. He’s loud, he’s vocal, off the court one of the funniest teammates I’ve ever been around,” Barnes said. “The biggest thing he’s helped me with is just kind of where to get my shots, how to get into a flow, how to be aggressive. A lot of my plays are plays he’s been in for years. He knows the system better than anybody, he knows how to get his shot off better than anybody, so he’s been helping along through this process and he’s been a great mentor.”

The change for Barnes this year has also been cultural — and we don’t mean moving from the Bay Area to Dallas (although that is different, too). Rather, it’s the change from Steve Kerr to Rick Carlisle.

“What they do that’s similar is they are both great basketball minds…” Barnes said. “What I’m experiencing now, it’s a system that’s far more regimented. It’s very black-and-white what’s going to happen, just in terms of how we play and what’s expected. Compared to Coach Kerr, he was just a lot more read and react, we just played off each other, there were not a whole lot of set calls, not a lot of set rules, we just all knew how to play and play off each other.”

The other big basketball adjustment has been losing — Barnes has never been on a team that lost half its games (the lowest winning percentage of any of his teams, including high school, was 57 percent). Dallas is 7-18. Maybe when Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut get healthy the Mavericks will win a few more games, but this is not a team bound for the playoffs.

“It’s tough. You have a lot of pride as a winner, you’ve won a championship and been to the playoffs and all that kind of stuff…” Barnes said. “The biggest thing I’m trying to do is encourage the young guys to keep developing, keep working. For those guys, they haven’t necessarily experienced all those things, you need to not get discouraged, you need to be hard on yourself, you need to be your own worst critic. I’m telling them we just need to continue to grind every single day, get better, and if we continue to do that we’ll start to win some games and see what happens.”

What happens could be interesting a few seasons down the line, as Barnes becomes the centerpiece of a team about to rebuild for a post-Nowitzki era.

Whatever it is, Barnes is ready to put in the work and be there.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.

Jerry Colangelo: Team USA would’ve won FIBA World Cup if not for injuries

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Team USA finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA World Cup – the Americans’ worst-ever finish in a major tournament.

Why did the U.S. fare so poorly?

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo had sharp words for the many stars who withdrew. But that’s not his only explanation.

Kyle Kuzma suffered an ankle injury that kept him off the roster. Jayson Tatum missed the final six games with his own ankle injury. Marcus Smart was banged up and missed time throughout the event.

Colangelo, via Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

“I believe that if we didn’t have those injuries, we would have won,” said Colangelo. “The injuries were just too much to absorb.”

Maybe.

Those players – especially Tatum and Smart, who occupied a roster spots – would’ve helped. But even with those two, the Americans were vulnerable. Australia beat them in an exhibition, and Turkey nearly upset them in the first round. France and Serbia clearly outplayed them in the knockout phase. Team USA just lacked its usual talent.

Perhaps more top Americans will play in the 2020 Olympics. That will make the biggest difference.

If USA Basketball had attracted more stars for the World Cup, it likely could’ve withstood a few injuries. This roster allowed little margin for error.

Jarrett Culver enlivens Timberwolves’ otherwise-quiet offseason

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Timberwolves are the only team with two max-salary players under age 29. Heck, they’re the only team with two max-salary players under age 25.

But Minnesota isn’t set.

Far from it.

Though Karl-Anthony Towns (23) is already a star and sometimes looks like a budding superstar, Andrew Wiggins (24) has stagnated on his max extension. Add expensive contracts for Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng, and the Timberwolves have limited cap flexibility. With veterans too good to allow deep tanking, Minnesota also has limited means to upgrade through the draft.

New Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas was likely always bound to limit his impact this summer. Minnesota faced few clear pressing decisions. Any big moves would start the clock toward Rosas getting evaluated on his prestigious job. In one of his main decisions, Rosas retained head coach Ryan Saunders, an ownership favorite.

Yet, in this environment, Rosas still found a simple way to add a potential long-term difference maker.

The Timberwolves entered the draft with the No. 11 pick – right after a near-consensus top 10 would’ve been off the board. They left the draft with No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver.

All it took to trade up with the Suns was Dario Saric, who would’ve helped Minnesota this season but probably not enough to achieve meaningful success. He’ll become a free agent next summer and is in line for a raise the Timberwolves might not wanted to give.

Culver is not a lock to flourish in the NBA. But Minnesota had no business adding a prospect with so much potential. This was a coup.

Otherwise, the Timberwolves remained predictably quiet, tinkering on the fringe of the rotation. They added Jake Layman (three years, $11,283,255) in a sign-and-trade with the Trail Blazers. They took Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham off the hands of the hard-capped Warriors, getting cash for their trouble. They signed Noah Vonleh (one year, $2 million) and Jordan Bell (one year, minimum). They claimed Tyrone Wallace off waivers.

With their own free agents getting bigger offers, Minnesota didn’t match Tyus Jones‘ offer sheet with the Grizzlies (three years, $26,451,429) and watched Derrick Rose walk to the Pistons (two years, $15 million). For where the Timberwolves are, the far-cheaper Napier should handle backup point guard just fine.

Minnesota is methodically gaining flexibility. Teague’s contract expires next summer, Dieng’s the summer after that. The big question is how to handle Wiggins, but that will wait.

With Towns locked in the next five years, Rosas has plenty of runway before he must take off. Nabbing Culver was a heck of a way to accelerate from the gate.

Offseason grade: B-