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The Harrison Barnes–Team USA–Sixers Theory That’s So Crazy It Makes Sense

Could a place in Rio mean a spot in Philly?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Mike Krzyzewski will finally get to coach Harrison Barnes. Back in 2009, Coach K lost one of the great Carolina college basketball recruiting wars when Barnes — then the no. 1 high school player in the country — chose Roy Williams and UNC over Coach K and Duke (via Skype, no less). It was a legendary recruiting scrap, and rumor has it Krzyzewski did not take Barnes’s decision well. Time must really heal: Barnes will be among the 12 players Coach K brings to Rio for the 2016 Olympic Games.

If you watched the Warriors play in the NBA Finals, “Olympian” is probably not the first word you think of when you hear the name “Harrison Barnes.” On the precipice of what promised to be a lucrative free-agency period, Barnes averaged just 9.3 points a game against the Cavs in the Finals, and had such bad performances in games 5 (5 points, 1-for-6 from 3) and 6 (… let’s not talk about Game 6), his agent was jokingly put on deathwatch and his prospective max deal was being talked about as if it were the Jenga tower in The Big Short.

Barnes will still get his max deal; there’s too much silly money out there to pass up on a 24-year-old, 6-foot-8, (normally) sweet-shooting forward entering his prime who knows how to play in fashionable small-ball lineups, already has one ring, and was pretty close to getting a second. Barnes is also a savvy, media-friendly personality. In high school and college he was critiqued for his Brand Barnes behavior, but he’s actually one of the more thoughtful players you will come across, and he will be an ambassador for any team and any city.

But should he be an Olympian? Why is he an Olympian? And does his membership on Team USA have any bearing on his NBA future?

Jerry Colangelo is the man in charge of Team USA. Mike Krzyzewski is the coach, but Colangelo is the general manager; he’s the don. He has selection power, and he wields that power.

“The players, they get the benefit, they see what it means to them, think about what it means for branding for these guys, worldwide,” Colangelo told The Vertical’s Michael Lee, earlier this year. “That’s a huge thing, I think. Plus, many of them are in situations where they’re not happy with their teams in the league and they come to us and it’s a whole different environment. Guys want to be happy, they want to have a good time and we’ve created a situation where they have that opportunity, so it sells itself.”

I don’t expect Colangelo to be luring Dream Teamers to Rio with orange slices and participation trophies — he’s selling something, and he sells it well. When Colangelo took over, the men’s national team was at its nadir — placing sixth at the 2002 FIBA World Championship, and winning only bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Since taking over, Colangelo has helped secure two Olympic gold medals, two FIBA World Championship titles and a FIBA Americas championship. More importantly, he has turned Team USA into an exclusive club that NBA players actually want to join.

Here’s where I ask you to put your phone in this here Faraday cage so that we can speak freely with no one listening in: Barnes is now in that exclusive club. Of the 30 finalists to make the Olympic team announced back in January, Barnes seemed like a long shot. As the season and postseason wound on, more and more players — Steph, Russ, LeBron, LaMarcus, Kawhi, CP3, Harden, Lillard — announced they would be skipping Rio.

In that sense, Barnes’s inclusion on the team isn’t that crazy. All teams need role players, after all, and Barnes will likely fill the void on the men’s team left by Warriors teammate Andre Iguodala. And besides, Barnes’s inclusion may have some added benefits for all involved.

Until recently, Jerry Colangelo had another job. He was chairman of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers. In April, his son Bryan became general manager and president of basketball ops. Jerry Colangelo soon stepped down from his official position, moving to the role of special adviser to the managing partner.

Does Harrison Barnes’s surprising inclusion on Team USA signal that the Sixers could be a player in landing his services this summer? No, but it does signal that there is a relationship. And when you think about it, Barnes in Philly makes a lot of sense.

Here’s the case: Barnes would get to be the new face of the franchise. He wouldn’t just be paid, he would be valued — treated as an essential part of a team, not just a supporting player. He would be able to take the pressure off of the Sixers’ younger players like Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons. He would immediately be the best basketball player, right now, and the no. 1 option on that team. His numbers would inevitably jump, and he’d quickly enter the conversation for the Eastern Conference All-Star team. It wouldn’t even be a drastic system change for Barnes, as Sixers coach Brett Brown and Warriors coach Steve Kerr both employ pass-and-move principles learned from San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. Everything about it makes sense.

Except for the part where Philly has won only 47 games in the past three seasons.

This would be a shock to the system for Barnes. He would be leaving one of the best regular-season teams of all time and joining one of the worst. So the Sixers would have to entice him, to convince him that the only way is up, that they will spend their money on good players to surround him, that their young core has the chance to explode, and that he could be the catalyst for their future success. Winning a title in Golden State was impressive. Just getting the Sixers back into the playoffs? Call the pope. St. Harrison has a nice ring to it.

In the end, the Sixers might not need the special adviser to the managing partner to make a come-to-Philly-and-I-send-you-to-Rio promise. The situation actually sells itself: playing in a weaker conference, being the first option on offense, getting your name in lights and face on billboards. Not a lot of other teams can offer what the Sixers can. But make no mistake, having someone associated with the team already doing favors for Barnes goes a long way. Recruiting never ends.