A seemingly innocuous “avulsion sprain” has now sidelined Andrea Bargnani for the rest of the season. The decision to pack him up for the season was undoubtedly helped by Bargnani no longer fitting in with the Raptors plans, and this was the most graceful way of nailing him down to the bench. I’m not doubting whether he’s injured, just the Raptors response to the injury.
Frankly, nobody including myself can be bothered much to think about this, but you can’t help but ponder what Bargnani’s future holds and what his past has meant. I remember seeing him in his rookie season, and this game comes to mind, He had played with a fire and shot-making ability that we only saw in glimpses from that point on. His defense was bad and his rebounding was poor, we all knew that and chalked it up to being an imported rookie, and expected both to improve to levels where they would be passable. Neither happened, and I’m left to wondering why:
1. Lack of proper coaching / front-office meddling
After giving him the leeway due to a #1 pick, Sam Mitchell had Bargnani figured out the best and was intent on making the big man pay for his neglect on defense. The tough love approach that Mitchell had started with Bargnani involved him coming off the bench, and management didn’t take kindly to that. Sam Mitchell, the man who understood Bargnani’s mentality the best, was fired.
Mitchell had his flaws, most notably not having a playbook but motivating players wasn’t one of them. His approach of giving Bargnani playing time proportional to his production and effort was frowned upon. This is probably the only way to build a rookie unless you’re in full tank-mode season after season, which is what the Raptors were not between 2007-10. Bryan Colangelo’s intervention, or better yet, interference, with the coaching duties was a huge mistake and it also resulted in Jay Triano taking the helm.
Under Triano and Colangelo, we saw an era of cajoling Andrea Bargnani, a distinct lack of accountability, and unlimited playing time. Bargnani played more than 35 minutes a game in the two full seasons under Triano, while posting team-worst net differentials for rotation players (-5.4 and -3, respectively). To add to the problems, he learned nothing of rebounding technique or defensive principles. His effort level during these two seasons was also poor, and it was clear to see that whatever motivation techniques were used by Triano were not working.
It’s these two seasons that I feel hurt him the most. Combine the lack of accountability with lack of instruction, all pedaled by the front office micromanaging his career, and you have two key developmental years in a player being lost – years #3 and #4.
2. Lack of desire
There was little desire from Bargnani to improve his game. He played in a couple summer tournaments, but never did I hear a single story about how Bargnani stayed after the game to work on his jumper, or defense, or anything. The phrase “gym rat”, that we all love to hear of players was never used to describe him. Not once did I see him hustle down the court and get a block on a guard on a breakaway. Not once. The eye-test of watching him on the floor lazily try to defend or jog back on defense only irked fans and it wasn’t soon after that the attributes of laziness went from rumour to fact.
Couple this with a wholly undeserved extension at $50M, and suddenly a player who has trouble staying motivated is given a bigger incentive not to. The extension can either rejuvenate a player where they set out to prove the franchise’s belief in them (e.g., Zach Randolph) or it can go wholly south as it did for guys like Rashard Lewis, Gilbert Arenas and countless others. Unfortunately, Bargnani falls into the latter category and you didn’t need the benefit of hindsight to see that.
3. Undefined offensive role
Other than Mitchell who had him slated as a bench player in the early part of the 2008-09 season, nobody has quite defined Bargnani’s role clearly. Jay Triano is mostly at fault here, and to some degree so is Dwane Casey. I’m not sure what qualifies as “running the offense through somebody” but it surely can’t be giving the guy the ball at the top of the key and asking him to make a move. Not for a big man, at least.
The Raptors never made a consistent effort of establishing his post-game, or running the offense in a dedicated and consistent manner using an area of Bargnani’s offensive game that is the most underrated and, believe it or not, rather efficient. Instead, we saw him in face-up situations which ultimately led to a barrage of step-back 21-foot line drives that everybody hates.
Even his spot-up shooting ability (which has since gone down the tank) wasn’t used well. Find me video of Bargnani stretching the floor by staying in the corner. You’ll be hard-pressed to do it. His pick ‘n roll game was never given much focus and instead he drifted to the three-point line 80% of the time after a screen.
Even to this day, being in his seventh year, one cannot tell just where Bargnani’s offensive role lies. Given that he started off his career as a good three-point shooter, a capable one-on-one guy, it’s startling to see him seven years later as basically the same, if not worse, player.
This situation is so convoluted that I’m not even sure if this injury helps or hurts his trade value. He was playing awful basketball and on top of it he’s now injured. The good news about the injury is that it prevents him from playing awful basketball. I’m sure some GM will be interested, but given the fiscally responsible focus of NBA teams as they contend with higher penalties on luxury taxes, which in-turn forces them to make most of the salary cap, the biggest roadblock in trading Bargnani will be his contract, not his career.
As has been stated countless times in this space, I still believe the guy can play a role on an NBA team. He does some things well, like post-up defense, post-up offense, and can shoot. Given the fragile nature of his psyche, it could be the poisonous atmosphere at the ACC and his standing with the fans and franchise that may be preventing him from doing that. It’s a stretch, and as much as I would have liked to see him contribute to the Raptors in a reserve role, that ship has likely sailed and it’s time for a change of scenery. Probably more of his sake than the Raptors.
[Related: Andrea Bargnani Done for Season]