An Ode to Andrea Bargnani, and a Look to the Future

All so-so things must come to an end.

Seven years ago, almost to the day, the Raptors selected Andrea Bargnani as the first overall pick, thus setting expectations that accompany the first overall selection. Much like the 2013 draft, there was no consensus #1 pick that year, but the passage of time ensures that few remember that. In hindsight, Bargnani was no worse than the third-best player in the lottery that year, which is no shame in itself. A unique specimen on paper, Bargnani was the epitome of a player that could cause havoc in the NBA landscape, by further revolutionizing the center position like Dirk Nowitzki had done years before.

Bryan Colangelo can’t be blamed for having had the vision of Andrea Bargnani as the next Dirk Nowitzki. The physical tools were almost identical, and a case could be made that Bargnani’s offensive game was more refined than Nowtizki in year one, before Nowitzki surged ahead in year two. Unfortunately for Bargnani, the manner of success he had his rookie year left an imprint on him which significantly influenced the trajectory of his career.

Instead of developing the weaker areas of his game – like his post-moves, rebounding, and any sort of defense – he continued to live on the perimeter on offense, and simply refused defensive responsibility. He figured that what worked in his rookie year was going to work in years to come, and completely discounted scouting reports and the league adjusting to him. Sure, he was a unique problem, but it’s not like he didn’t have a remedy. His effort and effectiveness fell, and when that happens a coach use a variety of tools to sort the player out. Cutting back playing time in conjunction with personalized coaching and a little bit of “tough love” can make players realize what they’re doing wrong, and give them a chance to get back on track. This process was never applied to Bargnani, and it wasn’t for the coach not trying.
When Sam Mitchell recognized Bargnani’s issues as being detrimental to the team to the point of calamity, he benched him and got fired for it. It was the first blatant evidence of Andrea Bargnani playing to a different set of rules than the rest of the team, and that’s because he happened to be the #1 pick, and the man who selected him was hell-bent on justifying that decision, no matter what the team repercussions were. Bargnani averaged 31, 35, 36, and 34 minutes per game in years where he was arguably at his weakest defensively, and was the most inconsistent performer on the floor.

The reality of his career had set in: a talented but streaky perimeter player with serious effort issues who happens to be a defensive sieve; some nights he’s capable of putting 35, but mostly he’ll be hoisting long-twos to shoot you out of a game. By his fourth season, any reasonable observer of the Raptors had given up any hope of Bargnani developing into an All-Star player, let alone a superstar. The calls to shift his role from a designated starter to a bench performer grew louder, but fell on the deaf ears of Colangelo, who played puppet-master to Jay Triano’s show. Nothing good came of Triano’s tenure in Toronto, of which the low point was Bargnani starting every single game he played in under Triano’s two full seasons, despite putting in performances that would send most players to the bench.

Throw in a thoroughly undeserved and unnecessary $50 million extension which came a full season before he was eligible for restricted free-agency, and it was no wonder the fans turned on him once the performances slid. Ultimately, it’s Bargnani’s fault for not performing despite given every opportunity to. The deeper problem here wasn’t so much Bargnani’s skill, or lack there of, it was his laziness and lack of motivation. And, of course, his management by the Raptors. Andrea Bargnani was cajoled, catered to, and spoiled by Bryan Colangelo to such a degree that he forgot what it’s like to earn a place on an NBA roster. Instead of rewarding his benefactor, he figured that whatever he was doing was just fine, since it was clearly paying dividends. If Colangelo expected the contract to motivate Bargnani, he was wrong, because post-contract Bargnani was pretty much the same as pre-contract Bargnani except with the fans on his back.

In Colangelo’s last season, with no contract in his future, he figured to make Bargnani a scapegoat by openly putting him on the block. Instead of acknowledging the real problem of mismanagement, he played the “Bargnani is not performing” card when in fact everybody but Colangelo already knew that expecting Bargnani to perform like a first overall pick was long considered unreasonable. The shift in his role and career should have been made years ago, and the man should never have been put in a position where, when he misses two consecutive shots, the fans rain down boos.

Andrea Bargnani is an NBA player, and can be a valuable one at that. He possesses enough qualities to be useful, but just like where there are players that you can afford to have a long leash with (e.g., Manu Ginobili, Zach Randolph), there are players that require a coach’s utmost attention. Andrea Bargnani is the latter. It truly is unfortunate that nobody ever got to coach Andrea Bargnani. In the end, he’ll be remembered for being a lazy player who simply didn’t love the game enough to work hard at it, and only played it because he happened to be good at it. And of course, for having filmed this terrible commercial.

Final verdict on Bargnani: he’s not as bad as he was made to look the last few years, and as much as it is his fault for not stepping up, Bryan Colangelo hurt him more than you can imagine (not financially, of course).

As for the trade, the Raptors get a protected 2016 first-round pick (Denver has swap rights), two second-round picks, Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, and whatever minor salary NY needs to add under new NBA rules. The numbers analysis along with reactionary thoughts were posted earlier, and given the great discussion in the thread, there really isn’t much to add. Focusing more on the basketball side, the Raptors depth chart stands at:

C: Valanciunas, Gray
PF: Johnson, Novak, Acy
SF: Gay, Fields/Novak
SG: DeRozan, Ross
PG: Lowry

I’ve left out Linas Kleiza who is sure to be amnestied and also Marcus Camby, who released a statement which included this remark:

“I have nothing but positive things to say about the city of Toronto and its great fans, having been drafted by the Raptors 17 years ago. Given that my goal at this point in my career is to have a shot at a championship, however, I’ll have to evaluate my options going forward. I’ve enjoyed a great career, and under the right circumstances I hope to continue making an impact in the league.”

Basically, he won’t be coming here which is fine and understandable. As for Novak – drafted 32nd in the 2006 draft – is proven an area where the Raptors wanted Bargnani to carve his niche out, once it became evident he wasn’t a superstar: three-point shooting. Novak is entirely a three-point shooter and nothing but that. In fact, 76% of the shots he’s taken in his career are threes, and last year 82% of his shots were threes. He shoots them at a career 43% rate, which is what he shot them at last year. There is no ambiguity as to what Novak is here for and he’ll never forget that. The Raptors were 26th in the league in three-point shooting (34%), so Novak is a welcome addition in that sense. Oh yeah, did I mention that 1.4% of his shots were at the rim last year, and 0% the year before?

A note on his defense from ESPN NBA insider:

Novak could always shoot, but the difference last season was that he defended competently enough to stay on the court for his offense. While he lacks strength and isn’t a guy you’d willingly put on an elite scorer, Novak rated as only a mildly below-average defensive player last season. Previously, he’d graded out as blackened toast. As long as he can get a few stops, his deadly jump shot will keep him in the league … and perhaps one of these years he can get a shot at the rim.

This essentially passes the eye-test as well: he’s not going to stand-out as a stopper but he works hard enough to justify having him in the game as a specialist.

Obviously, this isn’t the only move to come as Ujiri is looking to strengthen the point guard position, and is clearly not attached to DeMar DeRozan. The fact that we were sniffing around DeAndre Jordan suggests that Ujiri is looking to shore up the middle as well. I’d also suggest that the picks the Raptors have acquired in the Bargnani trade will be key assets this off-season as Ujiri shapes the team to his liking. What that liking is certainly to be one of a defensive kind, given that he apparently turned down David Lee for Andrea Bargnani (of course, Lee being owned $44.5M had something to do with it).

When I contemplate Gay and DeRozan’s future with the Raptors, I find myself asking the question whether these are two players that Ujiri would acquire if they weren’t already on the team. Given the type of players he’s gone after recently (Andre Iguodala, Raymond Felton, Kenneth Faried, Mbah a Moute, JaVale McGee, etc.), I have a hard time convincing myself that either are, but one has an unmovable contract and the other only an overpriced one. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I fully expect DeMar DeRozan to be moved.

Since February, the Raptors have said goodbye to Jose Calderon, Bryan Colangelo and Andrea Bargnani, three of the strongest ties to the past. This is Ujiri’s team now and in his short time here he has been able to do what Bryan Colangelo couldn’t do since December: find a suitor for Andrea Bargnani. He not only did that, but converted him into multiple assets. Regardless of how Andrea Bargnani does in New York, this is a trade that the Raptors have done very well in, because there was simply no way that Andrea Bargnani could be revitalized in Toronto.

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