Tracy McGrady was the first Raptor who dared to walk away from the rarified air of the Air Canada Centre, deciding against re-signing with Toronto, where he was afraid he’d stay in the shadow of his cousin, Vince Carter, and signed with the Orlando Magic. He went on to appear in seven All Star games and All NBA teams, including making the first team twice. He also lead the league in scoring twice, including when he averaged 32.1 ppg in 2003 and became only the 10th player to average at least that over an entire season.

McGrady was the first former Raptor to really hear the ire of the fans when he returned to Toronto, and did every time he returned until he left the NBA.

Vince Carter as the second player to feel the wrath of rejected Raptor fans after he sulked his way out of town, in 2004. Carter had already been a five time All Star and went on to appear in three more after he was traded to the Nets. Carter is now a bench player in Dallas, but is still booed relentlessly by Raptor fans whenever he comes back to Toronto.

Chris Bosh also was a target of Raptor fans’ hate after he left Toronto to sign with the Miami Heat, where he won two Championships and made the All Star team three times (after making the All Star five times in Toronto).

These three player are the three best players to ever wear a Raptor uniform and also the most reviled.

And then there’s Andrea Bargnani.

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When Bryan Colangelo signed on with much fanfare as the GM of the Raptors, one of his first moves was taking Andrea Bargnani with the Raptors first ever pick in the 2006 draft. Seven years later, it was Colangelo’s former understudy, Masai Ujiri, newly hired with much fanfare, whose first personnel move was trading away Bargnani.

And last night he returned to the city that drafted him for his first regular season game.

Bargnani has never been the player that McGrady, Carter or Bosh were. While he was drafted higher than any of those players, he never had their talent. Even before he played in the NBA, Bargnani a jumpshooting big man who rarely rebounded, ventured into the paint or played defense. And he wasn’t nearly the hard worker that Dirk Nowitzki, the man he was often compared to, was.

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Now, I’ve been one of Bargnani’s biggest critics since he was drafted, but I really didn’t see the point of booing him last night. His biggest fault is that he simply has never been that good a basketball player. And that’s still the case in New York. To me, this insistence Raptor fans have for booing former players is starting to look like the oft jilted boyfriend who can’t get over his past relationships and move on. Bargnani didn’t leave the Raptors and he didn’t give up on the team. He simply played how he so often has in the past and continues to. It’s not Bargnani’s fault he was drafted first, thrust into a role he shouldn’t have been and given an outrageous extension.

Unfortunately for Bargnani, he didn’t exact his revenge in either game against his former team. He only played 17 minutes, last night, and spent most of the second half on the bench with an icepack on his neck in what was an ironic scene for a player who was a pain in the neck for fans and coaches for most of his time in Toronto.

While the injury-depleted Knicks team put up a bit of a fight early, the Raptors took the lead for good with just 5:11 to go in the first after Lowry hit his first of four three pointers on the night. The Knicks did make a couple of runs, getting it as close as two points in the fourth, but they simply didn’t have the defense to follow through on their run.

Let’s clarify here, the Knicks defense was REALLY bad. Sure, any time you have Bargnani and J.R. Smith (as well as Amare Stoudemire) on your team, defense is not going to be a strong suit (and when you have three of the worst players at their positions starting on your team, you probably shouldn’t expect to be a playoff team) but this is a larger problem for the Knicks. And the Raptors took advantage time and time again, last night.

Take a look at these couple of sequences:

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In the above screenshot, Patrick Patterson sets a pick for John Salmons. Shumpert and Amare double team Salmons, a common tact.

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Salmons passes it to Patterson who Kenyon Martin has moved to cover. Toure Murry has dropped down off Vasquez to cover Hansbrough, leaving Tim Hardaway Jr in no-man’s land.

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Patterson makes the right pass to Vasquez, who is so wide open both Murry and Hardaway run hard at, leaving Ross, who hasn’t moved, open up top. Stoudemire is jogging down to cover Hansbrough, who will be wide open, and Shumpert seems to be just watching the action unfold, guarding no one in particular.

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Vasquez quickly moves the ball to a wide open Ross who has already hit a three pointer just a few minutes before and Murry has to run from the basket to the three point line as Shumpert is left standing defending no one in particular. There are so many breakdowns in this sequence, it’s scary. And the Raptors, who learned to share the rock after the Gay trade, made the Knicks pay.

And just a little while later, this sequence happened:

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In what’s basically a semi-break, Lowry beats Beno Udrih and drives to the basket, where Bargnani is waiting completely alone (Valanciunas hadn’t made it up the court, yet). Instead of trusting his big man to defend the basket, Hardaway Jr leaves Ross, who has already hit two three pointers in the game, to help on Lowry.

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Lowry has essentially drawn three defenders and passed to a completely wide open Ross who nails the three.

This underlines the problem when you have poor defenders on the floor. Teammates don’t trust one another and they overhelp, which allows teams that pass the ball to punish them. Tyson Chandler is a stellar defender, but in the above sequence, the Knicks have three poor defenders, in Bargnani, Udrih and Smith, as well as rookie Hardaway Jr, playing with him.

While I am certainly not a fan of watching a mediocre Raptors team strive for a playoff appearance in a horrible Eastern Conference in what will likely be a first round beat-down, at least I’m not a fan of the Knicks. The Knicks are the anti-moneyball team. They might have the worst value for their money, in Carmelo Anthony, who is the perfect example of an empty stats player, Stoudemire, Bargnani and Smith. That’s $61.5 million tied up in four extremely flawed players who don’t play a lick of defense or make their teammates better. And three of them start.

In some ways, the Knicks aborted trade for Lowry would have made a lot of sense for them. He’s good value, would give them a PG who can actually defend, and, while not the best decision maker on the court, would bring an attitude the team sorely needs.

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On the other hand, parting with Hardaway Jr AND a first rounder is a steep price to pay for a player who might be half a season rental.

Speaking of Hardaway Jr, I’m amazed every year how players like him drop in the draft. While he’s never going to be an All Star, he was a very solid player at Michigan who could shoot, play defense and had good size for the shooting guard position. The reason the Spurs always seem to find good role players near the bottom of the first round is because teams drafting above them often end up gambling on flawed projects who they are convinced will play better in the NBA than they did in college (or Europe).

A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS

- For some reason, every time Udrih had his back turned to the camera, I kept being reminded of Cavs former star, Mark Price. Too bad Udrih doesn’t have Price’s skills.

- When Toure Murry is your backup point guard and has to play nearly ten minutes, you’re in trouble. I had no idea who Murry was, but he’s listed as a 6’5 small forward who, for some reason, is now the Knicks backup point guard. Keep in mind, they’re pick belongs to Denver, no matter where they finish. So the Knicks will receive no reward in a high lottery pick in a great draft year, at the end of the year if they happen to miss the playoffs.

Again, I am so thankful I’m not a Knicks fan.

- Is Terrence Ross’ recent play making DeRozan expendable? If the Raptors are thinking of trading DeRozan, which has been reported, if Ross continues to play well you have to think that it might make trading DeRozan easier knowing Ross is on the roster.

- The Raptors are now a full game ahead of Boston for the Atlantic Division lead. I’m not really sure this is something to be celebrated, though. They’re currently on pace for 38 wins and might end up finishing the season around .500, if the roster stays put. This is the exact middle ground so many general managers don’t want to be in. Good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to actually contend there. Making the playoffs isn’t going to get them the elite player they so desperately need, and no free agent is going to mistake a .500 team in the East for a contender.

The idea that the Raptors can “Webber” Wiggins ignores the fact that Golden State had the third pick in the same draft and the only reason Golden State wasn’t hurt trading all those draft picks for Webber was because they swapped him to Washington a year later for Tom Gugliotta and three draft picks. Orlando, who traded away Webber, was the team that most benefitted from the trade.

And if the Raptors do end up trading all their assets for Wiggins (or someone else in the top five), which is incredibly unlikely, then how is that better than trading them for draft picks and/or prospects earlier in the season and getting a top five pick yourself? At least the draft picks and prospects you can keep along with whoever they draft with their own pick.

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