Turning Andrea "Il Mago" Bargnani into a credible defender may seem like an insurmountable task, but if anyone can get the job done, it's Knicks head coach Mike Woodson.
It's extremely difficult to discuss Bargnani and not be overly negative, but frankly, he hasn't given fans much of a reason not to be.
Defense has never been his forte. During his seven years as a member of the Toronto Raptors, Bargnani failed to average more than one steal in a season and only averaged more than one block twice. For someone who stands at a height of 7'0", that is completely unacceptable.
In fact, last season, Bargnani became the first 7-footer in NBA history to average more than 28.0 minutes, yet fewer than 4.0 rebounds—he averaged just 3.7—per game.
That's not exactly the type of distinction one would like to have on their résumé.
You can't teach effort and heart. You can't teach passion and the desire to be better. All you can teach are the fundamentals of the game.
That's where Mike Woodson comes in.
Woodson has earned a reputation as being one of the best defensive-minded coaches in the league. In 2011-12 as an assistant, and interim and eventual full-time coach of the Knicks, Woodson would help lead the team to a 101.0 defensive rating (estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions), which was fifth-best in the NBA.
That number dropped to 106.3 and 18th in 2012-13, but the Knicks still managed to win 54 games, an Atlantic Division title and the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Their offense was potent enough—third in offensive rating at 111.1—to cover up any deficiencies on the defensive end.
It was also extremely difficult to create an identity on that side of the ball with so many key players missing time due to injury. Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert sat out for a majority of the season, while Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton all missed 14 or more games, as well.
With the addition of Metta World Peace and a healthier roster for 2013-14, the Knicks defense should see improvement over the course of the year.
Unfortunately, that's not the issue at hand here. The Knicks have a gluttony of players who can defend and play above-average defense.
Can Andrea Bargnani become one of those guys? Can he contribute in an area that has forever been a weakness of his?
Sure he can.
For one, a new team and new surroundings should be motivating enough for him to put the extra work in. He's even said that playing for the Knicks and competing for an NBA championship will be a nice change of pace for his career, according to Al Iannazzone of Long Island Newsday (via SportsMedia101):
I’m glad I’m here, ... I can’t wait to start. This team is good. We want to win. I just can’t wait to start. That’s all I can tell you. I’m extremely excited to be here.
It’s all about winning here. I want to do as much as possible and what the coach asks me to just to win games because I’m really starving to win.
Sometimes in life, all you need is a fresh start.
Will that cure his defensive woes overnight? Of course it won't. It's going to take time. Bargnani is going to have to work closely with his new teammates and coaching staff in order to improve in that department.
Coach Woodson should be up for the challenge. From Ben and Rasheed Wallace in Detroit to Josh Smith in Atlanta and now Tyson Chandler with the Knicks, Woodson is no stranger to helping players achieve their goals on defense. He's helped good defensive players become great, and great players become elite.
On the bright side, even if it doesn't happen, it wouldn't be the end of the world.
The Knicks didn't make the trade with Toronto to acquire Bargnani for his defensive prowess. He was brought in to be a stretch big who can shoot the basketball with significant range but also attack the basket and put the ball on the floor.
Anything he can possibly add on defense will be a bonus at this point.
It's going to be difficult to shed his rep around the league for being a soft player, which he's earned for a reason. He's not overly physical and rarely uses his size and length to his advantage while defending the post. He's been unwilling in the past to mix it up down low, which can be very frustrating to watch. His rebound and block numbers are proof of that.
The funny thing about that is, now that he's a member of the New York Knicks, it might not matter that he's a soft player.
Bargnani isn't "the man" anymore. He's not the No.1 option like he was with Toronto. He can blend into the background, play a set role, regain his shooting form and simply be an offensive weapon.
Will anyone notice Bargnani's lack of defense if he's putting up 12 to 16 points a night? Probably not.
He has players around him in the frontcourt like Tyson Chandler, Metta World Peace and Kenyon Martin who will essentially do the dirty work for him. If nothing else, Bargnani can learn from those who have made their living excelling on defense.
Mike Woodson knows what he's doing. Yes, he's going to do everything in his power to create a halfway-decent defender out of Andrea Bargnani, but ultimately, it won't make or break the team if he can't pull it off.