On consecutive possessions late in the New York Knicks’ 103-98 win over the Orlando Magic, Andrea Bargnani received the ball and, without so much as a hint of hesitation, buried a pair of jumpers to help secure a much-needed win for his reeling team.
In many ways, the game was a microcosm of the Andrea Bargnani experience: tantalizing flashes of effortless ability bookending what was, by all accounts, a wholly forgettable outing (13 points on 5-12 shooting with five rebounds).
With Carmelo Anthony bound to locker-room ice packs, Bargnani failed to assert himself on offense for much of the game, while the Knicks struggled to keep apace with a torrid Orlando comeback that saw the visitors blow a 24-point halftime lead.
But a win is a win, and for a team with as many early-season disasters and lingering questions as the Knicks, Bargnani’s performance—as it has for much of the season—doesn’t wield much weight in miniature.
At the same time, perhaps no one player on this star-crossed 2013-14 Knicks squad provides a clearer window into the state of the franchise than Bargnani himself.
Keeping up with the Joneses
When the Brooklyn Nets traded for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, they hadn’t merely made the summer’s splashiest move; they were putting the pressure on their inter-borough rivals to keep piece—no matter how high or flimsy the limb.
New York’s answer: to trade Steve Novak, Marcus Camby and three draft picks (including one first-rounder) to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for the much-maligned Bargnani.
Coming off his worst season as a pro, Bargnani—selected No. 1 overall in the 2006 NBA Draft—was seen by many as a bad gamble, and a move borne more out of desperation than savvy decision-making.
After all, the cash-strapped Knicks had already mortgaged most of their future for their existing troika of frontcourt talent: Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. How, exactly, would a player of Bargnani’s uniquely one-dimensional capabilities be expected to fit on an already ill-fitting team?
Thus far, the results have been mixed. While Bargnani has enjoyed a bounce-back season in many a statistical category (his player efficiency, true shooting percentage and rebound percentage are all up after drastic dips a season ago), one paramount problem has remained: his near-complete inability to defend.
Both Bargnani’s defensive rating (107.3) and overall net rating (minus-5.9) are the highest (read: worst) of any Knicks player averaging at least 20 minutes of playing time per game.
Such a putrid performance has had significant team-wide consequences, too.
|Minutes||Offensive Rtg||Defensive Rtg||Net Rtg|
Indeed, lineups featuring Bargnani, Anthony and Stoudemire—who combined take up a whopping 68 percent of the team’s cap space this season—have yielded the worst net rating (minus-34.9) and the second worst defensive rating (minus-122.1) of any three-man unit this year.
Such trends were made even more glaring in the absence of Tyson Chandler, who recently returned after missing 20 games with a broken leg.
But not even Chandler can account for Bargnani’s unique brand of defensive ineptitude. In 85 minutes of court time, the trio of Bargnani, Anthony and Chandler are registering a defensive rating of 116.6, and a net rating of minus-12.2.
Still, the Knicks had to know what they were getting defensively when they traded for Bargnani: a career liability who breaks protocol and blows rotation at such a fantastic rate you wonder whether it’s become a simple function of his existence.
Problem is, Bargnani’s offense—the biggest factor by far in New York’s curious offseason gambit—has at times proved to be equally perplexing.
Two cooks in the kitchen
First, a caveat: It is true that Bargnani’s overall offensive rating this season has improved to one point above his career average (104, per basketball-reference.com). This despite Bargnani’s continued struggles from three-point range, where he’s managed just 29 percent.
However, Bargnani’s accuracy from mid-range (15-19 feet) has never been better (53 percent, or nearly 10 percentage points better than a season ago), suggesting a consistency on which the Knicks would be wise to capitalize as often as possible.
There’s just one problem: The area where Bargnani is most comfortable shooting—on high post and wing—is the same piece of real estate coveted by the team’s unquestioned alpha dog, Carmelo Anthony.
And though the Knicks have managed a 102.2 offensive rating with both Bargnani and Anthony on the floor, neither has charted an effective field-goal percentage above 50 percent (although both are hovering around their individual season averages).
As typical, the problem has been at the other end, where the Bargnani-Anthony combo has amassed a woeful 108.6 defensive rating, resulting in an overall net rating of minus-6.4.
Moreover, that aforementioned 102.2 offensive rating—while slightly above what the Knicks as a whole are averaging—is nowhere near where the team’s offense was a season ago, when they finished with the league’s third highest mark (108.6) in that category.
The point: While the Knicks still have time to work out the rotational kinks—to see how best to fill out units featuring any two or three of the team’s frontcourt staples—the early returns suggest a much steeper uphill battle than management might have realized.
A pawn in their game
That brings us to the underlying problem of the Bargnani trade.
Rather than concentrate on more value signings and veteran’s minimum contracts, the Knicks decided instead to roll the dice on one move—any move—to steal the headlines back from Brooklyn.
That the current roster's shaky chemistry seems perpetually in need of outright alchemy means little to James Dolan, who seems more concerned with maintaining hegemony than sustainable success.
Of course, none of this is the fault of Bargnani, who struggled for years to live up to the red-hot hype of being both the No. 1 pick and a franchise cornerstone.
A team determined to contend, a change of scenery, a player on the right side of 30 whose contract—while onerous in the here-and-now—offers more flexibility at the right time: These are all fair narratives, ones with which the Knicks will doubtless make more than a little public-relations hay.
But if questions of fit persist and the team itself continues to struggle, don’t be surprised if eyes eventually turn to Bargnani himself.
Fair or not, there’s nothing angry fans love more than a scapegoat. Someone, anyone, to serve as the No. 1 symptom.
Even if—as with all things Knicks—the true source of the sickness lies somewhere else entirely.
(All stats courtesy of NBA.com and are current as of December 24, 2013.)