The injury came on the most Bargnani kind of play imaginable—a spectacular failure of a dunk attempt. The 7-foot Italian drove the lane with his usual slow-as-molasses cadence, made up his mind to leap way too far away, only to meet two defenders and miss the rim by a good three feet.
Until news broke of Bargnani's injury, the dunk attempt was perhaps the highlight of the game for Knicks fans, who have precious few moments to smile about. If anything, he showed more fire than the rest of his teammates, even if he probably wouldn't have made that dunk with no defenders in his path and a rocket pack strapped to his back.
Because the Knicks are the Knicks, they could not avoid a whiff of controversy at the end of the game.
Bargnani injured the elbow near the end of the third quarter. Knicks head coach Mike Woodson sat him for all but three minutes of the fourth, despite the fact that he had played relatively well, scoring 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Was it a simple case of a coach protecting an injured player? Not according to Woodson himself.
Per NorthJersey.com's Steve Popper:
Funny thing is, well not funny at all, Woodson was directly asked if Bargnani was injured in 4th quarter - said no.— Steve Popper (@StevePopper) January 23, 2014
It was a typical Woodson answer: confusing, frustrating, oblique. There is a good chance he was lying to cover up the injury; and there is just as good a chance he was telling the truth and wanted Bargnani out of that game for the pivotal fourth quarter.
Before Wednesday's loss, Woodson confessed that he still isn't sure how to use Bargnani, per the Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring:
Woodson: "We're trying to find ways to work with Bargnani, and he's gotta find ways to work with us."— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 22, 2014
Woodson's rare bit of candor—that, after a half-season, the Knicks still don't know how to win with Bargnani—is proof enough that this struggling team might not particularly mourn the loss of their starting power forward.
The Bargnani Problem
During the fourth quarter of Wednesday's game, SB Nation put together a video of Bargnani's dunk attempt set to the R. Kelly classic, "I Believe I Can Fly." It was certainly funny at the time, but now that he's injured, it seems a little sad. (If we're being honest, though, it's still pretty funny.)
Believe it or not, this is the second time Bargnani has injured his elbow attempting a dunk from way too far out—he injured his right elbow during this poorly planned attempt on Dec. 12 against Portland.
One thing's for sure: Bargnani needs to spend some of his rehab time learning exactly where on the court he should and should not take off from. But Bargnani is an eight-year NBA veteran; one would think he would have mastered when and where to jump by this point in his career.
Therein lies the problem with Bargnani.
He has put up some good individual numbers this season, thanks to his length and mid-range shooting game. He averages 13.3 points and 1.2 blocks per game. If you get him the ball within 10 feet, he can shoot over most defenders. If a ball-handler runs directly at him, he is long enough to alter the shot.
But basketball is a game that relies on speed and athletic instincts as much as size, and Bargnani falls woefully short in both departments. He is slow even for a 7-footer, and he does not have the defensive instincts and reaction time to make up for that lack of speed. As a result, he is one of the worst team defenders in the league.
Even Woodson has admitted that Bargnani's lack of foot speed costs the Knicks on defense, per Herring:
Also asked Woodson what he sees as the difference when Bargnani plays PF instead of center. Basically said tms attack him, and that (cont'd)— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 22, 2014
... his foot speed isn't as quick as Tyson's or Kenyon's, so he gets beat more often when they come at him off the pick-and-roll.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 22, 2014
These deficiencies often negate Bargnani's height when he tries for rebounds. Despite his size, he ranks fifth on the Knicks in total rebounding percentage, tied with shooting guard Iman Shumpert at 10.3 percent.
In theory, Bargnani should make up for his rebounding and defense problems by knocking down threes and forcing opposing bigs to guard him out to the three-point line on offense. An effective stretch 4 can devastate opposing defenses, and that's what the Knicks had in mind when they traded for Bargnani.
But Bargnani's three-point shooting stroke has not recovered to the glory days of 2008-09, when he shot over 40 percent. Instead, he is shooting a career-low 27.8 from beyond the arc—the fifth-worst mark among all qualified shooters, according to Basketball Reference.
And so Bargnani is caught in frontcourt no-man's land—he can't defend or rebound like a traditional power forward, and he can't shoot like a stretch 4.
The results have not been pretty. Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony has been far better with Bargnani off the court than on.
|Anthony, Bargnani on||1061||102.5||106.4||-3.9||-44|
|Anthony on, Bargnani off||467||106.4||100.9||+5.6||+26|
|Bargnani on, Anthony off||196||91.6||110..2||-18.7||-78|
In a perfect world, the Knicks could recapture the success of last year's team by returning to the small-ball lineups that were so successful, playing Melo at power forward with two point guards in the backcourt.
But the success of those lineups was predicated on two things the Knicks no longer possess.
First, they need Raymond Felton to play up to the level he showed last season. But whether due to injury, age or indifference, Felton has been one of the worst point guards in the league in 2013-14.
Who should start in place of Andrea Bargnani?
The second thing they need is a coach willing to use the small-ball lineups. Unfortunately, nothing Mike Woodson has shown this season indicates he is interested in playing that way.
He briefly moved point guard Pablo Prigioni into the starting lineup for Monday's game against Brooklyn, but he abandoned it after a few minutes. Even with Bargnani and Tyson Chandler as the only regular rotation bigs available to play on Wednesday, Woodson still insisted on starting Bargnani alongside Chandler.
Woodson might start Prigioni until both Kenyon Martin and Amar'e Stoudemire return from injury, but once he has three healthy bigs, Woodson will likely play one of them alongside Chandler. He seems fully committed to losing his way: with "big" lineups.
The 2013-14 New York Knicks are an absolute catastrophe of a basketball team. The best thing you can say about Andrea Bargnani's injury is that it probably won't make them any worse. At this point, only an injury to Carmelo Anthony could do that.