It’s the nature of NBA trades to leave both fanbases feeling a tinge of excitement—however fleeting or tempered by trepidation—when a deal first goes down.
The possibility of potential, the excitement of career resurrection, the hope wrought from assets yet to materialize: There’s always some emotional peg from which to suspend one’s objectivity.
Unfortunately, Bargnani isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So what, exactly—and if anything—is his future with the franchise?
Judging by the trade’s early returns, it’s not looking pretty.
Anyone with a calculator and a YouTube account could see this coming from a mile away. Unfortunately, that group didn't include Carmelo Anthony, who offered his steadfast support for the deal while speaking during one of his many summer camp cameos, via Newsday's Marcus Henry:
...Anthony lamented losing key teammates from last season's 54-28 squad but said getting Bargnani was a "steal." He's convinced the Knicks will be better.
"I hate to lose [Steve] Novak and [Marcus] Camby,'' he said, "but when you get someone like [Bargnani] in return, it's kind of a win-win situation."
Professional overtures aside, 'Melo was almost certainly in the minority.
Indeed, it didn't take long for diehards and denizens from throughout the NBA to seize on the deal’s finer details, namely the three future draft picks—including a 2016 first-rounder—needed to grease the wheels.
That’s a lot to give up, even for a former No. 1 overall pick—especially one with the career arc of a subdivision speed bump.
The deal wasn’t completely devoid of logic, of course: In Bargnani, the Knicks were getting a floor-spacing big whose hefty contract would expire at the same time as Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler’s.
The second part makes total sense, from both a financial and strategic standpoint.
It’s the first part—or the projection thereof—that has proved painfully, woefully misguided.
Through 42 games, Bargnani is registering New York’s sixth-lowest plus/minus rating (minus-6.2).
The biggest reason: Andrea's atrocious defense, which can be summed up in this, most infamous of Knicks screw-ups.
While not apocalyptically bad on the whole, Bargnani's overall plus-minus only scratches the surface of how awkward the fit has been.
To date, 18 five-man units have tallied at least 30 minutes for the Knicks, of which 12 include Bargnani (at either power forward or center).
Of the seven lineups that both include Bargnani and have a negative net rating, five feature Bargnani at power forward. Likewise, of the five lineups that both include Bargnani and boast a positive net rating, three of them have him slotted at the 4.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Within each of those subsets (the net-negative and net-positive groupings), the best lineup features Bargnani at center—the top two net-positive groups, as a matter of fact.
|Bargnani, Anthony, Smith, Stoudemire, Prigioni||43||93.6||137||-43.4||.446|
|Bargnani, Chandler, Anthony, Shumpert, Felton||91||99.3||123.4||-24.1||.517|
|Bargnani, Anthony, Smith, Shumpert, Felton||126||101.5||91.1||10.4||.516|
It doesn’t take an MIT statistician to read between the lines: New York should be giving Bargnani as many minutes at center—and, concurrently, 'Melo at power forward—as possible.
There’s just one small problem with this: The Knicks have Chandler.
New York knew what it was getting itself into, of course. "We'll just work out the rotational kinks on the fly," the thinking went—even if it meant a few bumps and bruises along the way.
That never happened. Worse, it looks like the Knicks might have to wait until next year to recalibrate the experiment. After suffering a left wrist injury following a nasty fall against the Philadelphia 76ers on January 21, Bargnani has been largely mum on the prospect of his return.
From a January 31 story by the New York Post’s Marc Berman:
Andrea Bargnani, in breaking his silence, showed off his new black elbow brace, admitted his injury was “terrible’’ and said a timetable for his return from rehab is tricky because the ligament is completely torn.
For a while, it looked like the quintessential case of addition by subtraction: In their first four games without Bargnani, the Knicks compiled a cartoonish offensive efficiency of 125.2, a defensive efficiency of 100.5, an overall true-shooting percentage of 62.4 percent and—most important of all—a 4-0 record.
The key to New York’s sudden success: a return to the very small-ball principles that helped propel the team to a 54-28 record a season ago.
Could it really be as two-step simple as 1) remove Bargnani and 2) profit? If so, what would that mean for his future in New York?
Sadly, it didn't take long for that first question to answer itself: In the seven games since their win streak, the Knicks are 1-6 with an offensive efficiency of 103.9, a defensive efficiency of 107.2 and a true-shooting percentage of 53.9 percent.
The Knicks are a mess—that's obvious. What remains murkier is how much of their misery can be objectively attributed to the Bargnani effect.
Assuming Bargnani remains sidelined for the remainder of the season, New York will have plenty to think about heading into this summer’s free-agency period.
Do the Knicks keep Bargnani as their starting center, trade Chandler and hope against hope the former’s defensive shortcomings are rendered moot by a recharged offense?
Or do they look to trade Bargnani, thereby allowing, however, tacitly, that giving up three draft picks to get him was tantamount to setting house money alight?
It’s likely that the Knicks could find a suitor for either of the two. What isn’t so clear is what kind of assets they’d fetch in return.
Which reveals another way in which the Bargnani gamble hamstrings the Knicks: Insofar as one of the fringe benefits of the initial deal was to sync up a slew of expiring contracts, New York would have to have that as a top priority—over better talent on longer contracts or even draft picks—in any potential trade.
Should the Knicks decide to keep them both, the onus will fall on Mike Woodson—or, more likely, whoever replaces him—to somehow piece together a rotation as minimally dependent as possible on units featuring a Chandler-Bargnani front line.
Easier said than done? Absolutely. But if you're James Dolan, it certainly beats the alternative: admitting that the trade designed to solidify your team’s foundation actually rotted it from within.
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