Can New York Knicks Still Save Andrea Bargnani's NBA Career?

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Can New York Knicks Still Save Andrea Bargnani's NBA Career?
John Raoux/Associated Press

A new administration, a new era. It's time for Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks to save every possible lost cause on the roster. We're looking at you, Andrea Bargnani.

Bargnani averaged 13.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in an injury-shortened and disappointing first season with the Knicks, sinking just 27.8 percent of his threes in the process.

After three consecutive years of regression, the big man likely won't ever match the annual salary from his current contract again. Luckily for the Knicks, he has just one season left on the deal, but for a gaudy $11.5 million.

The book on Bargnani says he is "offensively skilled but flawed." 

Flawed by shot selection. Flawed by lack of athleticism. Flawed by decision-making.

Except there's one problem with this conveniently nonexistent book: Bargs isn't all that skilled.

Remember when the Knicks traded for the former Raptor last summer? Part of the reason was to acquire a floor spacer (even though they actually gave one up in Steve Novak). But Bargnani, who has failed to top 42 games played in any of the last three years, only fills that role in reputation.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

The 7-footer should've shed the "floor spacer" moniker by now, shooting 29.5 percent from long range over the past three seasons. It's not like he's taking good shots either. Almost all his attempts are long, frantic looks from above the witch's nipple. Actually, his lack of corner threes is somewhat shocking.

Only two of Bargnani's 108 threes last season came from the corners. During his final season in Toronto, he attempted just eight corner threes out of 123 long-range attempts. And as Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal noted early last season, Bargs has taken a higher percentage of threes from above the break than any other player in the league since 2011. 

Shortly after the Knicks traded for Bargnani last summer, Herring wrote a foreboding piece, a warning of everything that could (and eventually would) happen with Bargnani in New York. His main point: It's not just that Bargnani takes bad shots. It's that his teams take worse shots when he is on the floor. From Herring's column:

Also overstated is Bargnani's ability to space the floor with his presence. Consider that Toronto's offense got a slightly higher proportion of its shots from efficient areas when Bargnani wasn't on the floor than when he was playing. About 30.3% of the Raptors' attempts came at the rim, and 24.9% were from behind the arc when he was on the sideline, according to NBA.com—up from 28% and 23%, respectively.

That trend continued into his first year in New York. The Knicks actually outscored opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions when Bargnani wasn't on the floor in 2013-14. When he was playing, the team got outscored by 6.2 points per 100. And the Knicks offense went to shambles whenever Il Mago stepped on the hardwood.

New York actually got more looks in the restricted area with Bargnani on the floor, but its field-goal percentage from that spot dropped dramatically from 61.8 percent without him to 55.5 percent with him. That's not a coincidence. Defenses simply aren't afraid to let defenders help off one of the least threatening shooters on the court.

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Isn't that the exact opposite of what a floor spacer is supposed to do? 

Meanwhile, Bargnani's floor presence brought more mid-range shots and fewer threes for the Knicks. In related news, the offense became vastly inefficient. 

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Bargnani's offense doesn't make him unplayable alone. It's the preventative scoring game matched with his troublesome defense. 

He's actually not all that bad one-on-one in the paint, often muscling down low with opposing bigs and even making some low-post scorers uncomfortable in the process. But his off-ball defense can turn him unplayable. He simply doesn't understand how to execute in help, and his sticky shoes uploaded his defensive miscues into some of the most GIF'd clips on the basketball Internet last year.

The optimists will give you one argument for why we'll be witnessing the new and improved Bargnani this season: The Knicks are playing the triangle offense, and Jackson is strumming all the right strings when he talks about his 7-foot Italian.

"He's overlooked," Jackson said of Bargnani during a Knicks summer league contest (h/t to Peter Botte of the New York Daily News). "We think he's going to really do well in the system we have. We have a couple of guards he likes to play with—Jose [Calderon] and Pablo [Prigioni]—and I think he's going to be a surprise and a pleasant one for our fans."

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

That's always encouraging to hear from one of the most brilliant basketball minds in the game's history. But is it true or simply fluff?

The triangle offense may be the most over-talked-about offensive system in the NBA. For some reason, every fan, regardless of diehardism, fixates on Jackson's triangle. But really, it's just a system, no more or less important in name than Gregg Popovich's motion offense or Erik Spoelstra's spread.

USA TODAY Sports

But there's something about the title, the aura that encapsulates us: the triangle. Phil's made it mystic. But all that occultism may not fit Bargs any better than offenses he's played for in the past.

No scheme is going to prefer a big man who hesitates before every pass and posted a 51.0 true shooting percentage against a 22.4 percent usage rate. He doesn't like the corners, a place he may have to venture in the new offense.

It especially won't help the slow-footed Bargnani that he'll be expected to post up and rapidly switch from one side of the court to another if he's going to be a go-to post option (hardly a guarantee with a new regime in New York). 

A lumbering, hesitant, mid-range-happy big doesn't work all too well in those scenarios.

Jackson didn't acquire Bargnani. He inherited him. Same goes for first-year coach Derek Fisher. It's not written in stone Bargs will end up getting the 29.9 minutes a night along with the leash (extension cord included) he received under Mike Woodson.

We're entering Year 9 of Bargnani's career. Veterans of that experience don't tend to transform all that often. Going on 29 years old, he's exactly what we've seen from him in the past. No more. No less.

It would be naive to believe otherwise.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN'TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of August 6 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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