In 2006, general manager Bryan Colangelo made Andrea Bargnani the first European selected first overall in the NBA draft. From that point, Colangelo's reputation with the Raptors fanbase would be hitched to Bargnani's star.
The Raptors proceeded to make the playoffs, becoming Atlantic division champions and winning a team-best 47 games. Bargnani finished second behind Brandon Roy in Rookie of the Year voting and was arguably the Raptors' most effective player against the Nets in their first-round loss.
That series can perhaps be remembered as the last time Bargnani was actually in favour with the majority of the Raptor fanbase. Ironically, it was also the last time the team was on the upswing.
Every year following Colangelo's miracle first season has seen the team go from bad to worse, and after three consecutive years of missing the playoffs, there remained three holdovers from that 47-win team: Jay Triano, Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon. Now there are just two.
To understand why the fan base has shown so much animosity towards Bargnani, one would have to understand the psychological make-up of the average Raptor fan. This is a fan base that cheered Jerome Williams, Matt Bonner, Charles Oakley and Alvin "Boogie" Williams while booing Vince Carter, Chris Bosh and Tracy McGrady.
So what's the verdict? It seems Toronto likes its scrappy role players. For God's sake, we gave Pops Mensah-Bonsu a standing ovation because he played his butt off for a contract extension for a few games.
It seems at the heart of it, we're still very much a hockey town that has a lot to learn about basketball.
Hustle players like Brian Cardinal for instance are invaluable because of the intangibles they bring, the way they are able to impact the game, but make no mistake—they're just doing what they can to earn a living and stay in the league.
In a league where every seven-footer dreams of handling the ball and shooting from 3, there are actually only two who can do it effectively as first options, and one of them just won an NBA Championship and a Finals MVP.
The difference between Nowitzki and Bargnani, outside of the clear advantage in craftiness, for the former is the latter's seemingly nonchalant attitude on the court. Perhaps the real reason Raptor fans are so frustrated by Bargnani is that they know how much better he is than he's been. Another reason is, I'm not sure anyone knows if he even cares about basketball.
After 2006, many were quick to call Dirk Nowitzki "soft," just as people call Andrea soft today. Having seen him play for eight years now, soft would be one of the last words I would use to describe him. Lazy however may be appropriate in some sense. Disinterested would be another. But the best word to describe Andrea and his first five years in Toronto is clearly enigmatic.
However, when Sam Smith ranks 20 players above him in his center rankings, one has to say enough is enough.
Andrea is a stretch four who compromised his mobility when adding nearly 25 pounds to play out of position next to Chris Bosh in his second season. This, by the way, was the disastrous second season where he fell from grace. In his first season, he was allowed to play behind Nesterovic and Bosh, but when he was thrust into the starting center role next to Bosh, a sub-par defender himself, he became a fouling machine and was clearly a victim of the sophomore slump.
In his third year, the Raptors brought in Jermaine O'Neal, and immediately we saw a dramatically different Andrea, as he once again was allowed to play as a power forward while O'Neal started at center.
After five years, one thing is certain—Andrea Bargnani is not an NBA center. He's also not a very good help-defender, and he will never be a great rebounder largely because he plays on the perimeter and thus his only hope is to become an average to above-average defensive rebounder.
We can however say that unlike Bosh for instance, Andrea has continued to expand his offensive repertoire every season and due to his superior offensive IQ and passing skills, is actually far better suited to being a first option on offense than Bosh was, seeing as he transitioned from life as a second option to life as a first option almost seamlessly.
He's also a very effective post-defender when forced to guard bigger players down low in one-on-one situations while remaining a non-factor in terms of providing help defense.
His lack of willingness to cover for his team's defensive shortcomings is not something we can put purely on him. Bosh was also a terrible help defender and only seemed to improve in Miami and with team USA because of the quality of defenders around him.
Andrea can do the same.
Covering the wide open line drives that guards Jose Calderon and DeMar DeRozan routinely give up without a proper defensive system in place while being the one player who the team relied on to stay on the floor offensively would be a challenging task for any player.
Mark Cuban has spent millions upon millions trying to surround Dirk with perimeter defenders, defensive coaches and traditional centers to make up for Dirk's poor defense. He didn't tell Dirk Nowitzki to become a center and add 30 pounds.
When Dirk Nowitzki remarked that Bargnani was better than he was at 20, he wasn't kidding. The difference is, Dirk Nowitzki wasn't asked to become something he wasn't because his team was trying to fit him around an existing star. They nurtured his strengths and he repaid them with a ring.
One cannot assume that Andrea Bargnani will ever or could ever do the same, but offensively the two are pretty darn similar, and Bargnani is the bigger and more athletic of the two.
It is no wonder that a two-time Executive of the Year refuses to lose faith in him. Sometimes, great things come to those who wait. With the hiring of new head coach Dwayne Casey, the drafting of Jonas Valanciunas—the prototypical center needed to make a Bargnani-centric front court work, it seems Colangelo is still Andrea’s No. 1 fan.
In my humble opinion, Bargnani will silence a lot of his critics this coming season. He has more pride than he lets on, and the negative criticism has probably hit a nerve with him. What sets great players apart is knowing their weaknesses. I think Bargnani would be the first to tell you he has to stop being lazy, but one must wonder, how many players can score 20-plus points and look as disinterested as Bargnani did all season?
His ceiling is still high, and the potential still untapped. I still believe with the proper supporting cast he can become one of the best big men in the game. He's virtually unguardable as he is now—one has to wonder what a motivated player with Bargnani's skillset even looks like.
Well, I guess it looks a lot like the guy who just eliminated the Heat in the finals en route to his first NBA championship.