O’Nani ’09

When this season began I had hoped the trio of bigs in Bosh, O’Neal, and Bargnani, could play like a modern day version of the Cackle Sisters. Mary Jane and Carolyn DeZurik performed at the Grand Ole Opry in the 30’s and 40’s. They incorporated bird calls into elaborate yodels that they sang in unison. When Mary Jane called it quits, Carolyn recruited the third DeZurik sister Lorraine and they just kept right on yodeling along. The same plan could have worked out well between the three guys at the 4/5 spots for the Raptors. The hope was to keep the same level of talent on the floor throughout every game, no matter which guy came out.

Unfortunately, the old scratchy recordings of the yodeling big-timers stand out more than anything the Raptors bigs have done this season. The sisters had a band playing behind them and there just hasn’t been much music to back up a good number of performances by all of CB4, JO and il Mago. When there has been a sense of some good rhythms happening though, it has been through the interplay of Bosh and Bargnani in the past month. And that has saved this season from being a complete disaster. At least there is a sense of what can truly be built upon with this team, and a big contract to move in order to fill out the band.

The best part of the story is that this team has a legitimate Center. The guy who insisted he was a 4, and able to play the 3, has found himself looking extremely comfortable at the 5 spot. He still hangs out behind the arc, but he does so much more than that now. He rebounds. He creates space. He offers directions to other players on the defensive end.  Remember when Garbajosa would play a little bit in the middle now and again? Bargnani offers a lot of what was missed when Jorge went down.  The pump-fakes are there. The smart use of angles. The knowing where to be with confidence. And he doesn’t have to play big the way Jorge did – he is big, and now he’s comfortable being big.

Bargnani could be the first verifiable Center with realizable potential on this team since Marcus Camby. There have been guys who were natural power fowards moved into that slot, and certainly some of them had success, but none of them were ever happy about it. Kevin Willis and Hakeem were clearly the real deals, but they were also both older than dirt. Montross was a degree above the average stiff, and he didn’t last long at all. Andrea could be the guy this team relies on for a long time to come.  I think he’s come to realise that.  I noticed him chewing his gum on the bench and offering a bit of an Elvis-type sneer at the end of one of many ugly games about a month ago. Jermaine was ending off the night with another failed post-up, and I thought maybe I could see in Bargnani’s eyes a certain recognition of his chance to make his mark. O’Neal banged up his knee the next game, and Bargnani took off from there.

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And there’s the good thing about the trade for JO if there’s anything to be found: the failure of this team, unlike last year, was not on Andrea’s shoulders at all. It doesn’t matter so much if he drives to the basket and fails to finish. This team has been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and the few sins that Bargnani might commit do not make the difference. But without JO here, that might not be an easy case to make. Certainly last season that kind of mental pressure that came with disappointing results likely hurt him. Now he has been able to seize a sense of his own importance on a team, which is something he clearly needs to gain confidence in himself, and he’s done so without having to bear the pressure that the team’s lack of success can bring. Both of those elements have allowed him to accept his role at the 5 and provide a few bright spots to a sad season. And it’s all thanks to the guy who changed his jersey number from 7 to 6 in a nice gesture to his big teammate upon his arrival. It would have been nice if JO could have solidified a few more changes aside from that number, and the need for a new coach, but at least through all the inability for this team to measure up to its promise, JO’s presence allowed for the big draft pick to measure up to what he was brought here for in his own right.  They tried to take a step forward, took two back instead, but now have a clearer pathway.

Andrea Bargnani still has to get better at finishing at the rim, getting every rebound he can, and adding a few more blocked shots. But the thing I look for in him the most for the rest of the way, is simply to not let up. He needs to show that he can be solid for a full year. This team has too many guys that go through long cold stretches and fall off the map for a month or so. Andrea needs to stay consistent after getting a bit of a pass for a rough stretch following the coaching change and the attempt to shoehorn him into the small forward spot. That probably means the end of O’Nani before O’Nani was ever even revealed. O’Neal needs to move on in order to give Bargnani the last half of the season on his own. And then at least there might be something to forward to next season at least.

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