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Old 12-10-2012, 01:50 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Hollinger: Raptors issues start with Bargs

Andrea Bargnani is a unique player in NBA history. A 7-foot jump shooter with some ball skills and decent quickness, he's a confounding player for both good and bad. Few bigs space the floor like he does, with a quick-trigger line-drive release and a devastating show-and-go move. Still fewer have rebounded this poorly or been as genially permissive at the defensive end. And nobody, ever, has effectively used a jab step move off the wrong foot like this.

The problem is that it's not adding up the way it should, and it's been a major contributor to one of the most fascinating stories in the NBA this season: The amazing ability of the Toronto Raptors to lose in the most gut-wrenching of ways. Whether it's having a dramatic comeback fall just short (Denver), getting jobbed by the refs in the final seconds (Charlotte, arguably San Antonio), snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (too many to recount) or failing to show up at all (such as Friday's withering 131-99 smackdown in Utah), Toronto has been one of the league's biggest disappointments.

In the wake of Sunday's defeat against the Clippers, the Raps are only 4-17 at the 21-game mark, owning the league's second-worst record, this from a team that was hoping to challenge for an Eastern Conference playoff berth.

Partly, this is because they've been unlucky both in terms of schedule and fortune. The Raptors opened with 15 of their first 22 games on the road, but after Monday night's tilt in Portland the schedule turns back in their favor, with 11 of 15 games at home. The Raps have also been unfortunate in the close ones, going 2-9 in games decided by seven points or fewer.

Nonetheless, they've also been flat-out bad by any objective measure. The Torontosauruses have been outscored by 7.0 points per game -- only the ridiculous Wizards have been worse -- and sit just 27th in Monday's Power Rankings. They've lost six times by 15 points or more. They have no NBA small forwards. (OK, that last point exaggerates. A little.)

Toronto's biggest issue has been its stunning regression at the defensive end. A season ago, Raptors coach Dwane Casey got his troops -- which had been 30th the season before -- to rally all the way to 12th in defensive efficiency, despite no major personnel upgrades. Most league observers considered this feat borderline miraculous.

Toronto fans will quickly point to the fact Bargnani missed 35 games, but actually the Raps were pretty solid with him on the floor, too. Subjectively, in fact, last season was perhaps the first time in history that Bargnani looked halfway decent at that end when he was able to play.

But without Bargnani for half the season, and with a few other injuries thrown in, Toronto couldn't score, landing 25th in offensive efficiency and finishing 23-43.

The weird part is that Bargnani is back this season, playing all but one game, but his weaknesses are again outweighing his strengths. A PER of 12.80 just doesn't cut it for a big with little to no defensive value and a severe rebounding allergy, and Casey has earned criticism for leaving him in the game in crunch-time situations despite his struggles and the strong play of Ed Davis and Amir Johnson off the bench.

Bargnani is shooting only 39.9 percent overall and 32.6 percent on 3s; while these percentages are likely to improve (um, they will improve, right?), Bargnani's justification for playing time is as an uber-efficient floor-spacer who makes up for his soft defense and historically awful rebounding by knocking down shot after shot.

Instead he's been something of a Charlie Villanueva clone, and there's not a great need for that kind of player. The Raptors, alas, are paying Bargnani $10 million a season through 2014. With a crowded frontcourt, no first-round pick (most likely) and the potential for $10 million in cap space, we're at the point where the A-word comes into play next summer if things don't pick up. (That's "amnesty," for the uninitiated, which would dump the final two years of his contract so the Raptors could sign somebody else with the cap space.)

But back to the present. As a result of Bargnani's struggles, the Raptors are still a mediocre-to-bad offense (21st in efficiency) despite adding Kyle Lowry and improved production from DeMar DeRozan and Davis.

Meanwhile, the Raps are backsliding on D in a major way, ranking just 27th at this end. The reasoning here is a bit clearer: The frontcourt of Bargnani and rookie center Jonas Valanciunas has simply been eviscerated. Valanciunas is a tremendous prospect who likely will be a top-10 center in a few seasons, but right now his inexperience on defense is magnified by the fact Bargnani offers no help.

Consider that the Bargnani-Valanciunas frontcourt tandem has been shredded for 109.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's advanced stats tool, while playing more than a third of the Raptors' minutes this season.

Consider further that the Davis-Johnson tandem that backs them up has allowed just 98.1 as a unit, which would lead the league in defensive efficiency. As you might expect, the Bargnani-Johnson duo (105.1) falls right in the middle. (Davis-Valanciunas does not, at 109.0, but in just 71 minutes.)

Meanwhile, Johnson and Davis have outplayed their counterparts at the other end, too. In fact they've done so by a wide margin. Johnson's 16.61 PER is completely consistent with his career output, while the 23-year-old Davis has been one of the league's most improved players in the early going at 18.95, but even his numbers from his first two seasons roughly match those of Bargnani and Valanciunas.

In other words, one wonders if the Raptors have chosen pedigree over performance. The prescription from the data is pretty clear: I really like Valanciunas, but giving him a starting gig next to an indifferent defender like Bargnani seems to be too much, too soon. Meanwhile, their loyalty to Bargnani -- a top overall pick that they signed to a generous extension -- has blinded them to Davis' superior play.

If you break down the data, Toronto should probably be starting Johnson and not forcing Valanciunas to drink out of the fire hose like this; instead, he can play his minutes with the second unit and alongside the more defensively committed Davis. Then, in crunch time, Toronto can go offense-defense by alternating Bargnani and Davis, with Johnson as the other big. (Of course, Toronto tried all these combos in the fourth quarter Sunday night and all failed miserably.)

Nonetheless, Toronto has two huge big-picture issues holding it back from building on last season's progress: Bargnani isn't producing anywhere near the level expected from him, and the defense has massively regressed -- partly, but not entirely, because of Bargnani's presence.

This also shows the danger of projecting too far ahead. Casey maxed out Toronto's defense last season, and he deserves all the credit he received for it. But if you buy that the Raptors maxed out, expecting further improvement didn't make much sense, especially with a Bargnani-Valanciunas frontcourt taking most of the minutes instead of the Davis-Johnson and Johnson-Johnson (Amir and James) pairings that were in effect for much of last season.

So it's not all his fault. Not even close. For now, however, Bargnani is the symbol of Toronto's deflated hope -- a lightning rod for bitter Raptors fans who now send me hopeful tweets with their trade ideas (none of which involve Bargnani staying).

But even if his output snaps back to his career norms, the big-picture takeaway doesn't change much. Bargnani is 27 and in his seventh season in the league; you've seen everything you're getting from him. It's a truly unique package, but it's a letdown that it adds up to "serviceable" rather than stardom.

NBA: Toronto Raptors' issues start with Andrea Bargnani - ESPN
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