Raptors' future relies on Bargnani
Andrea Bargnani is potential insurance for the Raptors if Chris Bosh leaves
Bargnani, the No. 1 draft pick in 2006, has shown marked improvement down low
But Bargnani's continued improvement is key for Toronto, with or without Bosh
Andrea Bargnani is no replacement for Chris Bosh. Instead, he is 7 feet of potential insurance that enables the Toronto Raptors to maintain hope should Bosh leave this summer as a free agent, if not next month in an unlikely midseason trade.
"The kid is taking strides in the right direction," Raptors president Bryan Colangelo said. "But he needs to get to the point where he's 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds]. That's the complete product. Now, is it going to be 23 and 8, 24 and 7, whatever? He's far from complete, but he's proven he belongs here."
Bargnani is averaging 17.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and a team-leading 1.4 blocks in his fourth season since Toronto made him the No. 1 pick in 2006. The best players from that draft include No. 6 pick Brandon Roy (a two-time All-Star for Portland), No. 21 Rajon Rondo (NBA champion with Boston in 2007-08 and a likely All-Star this year), No. 8 Rudy Gay (20.4 points per game for Memphis) and No. 2 LaMarcus Aldridge (averaging 15.9 points and 7.9 rebounds for Portland). Bargnani belongs among the latter players in that group, with an understanding that his stock may rise as his role escalates in the years ahead. Last summer, the Raptors extended Bargnani through 2014-15 with a five-year deal worth $50 million, nearly $15 million less than the Blazers' extension for Aldridge.
Colangelo insists he isn't pursuing midseason trades for Bosh in hopes of re-signing him this summer. Should Bosh stay, it will be a strong signal of his faith in a long-term frontcourt relationship with the 24-year-old Bargnani. "They're fluid players who are both capable of playing the '4' and the '5' positions," Colangelo said. "It's a nice mix."
Many rival team executives are predicting that Bosh will move to Miami or another contender because the Raptors are a game under .500 with a capped-out roster. But it's also fair to speculate that the ever-aggressive Colangelo may seek to balance his rotation after overhauling it last summer. One potential move would be to trade point guard Jose Calderon (making a reasonable $8.2 million with three years remaining) in order to put the ball in the hands of Hedo Turkoglu, which would make better sense of Toronto's $53 million offseason investment in him. Could that kind of deadline deal improve the Raptors over the second half and persuade Bosh to stay?
If Bosh decides he is going to leave Toronto, then the next option would be to pursue sign-and-trades for him while anticipating a larger role for Bargnani. Since the second half of last season, Bargnani has been improving a low-post game that was nonexistent when he was drafted out of Benetton Treviso of the Italian league.
"Every time he would set a screen, teams would switch and put a little guy on him, and he still had a difficult time finding his way down in the block, and he'd get frustrated and push the guy off trying to finish," Raptors coach Jay Triano said. "That was the part of his game that he wanted to improve on, and it has helped us."
Bargnani has been working with assistants Marc Iavaroni and Alex English on his post moves. "It was something completely new for me because, in Europe, I was just playing outside," Bargnani said. "I feel better with the right hand, of course, so I just do a couple of dribbles with the right hand and see what [the defender] does. I prefer to go for the hook to the middle, and if he blocks [the path], I try to shoot it. I always do one, two or three bounces to see the situation; I don't do something right away now."
Notice that Bargnani didn't mention the option of passing out of the post. "It's not very good now," he said of his playmaking from the block. "I'm just starting to be a little bit comfortable, so once I start into the move, I don't see much [of the surrounding floor] when I dribble."
In all matters, the Raptors are asking him to show patience, to assess his next move and then execute it aggressively. "His greatest strength is his ability to get guys off balance, because they have to honor his shot so they're going to come out at him," Colangelo said. "I've told him, Just study Dirk Nowitzki. You don't want to be compared to him, that's fine. But study just how slowly he goes about things. He's very calm, he's always under control. He gets guys up then he puts the ball down. His first year, [Bargnani] was faking and not accomplishing anything with his fakes. He's got to be more patient. Take guys up, put the ball down, and then maybe pass."
Bargnani was a gifted shot-blocker in Italy and believes he should be doing better in that area. "If you try to go every time, you get better," he said, laughing before criticizing himself. "If you're lazy, you don't go. I'm tall, I've got good timing for the blocked shot. It depends on me, if I'm active or if I'm lazy."
The Raptors like to hear Bargnani holding himself to higher standards, rather than being satisfied with the improvement he has shown already. After becoming a starter last season, Bargnani averaged 19.0 points from January on.
"His three-pointers are effortless the way he shoots it, and so you'd better be close to him," Triano said. "He helps Chris Bosh a lot because he drags a big guy away from the basket. They have to put a smaller quicker guy on Andrea, so '4s' will guard him, and that means Chris has a bigger guy and can use his quickness to get to the free-throw line. They complement each other very well."
If Bosh should leave, then Bargnani would receive more touches and shots, in addition to more defensive attention. But his ability to start at center or power forward would give the Raptors flexibility to seek a replacement at either position for Bosh, should they be faced with that conclusion.
I didn't ask Bargnani about his future without Bosh. But it's clear that he has grown used to high expectations, dating back to his final year in Treviso, when he was a 20-year-old averaging 15.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.8 steals for the Italian league champion.
"Every game, every practice, I had the NBA scouts coming and you didn't know what was going to happen, if I was going to come to the NBA," he said. "Two years before the draft, I didn't even know what the draft was."
Now he understands fully what is expected, and he isn't shying away from those demands. "He's got great confidence in himself, that's not the issue," Colangelo said. "He's got to become more of a complete player."
The franchise is counting on him -- whatever Bosh decides.