Last year, in the weeks leading up to the NBA season, I ranked the League’s go-to guys. Using the rationale that even the most balanced team has one identifiable if-all-else-fails leader that they look to in crunch time (see Team USA and Kevin Durant), I picked one player per squad for a final list of 30. Again, ONE PLAYER PER TEAM.
Being a go-to guy isn’t always about who takes the last-second shot. It’s the guy who regularly gets the basketball when things are getting tense in the fourth quarter; the guy expected to calm things down when teammates are getting antsy; the guy called upon to snuff out an opponent’s rally or spark a rally of his own; the guy who’s not just supposed to make shots, but make the right decisions. Bottom line: Who do you want the offense to run through when everything is on the line?
ANDREA BARGNANI, Toronto Raptors
The say the most popular man on any (American) football team is the backup quarterback. That’s because when a team is losing, the starting QB inevitably takes a big share of the blame, while the backup gets a swell of support from frustrated fans who want to see him take over. His pros are hyped up, his cons either ignored or downplayed. (After all, he was named the backup for a reason.) As the logic goes, “Why not give him a shot? It can’t get any worse, right?”
In that sense, Andrea Bargnani is the Doug Flutie of the NBA. Very few No. 1 overall picks are drafted under the guise of not having to be a franchise centerpiece — a luxury to which Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Dwight Howard are unfamiliar — but that was the case for Bargnani in the first four years of his career. As long as Chris Bosh was in Toronto, Bargnani didn’t have to be a superstar. Although he’d been regularly compared to Dirk Nowitzki since he was a teenager coming up in Italy, for the Raptors, he only had to be Mehmet Okur. But as the team continued to exist somewhere between mild success and Lottery failure — and it became more apparent that Bosh wasn’t sticking around long-term — some wanted to see what it would be like with Bargnani in charge.
Last season offered a 12-game sample. In the time that Bosh missed with injuries, Bargnani didn’t definitively prove or disprove anybody’s theory on how good (or mediocre) he can be. In a seven-game stretch beginning in late-February, Bargnani averaged 15.2 points, one bucket less than his overall regular season average. In the final five games of the year — which Bosh missed while the Raptors were trying to win a playoff berth — Bargnani averaged 21.4 points and his team wound up in the Lottery. Toronto’s record in games with Bargnani as The Man was 5-7; the wins coming over the Knicks (twice), Nets, Wizards and Pistons, the losses coming to Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Oklahoma City, Cleveland and Portland.
The highlight of Bargnani’s test drive was a 33-point effort against Detroit in the second-to-last game of the season, a must-win for the Raptors at the time. In that game, Bargnani showed the outside shooting stroke that originally birthed those Dirk comparisons (5-for-7 beyond the arc) and grabbed seven rebounds, but only had one assist. It was a microcosm of what Bargnani should be this year. He will score, he will shoot, he will rebound when he has to, but he won’t be much of a playmaker as far as getting others involved. Bargnani can pass and the Raptors have some athletic offensive players surrounding him, but passing is not his role, especially now that the Raptors need to replace the 24 ppg that Bosh provided.
Perimeter-based seven-footers always leave something to be desired, especially when they’re deemed the go-to guy on a team. As much success as Dirk has had in the League, between his MVP and NBA Finals appearance and deep playoff runs, he still has a lot of critics who get on him for not using his size to score more inside and get easy buckets instead of taking fadeaways from 18 feet.
According to 82games.com’s “clutch time” statistical analysis — compiling numbers from the 4th quarter and overtime, less than five minutes on the clock, neither team ahead by more than five points — Bargnani is about where a second-option on a Lottery team would be. He averaged 24.7 points per 48 minutes of “clutch time” last season, higher than established No. 1’s like Danny Granger, Tim Duncan, Deron Williams and Paul Pierce, but below Corey Maggette, Will Bynum and Andrei Kirilenko. He shot 49 percent from the field, 30 percent from three, and 86 percent at the free-throw line in clutch situations. Over 70 percent of Bargnani’s clutch time baskets were assisted, likely the result of Bosh being double-teamed in the post or getting open spots around the arc via Toronto’s playmakers. Now that he’s The Man, Bargnani will have to learn to produce solo buckets. By comparison, 54 percent of Dirk’s clutch time baskets involved an assist.
So far, the 2006 draft class hasn’t been strong on franchise players. Brandon Roy is the only one who’s been The Man since Day 1, while Rudy Gay is just cementing his role as Memphis’ go-to guy. Going into Year 5, Bargnani’s time is now. As the “backup” in Toronto he was living the relatively stress-free life of a developing talent with potential, but now the spotlight is on. Now he’s taking the snaps and calling the plays. And even the most optimistic Raptors fan has to realize he’s not going to be Tom Brady right away.
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