In the never ending debate about who or what Andrea Bargnani is as an NBAer, his defensive presence, or rather his perceived lack of a defensive presence, is often one of the starting points.
I began noticing an improvement in Bargnani’s defensive game during the second half of his third NBA season (the 2009 portion of the 2008-09 season), and for the most part, that defence has slowly continued to improve since then.
I never saw him as being worth a lick as a help-defender, but it was becoming obvious to me and others that at the very least, Bargs was evolving into an underrated one-on-one defender, if not a solid one. While Chris Bosh was getting praise for taking on more of a defensive role to help the U.S. capture Olympic gold in 2008, Bargnani might have been out-performing him on the defensive end in Toronto (Before you go apeshit on me, no, I am not suggesting Bargnani is better than Bosh, just that he was probably always a better one-on-one defender than Bosh was).
But even those of us who could see Bargnani’s defensive improvements couldn’t have expected this:
On Friday, well known NBA web writer Matt Moore dug into the statistics to write one of the better and more in-depth Bargnani pieces you’ll find. What Moore found in stats provided by Synergy Sports is that Andrea ranked in the 88th percentile in post defence, the 56th percentile in isolation defence and a mind blowing rank in the 95th percentile in overall man-to-man defence this past season.
Let that sink in for a moment.
What the Synergy stats don’t take into account is the very downfall of Bargnani’s defence, and that’s his absolute bewilderment when it comes to the concept of help-defence (Synergy’s defensive measure takes into account the man a player defends from possession to possession, but doesn’t take into account the fact that a player failed to rotate properly to cover a player who has blown by one of his teammates. If that now unmarked player scores, the onus falls on the player that was initially guarding the scorer, which is the player that was blown by).
Moore, though, does go into Bargnani’s help struggles in his fair assessment, which includes the observation that Bargs might almost be too locked in to his initial defensive assignment of guarding his own man.
You would hope that with Kyle Lowry replacing Jose Calderon as the defender at the point of attack, and with Landry Fields’ solid perimeter defence added to the starting lineup, Bargnani should have less to worry about when it comes to bailing out defensively helpless teammates. To his credit, Andrea was making a conscious effort to bust his ass on rotations in that 13-game sample of solid play last season. But having said that, he was having to bust his ass because he often didn’t pick up on the developing play until it was nearly too late.
(Random sidenote: Maybe Bargnani’s just not a multi-tasker and needs to be focused on one thing (his own man) at a time. Maybe he’s one of those guys on the subway that has to take his ear buds/music out of his ears before he starts reading anything. There’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes if I’m really tired on the morning commute, I can’t do both at the same time either. But you can obviously see how that lack of multi-tasking ability might make it difficult to be a good help-defender in the NBA.)
Anyway, moving on…
Bargnani can never be a complete defensive player without a presence on the defensive boards. I’ve never been hung up on Bargs’ poor offensive rebounding numbers, because part of his increasingly effective offensive game involves him playing away from the basket half of the time, but there will never be a valid excuse to pardon a seven-footer for averaging less than five defensive rebounds in 33 minutes per game.
His consistently improving one-on-one defence and his apparently excellent post defence are great things to see if you’re a Raptors fan, but unless Bargnani can show a general understanding of help-defence without hurting himself and until he becomes at least an average defensive rebounding big man, he’ll never be able to shake the stigma of being a defensive liability, regardless of those impressive man-to-man stats.
Perhaps that’s the most frustrating part for fans who have lost patience with Bargnani over time. For years, people just assumed that he was defensively incapable and that he probably couldn’t do anything about it. What Moore’s excellent analysis tells us is that Andrea actually possesses the necessary fundamental skills to be a good defender in the most natural form (one-on-one), which only further convinces me of what I’ve always believed about Bargnani.
It’s not that he can’t do certain things on the floor because of a lack of specific basketball talents, it’s that he lacks the focus and/or commitment required to do some of those things consistently.
Desperate Raptors fans like myself secretly (hopelessly) hold some thin shred of hope that Dwane Casey is the man who can finally unlock everything that’s inside of the seven-foot Italian, and perhaps statistics like the ones Moore studied are the reason Casey seemed to have a confusing amount of faith in Bargnani heading into last season, but one has to wonder how long even Casey can wait.
I didn’t think it was possible, but the enigmatic Bargnani conundrum may have just gotten even more confusing. Thanks a lot, Matt Moore.