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.

Comments (22)

  1. Curious to know, what stats is he using to get those percentiles?

    Just going off the statistics, does it also show who Bargnani was actually guarding on the defensive end? I would think Amir would always be guarding the better offensive player, whereas Bargnani would guard the weaker offensive player, leading to those perceived “impressive defense numbers”.

    • 1. I don’t think Amir was always given those assignments (i recall it being a rather even spilt but it is impossible to recall a years worth of match ups in my head haha), mainly because Amir, while a great rebounder/hustler, isn’t a superb 1v1 defender (smaller frame/fouls a lot). Also if Casey did indeed recognize this in Bargnani, he would have used him accordingly against those better players (logical guess by me).
      2. If he wasn’t guarding the better players, the lesser players he would be guarding wouldn’t be getting a lot of touches, and wouldn’t be registering in the data (this also depends on how the data was taken)

      Either way, I’ve always thought Bargnani was a solid 1v1 defender, and it makes sense. He has size (strength/length) and mobility, the 2 necessary traits for defending an nba big man. Strength to fight for position and not get backed down/pushed by and length to contest shots. While mobility is used to keep your body between your man and the rim.

      Fingers crossed we see improvements in all the other areas this season

    • Synergy uses points against per 100 possessions in every single one-on-one possibility (in the post, iso, against the pick-and-roll ball handler, the P&R roll man, spot up, etc).

      About thinking “Amir would always be guarding the better offensive player,” that’s actually very far from the truth. Going back to when Bosh was here, Bargs was almost always given the tougher 1on1 defensive assignment, and that has continued with a partnership of Andrea and Amir. Bargs is a horrible help-defender and we all know about his rebounding, but he is a much better 1on1 defender than Amir Johnson is. I don’t think any NBA coach would regularly stick Amir on the better offensive player if Andrea was availabe to do the job.

      • “About thinking “Amir would always be guarding the better offensive player,” that’s actually very far from the truth”

        What??? The last two years, especially, Bargnani certainly was not defending the best offensive big man. Not by a long shot. I know this because it’s something I looked for, mostly because I wanted to see what position Bargnani ended up defending. Even when the best opposing big man was someone who it made more sense for Bargnani to defend (bigger, stronger and back to the basket game), Casey had Amir and Davis defend him most of the time.

        And the thing about Bargnani is he’s actually a good defender when guarding specific types of players in specific situations. He’s actually pretty good at defending bigger, strong, slower back to the basket guys who move north-south. He struggles against quicker players who face the basket, or can handle the ball.

        This is one reason why it made absolutely no sense to me to move him to PF, because his ONLY strength on defense was defending the bigger centers. Making him defend quicker, face up PFs makes him a worse defender.

        The only thing that skews Bargnani’s number is when his man has the ball, the defense is more likely to collapse.

  2. Let’s hope the Val can guard better than Bargs can.

  3. Oh boy – have you opened up a can of worms. And some poeple will never, ever give Andrea on ounce of credit on the defensive end. And he has been the easiest scapegoat for coaches unable to establish an identity
    It started years back when Bosh punked Andrea on the court against Utah, for not grabbing a rebound. Mitchell always wanted an Oakley and contributed greatly to the exaggeration
    of Andrea’s defensive abilities or should I say lack of.

    The author made a valid point the misconception.that Andrea always gets the weaker man.

    And the stats were provided by Synergy, no less.

    A can of worms…. i

    • We’ve had this discussion before, but I have no idea where anyone gets the notion that Bargnani defended the better front court player. I really don’t. It’s not even close to the truth. I remember a while back I went game by game over the previous ten or so and listed who Bargnani defended and every single one of them was the weaker from court player.

      Bargnani’s one-on-one defense is overall adequate. He’s strong in some areas and poor in others. But when you take into consideration his lack of defensive rebounding, his inability to box out consistently and the fact that he’s a poor team defender, it brings his overall defense to an unacceptable level.

      • The “notion” appears to come from fact, and the fact is that Bargnani guarded the better offensive big man most of the time, more than half of the time, however you want to say it. And by my observations, it’s been like that since around 2009, even when Bosh was still here. I’m not going to pretend I’ve gone back and watched hundreds of hours of film, but that’s been my observation over the last few years, and even Moore admits that when he actually DID go back and studied a ton of film, he found the fact was that Andrea did usually guard the better offensive big.

        • sorry where is the ‘fact that Bargnani guarded the better offensive big man most of the time”? It is in no way stated in this article. Rather Matt Moore states he went back and watched the games and he believes Bargnani defended the better player. It is in no way backed up with any information, statistics or interpretation.

          That is NOT fact. That is opinion.

    • Tinman, I definitely understood the size of the worm can this post might open. As you mentioned, many Raps fans just can’t bring themselves to ever give Bargnani credit, even when the stats suggest he deserves it.

      Again, as both Moore and I pointed out, Bargs’ overall defence is obviously brought down by his poor help-D and defensive rebounding, but that doesn’t mean people should try to make up reasons (like pretending he gets a weaker matchup) why a strength in his game (man-D) is actually just a fallacy.

      One of the issues with writing a Bargnani post is that if you dare give him credit for anything, some interpret it as you’re turning a blind eye to all of his short-comings. That’s not the case at all. I’ve written posts in the past railing Bargs for his lack of consistent effort, rebounding, etc., but I’m not going to take what he does well away from him.

      Also, Synergy’s a great resource.

      • and you know I am not saying he doesn’t have weaknesses. My 12 year old son knows to ask me during the first quarter whether Bargnani has his head outta his ass or not.

        Too much of the blame of this team’s poor defence has been placed on Bargnani. Bargnani is now on his third coach, yet the first who seems to have a clue defensively. As this teams D continues to get better, will it be in spite of Andrea?

  4. Interesting post, but not really sure what the point of it is as you’re not going to change anyone’s mind.

    Having a Bargnani discussion is the Raptors equivalent of a bipartisan political argument. I’ll believe what I already believe about his game even though his defense might be a lot better than I give it credit for and the Bargnani sheep will continue to believe that he’s a great offensive player even though he’s an inefficient chucker propped up by a high usage rate on a terrible team.

    Same old, same old.

  5. He’s got some skills on offence but his inefficiency is that he is pretty much an iso scorer and doesn’t do much to get anyone else involved (ie kinda sucks at passing), so when he’s not scoring himself he detracts from the team… But yeah, he’s a decent one on one defender I remember saying this awhile ago.

    All in all i think, in a league where Kris motherfuckin Humphries gets paid 12 mil a year, Andrea @ 10 (if he’s playing well) doesn’t seem that bad.

    Unfortunately Bargnani is in the 0-5th percentile when it comes to pain threshold. So while you can number crunch his effectiveness on offense and his effectiveness on defence… it really means nothing if he’s sitting on the bench with a sore calf.

    • I don’t care how much you don’t like the guy, to say he doesn’t get teammates involved or is a bad passer is just blatantly untrue and ignorant.

  6. So long as the guard gets a clean layup every time, he has no need to feed Bargnani’s man.

    But while Bargnani is a poor defensive player overall thanks to awful rebounding and no help, yeah, he stays between his man and the basket well and challenges shots. He doesn’t have any other defensive skills; he doesn’t challenge for position and he doesn’t contest possession because his hands are really slow.

  7. Oh, that reminds me. One thing that Bargnani has stopped doing is biting on fakes. A really noticeable difference in the recent Bargnani as opposed to 3-4 years ago is that it’s much harder to draw him up than it used to be. It’s another testament to the fact that he really does continue to work on his game, frustratingly slow though his progress is.

  8. is it possible that his really impressive man-to-man stats are partially the product of his lousy help defense? like by not rotating to the driving man, he eliminates the opportunity for the driving man to kick the ball to his man

  9. At his best, there’s no doubt that Bargnani is one of the best one-on-one defenders of big men in the league. We’ve seen him do some really impressive defense on Dwight Howard more than once.

    But that’s not the issue. As the original article says, Bargnani has been a net negative. Basketball is not a one-on-one game, it is five-on-five, and Toronto’s five with AB is almost always much more terrible than they are without him.

    Is Bargnani bad at help defense because he’s so focused on one-on-one defense? I doubt it. I think he is just slow and has shitty basketball IQ. Man-to-man is much easier to focus on. But that’s one reason I don’t like AB playing his “natural” position at PF … at least at C, he can be okay defending his man. Defending PFs is just ugly.

  10. Its nice to see someone prove, what my own eyes have been telling me for years. Bargnani is a really good post defender, one of the best in the league. He’s an okay face up one on one defender. He hedges the pick and roll really well. He’s just really bad at help defense.

    The point I’ll argue with you on Joseph is this, “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 consistent”. He does lack those talents, he doesn’t have great lateral quickness or elevation to be good help defender. He does have the strength and defensive fundamentals to be a great post defender.

    I don’t know if this is better or worse. If it was just lack of focus/commitment then its something he could improve. Andrea can get better, but I don’t think the athletic gifts he has will even allow him to become an average help defender. Still I’m tired of people blaming the effort when they should be blaming the body.

    • I don’t know – on the one hand that’s true, on the other hand many 7 foot bigs in the league are similarly limited, but not nearly as bad as Bargs on help defence. Rasho, anyone?

  11. I think most of Bargs’ harshest critics, and I’ve been one of them, have long acknowledged that he is a pretty good man-to-man defender, particularly in the post. It’s good to have numbers backing it up. That said, Moore confirms that he’s been a terrible help defender and rebounder, but the one thing he does say to defend Bargs is that given the historical terrible D of many of his teammates (Jose and DeMar, for example, as Moore points out), you can argue that Bargs is being forced to do more than some other big men on other teams, and/or is being made to look worse. That is a fair point, even if it doesn’t excuse Bargs’ poor defensive instincts. Lowry and Fields should help, JV will eventually (hopefully), and if DeMar doesn’t take the next step, Ross will be there to take his spot.

    I can’t invest any more hope in the guy, but Bargs definitely looked much better on pick and roll defence to start last season. Generally, I thought he was moving with more purpose and intensity during that time. I can’t quantify that, but to me it looked pretty obvious. Casey seems to think he can bring out more in Bargs and make that effort more consistent. We’ll see.

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