The Andrea Bargnani trade was at the center of the Knicks’ offseason hoopla, dividing the fan base into two armies at war. Basically, like any other Knicks transaction outside the Chris Smith signing. With the 2013-14 NBA season upon us, it’s no longer worth our time to debate the ins and outs of the deal itself. Bargs is here and Mike Woodson and crew have turned to figuring out how to best implement him as the season grinds on. The team’s seven exhibition games might not be the best wellspring for basketball analysis, but — save for last night’s not so sterling regular season debut — it’s all we’ve got at this point. So let’s see what Bargnani has shown he can offer this basketball club.
1.) Despite the putrid percentages — 38% from the field and 20% from downtown — Bargnani was weirdly efficient on the offensive end, finishing with 79 points on 63 attempts. Not outstanding by any means, but worth noting in accordance with his unimpressive shooting. The reason for this disparity was his ability to draw fouls; Bargnani’s free throw attempts equaled just about half of his field goal attempts — 31 to 63 — and he stroked it from the charity stripe to the tune of 90%. The Knicks’ efficient offense was their bread and butter last season, but most of that was due to their nightly three-point barrages. Per-48 minutes (and pace adjusted), the Knicks ranked 18th in the NBA last season in free throw attempts, the most efficient basketball shot there is. Even in a 7th or 8th man role Bargnani can boost this ranking and with it the Knicks’ ORTG, even if his troubling shooting percentages transition over to the regular season.
But here’s the kicker: his shooting will almost certainly improve. Bargnani’s 38% clip from the field was a mark he met just once in his career and his 20% shooting from long range was a depth Bargs has yet to slip to for an entire season. Both of these percentages can also be seen as a product of his newness to the Knicks’ offensive system, as well as his conditioning struggles (we’ll get to that in a second).
2.) The biggest gripe with Bargnani for most, myself included, is his underwhelming defensive presence. Bargs is commonly understood as a defensive liability, but he’ll have to do a not-absolutely-dreadful job in order to justify his spot in the rotation. From what we’ve seen so far, Bargnani’s biggest issue isn’t knowing where to be (except on the pick-and-roll at times), but getting there.
Bargnani’s conditioning is at a low point — he’ll be the first to admit it — because of his recent bout with pneumonia that left him bedridden for a month. Logic has it that, once he gets back to game shape, Bargs won’t be as big of a defensive deficiency as many fear. When he manages to get to his spot in time, Bargs seldom tries to do too much — hands straight up, jump vertically. Is he our best option as a second line of defense? No. But once the bounce in his step inevitably returns, even if it’s not to this extent, it’s safe to say Bargnani shouldn’t be a total turnstile.
Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal hopped on TheKnicksWall’s podcast (which you should definitely listen to, link here) and shared similar views: “[Bargnani’s] not a terrible defender, the way a lot of people make him out to be.” On the podcast Herring also noted the team’s Defensive Rating with Bargnani on the floor with Tyson Chandler being at around 103 in 75 minutes of action, “a little bit better than the middle of the pack.”
1.) In theory, Bargnani should force defenses to collapse, thus playing right into the Knicks’ schemes in opening up looks from downtown. However, Bargnani does one thing in particular that hampers this idea. Worse, I’m not sure it can be remedied: Bargnani has a difficult time seeing the open man once he decides to look for his shot. This is a real thing, and it’s alarming.
Some of those attempts were legit good tries; one led to free throws, and another to a bucket. However, an open corner three is the better shot in most of these situations, and Bargnani hasn’t shown the ability (or interest?) in passing out of a drive. Perhaps it’s a lack of peripheral vision or ability to make quick decisions, but either way it’s probably not a repairable problem unless Bargs begins to recognize it as such.
2.) Speaking of offensive spacing, Bargnani doesn’t actually offer much of that. This is troubling because, well, it was his biggest selling point as soon as the trade went down. “He can pull bigs like Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert out of the paint!” Etc. Problem is, he hasn’t really done that thus far. Disregard his disappointing three-point percentage — that isn’t the issue. The problem is Bargnani’s positioning on the floor. Without the ball in his hands, Bargnani roams around the mid-range and one-step-inside-the-arc areas.
These are the worst spots for catch-and-shoot jumpers, for the simple reason that they’re the least efficient shots in basketball, period. A couple steps backwards and Bargnani would be dialing up a much better shot, and — more importantly — really be pulling bigs out of the paint. Smart NBA defenses nowadays go out of their way to force long twos, and Bargnani not learning to stay behind the three-point line would be doing more harm to the Knicks than the actual defense. Bargnani attempted more mid-range shots than threes throughout the preseason, which should be a red flag to the coaching staff. The upside is that this is a matter of Bargnani buying in to the offense. You’ll see Bargs start off possessions trying to glue himself to the deep ball but wander off later on, so one could guess the coaching staff has stressed this necessary — and critical — adjustment.
3.) His rebounding has been pretty bad — less than five boards per-36 minutes during the pre-season. No surprise here, really. Iman Shumpert grabbed more total boards in less total minutes. Moving on.
4.) Bargnani’s potential rotation spot is a lose-lose. This is probably the most disheartening conclusion I’ve drawn up watching him during the preseason. The only way the Knicks can pass of playing Bargnani 20+ minutes is if they are spent alongside Tyson Chandler or Kenyon Martin.
Last night notwithstanding for the moment, consider this: Through six preseason games, the Knicks gave up an excruciating 124.6 points per 100 possessions, according to STATS (hat tip to Chris Herring) with Bargnani on the floor without Chandler. That number speaks for itself and is inescapable unless Bargs is playing with a rim protector.
As a starter, Bargnani would spend the majority — if not all — of his minutes with Tyson Chandler, thus resolving the problem. However most would agree this probably isn’t the best direction to go, why with Melo-at-the-four being the Knicks’ backbone. Bargnani is best suited for the bench, but the only way he doesn’t cost the Knicks a tidal wave of easy scores is if he plays alongside Kenyon Martin. Only Martin will likely sit out a good chunk of games, due to a strategy that would involving swapping his minutes with Stoudemire’s every other game:
#Knicks coach Mike Woodson says he’s “really considering” alternating Amar’e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin on a game-to-game basis.
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) October 26, 2013
In Bargnani the Knicks certainly have a talent. But utilizing him correctly and getting him to what’s best for the team will likely remain issues for months — if not longer. There isn’t a lot to work with as far as detailing where he fits in best, but if Mike Woodson can find Bargnani’s niche on this team come postseason time, maybe the guessing and experimentation will have been worth it.