Grange: Bargnani never had what Raptors needed

Andrea Bargnani had a high fever for several days. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

They were tied together from the beginning.

Andrea Bargnani was Bryan Colangelo’s shining light. The player that could have made him. He could have made a franchise. He could have changed everything.

Now they’re both gone.

Colangelo stepped down from his role as president on Wednesday and perhaps not coincidentally Sunday night Bargnani — the only No.1 pick in Raptors history — was traded to the New York Knicks for spare parts: Marcus Camby, last a Raptor in 1998 and on his very last legs; sharp-shooting role player Steve Novak and three drafts picks: an unprotected Knicks first-rounder in 2016 and second-round picks in 2014 and 2017. The Knicks will also send Quentin Richardson to the Raptors in a sign-and-trade.

The trade won’t be made official until July 10, the conclusion of the moratorium period.

Tellingly, the overwhelming sentiment among Raptors fans was: Thank God he’s [Bargnani] is gone.

From the Toronto perspective what they got back is almost secondary. Novak is a useful three-point shooting role player with three years and $11 million left on his contract. Camby, 39, has two years and $8.5 million left on his deal, although the second year has only $1 million guaranteed.

What matters is Raptors new general manager Masai Ujiri was able to jettison a perceived dead weight and get some potentially useful assets without having to take back a bad contract in return.

That makes it a good deal for the Raptors, but what a fall for Bargnani.

When Colangelo carried a rabbit’s foot to the 2006 NBA draft lottery and it actually worked, the Raptors appeared poised to elevate to a new station, one in keeping with altitude Colangelo had been accustomed to in Phoenix.

The Raptors jumped from fifth to first in the draft order and, though it was thought to be a relatively-weak class, Bargnani was in Colangelo’s mind, a clear-cut No.1. He thought him more physical than Dirk Nowitzki and more athletic and versatile than Pau Gasol; the NBA standards for European bigs.

Even now the mind reels at what Toronto’s recent basketball history would have been like if Bargnani had delivered on that kind of promise.

If all went well, Bargnani could have been the foundation for a new model NBA franchise, one that leveraged Toronto’s geography and culture and made it a truly international basketball club, overcoming any qualms American talent might have about working outside of the U.S. by looking past them and making the whole world the Raptors catchment area.

It didn’t go well, primarily because Bargnani was a franchise talent who lacked the drive to be a franchise player.

Despite already having a full season of top-level European professional basketball under him, Bargnani proved completely overwhelmed as an NBA rookie and his second year was even worse. While he progressed in fits and starts, subsequently it became apparent that he simply didn’t have the will required to improve, lead or be held accountable.

That much was evident when Colangelo signed him to a five-year extension worth $50 million after his third season, the first of Bargnani’s encouraging middle of his Raptors tenure.

Looking back it was Bargnani’s lack of ambition in pursuing that second contract that was the real story. He had a franchise at his feet and the physical tools to be a star and Bargnani was happy to settle.

In retrospect it was vibrant red flag – he didn’t want the job the Raptors needed him to do.

There are all kinds of statistical tricks you can play which demonstrate that Bargnani was indeed in the neighbourhood of an all-star, if not your neighbourhood all-star.

For example: In the past three years, Bargnani is one of just eight NBA players to have a season like his 2010-11 campaign, his Raptors high-water mark, when he averaged 21.4 points and 5.2 rebounds while shooting 44.8 per cent from the floor and 34.5 per cent from the three-point line.

And it’s quite a list, including a who’s who of modern NBA royalty: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love and Amare Stoudemire.

But the catch is that when you run the numbers on and rank them for win shares, Bargnani is dead last on the list, by a margin.

In other words, even his best season, no matter what kind of statistical parameters you set, simply wasn’t all that good.

It says enough of his ability that after seven up-and-down seasons, it’s still not impossible to imagine Bargnani marshalling his skills and being a key contributor on a good Knicks team.

Seeing the big Roman knocking down key triples in the playoffs for the Knicks would be the final indignity for a fan base that waited and waited for him to assert himself and deliver on the promise that made him the No.1 pick. That possibility makes the deal a reasonable gamble for the Knicks, who are the epitome of a win-now team fighting for headlines with the equally short-term thinking Brooklyn Nets.

Bargnani might hold the key but it’s more likely he’ll drop it through a crack in the front step. On the Knicks he’ll be a fourth or fifth option, quite possibly. Falling down the pecking order in Toronto seemed to throw a wet blanket on him rather than light a fire under him. And the idea of the New York spotlight being a spark is also amusing. Bargnani is immune to sparks; it’s not that his skin is thick as much as it might be fire retardant.

Perhaps Bargnani’ s biggest sin in Toronto was that, despite having a virtual green light and a reputation as a deep threat, he shot worse as his career went on. Those that have worked closely with him say it’s simply because he doesn’t really put the time or effort in to staying strong and sharp over the course of a season, or a career.

From a peak of 40.9 per cent from beyond the arc in his third season his efficiency fell off each year since. Over his last 56 games, over two seasons, Bargnani has shot just 30.2 per cent from the three-point line.

There was a perception that he was streaky, except he wasn’t really. In his entire career he had two months when he shot better than 50 per cent from the floor for a full calendar month – just once since February of his rookie season.

And needless to say his defensive passion and rebounding abilities were always well short of what was required.

The Raptors initially tried to coddle Bargnani, bolstering him with the presence of his mentor, Maurizio Gherardini, who discovered him playing for a lower-tier club in Rome as a teenager. They even went so far as to hire his preferred trainer from Italy as the Raptors strength trainer.

Then they tried tough love; firing the trainer and banishing Gherardini to Europe where he seemed to do a pretty good job making sure Jonas Valancuinas was ready to make the transition to the NBA.

In the end, Bargnani was always Bargnani. Always his enigmatic, distant self and never what anyone wanted him to be and never what Colangelo needed him to be.

As a result both are gone, and after seven years the Raptors are in the same place they were before they got here.

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