Ball Don't Lie - NBA

So this is where Andrea Bargnani came to hide. 

Restless, but apparently far from unnerved at the idea of going from Toronto's second-to-fifth option on offense, all within the span of a quarter. Seeing his minutes stay about the same while his shot attempts fluctuate wildly, noting how play after play might be called for the ball to come his way during one stretch, mitigated by his role as a taller Jason Kapono during most other stretches. This can't be what Bargnani; and, more importantly, Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo had in mind.

On the other hand, things are working in Toronto. The ball is moving, players are happy, wins are piling up, the team is on pace for 47 wins, and the Raps are comfortably ensconced in the East's fifth seed.

Left for dead upon Colangelo's hiring as GM this time two years ago, coach Sam Mitchell has Toronto playing some of the league's most efficient offensive basketball, and he's created an above-average (11th) defensive team in spite of a roster that suggests otherwise. Mitchell's pass-happy half-court offense (the Raptors average only 88 possessions per game, 27th in the NBA) consistently leaves opposing defenses a half-step short as they race out to try to cover the dead-eye shooter that is spotting up some 25 feet from the hoop.

But why, way more than we're seeing right now, can't that shooter be Bargnani? Or, more specifically, why can't Bargnani consistently find a way to offer steady production within Mitchell's (working) offense? Bargs is averaging 9.1 shots per game (down from 9.6 last season), but he only hit double-figure shot attempts eight times during December and January. February's been his best month (about 14 points and four rebounds in 29 minutes), but he only managed to make one shot last night in five attempts

And it's the "five" that is more troubling than the "one in five."

This isn't an "I told you so"-post. First off, I didn't tell anyone, so, there's that. And there's no point in hemming and hawing over who Colangelo should have taken with the first pick in the 2006 Draft. The way I see it, Bargs still has a chance (a great chance, actually) to be the best player from that lot when all is said and shot. If you have a chance to grab the next Dirk Nowitzki, you take advantage. 

But this is troubling: 

Dirk Nowitzki, age 22, per 36 minutes: 20.6 points on 47.4 percent shooting, 8.7 boards, 1.8 turnovers, 1.2 blocks.

Andrea Bargnani, age 22, per 36 minutes: 15.2 points on 39.1 percent shooting, 5.5 boards, 1.9 turnovers, .7 blocks.

(I don't want to hear any tripe about Dirk having Steve Nash help him toward those stats. Dirk's a one-on-one player, and it's no coincidence that the best years of his career came in the seasons following Nash's departure. And on a per-minute basis, Jose Calderon is actually having a better year than Nash did in 2000-01.)

So where does the issue lie? Is Bargnani just a victim of Toronto's rapid ascension? Drafted to be a savior, but surprisingly pressed into duty as just another good part of a pretty good team? Is it Bargs' fault for not working his way toward the ball more often, or should Sam Mitchell try to involve his starting centre more often?

Andrea's play, even when he gets the ball, can be disturbing at times. He has good footwork in the post, but doesn't square his body well enough when trying to get off a jump hook in the lane or a turnaround jumper on the baseline. The man is still trying to use his arms and arms alone to aim the ball into the hoop. That's not how it works in the NBA, where the defenders are long and active and know exactly where you're going. 

Worse, he seems way too content to fire those uncontested, way-the-hell-out-there jumpers. Bargs, there's a reason why you're open: teams want you to take that shot. If you make 35 percent of those looks, great; that's just enough to make you feel like you can hit the next one, while the opposing team's coach tries not to giggle with glee. It's called a rocker-step, mate. Show the ball and take it to the rim. Or, at least, the free throw line.  

A lot of these issues can be argued away after looking at Toronto's roster, the team's record, and the fact that Bargs is just one piece among many. But so was Dirk: he had Nash and Mike Finley scoring alongside him, and the 2001 Mavs made the second round of the playoffs, so it isn't as if the 22 year-old Nowitzki was allowed to chuck all night for a team that needed him to develop. He was one part among many, as well.

I feel like we're missing out on what could be a ten-time All-Star, mainly because Bargs is given every excuse to float because of Toronto's record and the team's awesome offense. It shouldn't have to be this way. He shouldn't be molded into this role, this early, because these things stick. Sometimes a Tim Thomas results. That's unacceptable. I grimaced just writing it.

So let's pay more attention, and let's drive the pressure up. The win is what matters, make no mistake, but that doesn't excuse ambivalence. Andrea Bargnani's got to pick it up.

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