Here is a fun mental exercise for Canadian basketball fans to fill the dull period between NBA free agency and the start of the Rio Olympics. Answer the following question: If the Raptors never became good, and they traded DeMar DeRozan, how would he be remembered?
Now, obviously, this is a mostly irrelevant question, as DeRozan was one of the five or so men most responsible for the Raptors' turnaround. (The list, with apologies to former general manager Bryan Colangelo: 1) Kyle Lowry; 2) James Dolan; 3) DeRozan; 4) Dwane Casey; 5.) A tie between Masai Ujiri and Dolan, again.) Still, it is an instructive thought exercise, an examination of the power of context and the limits of what one non-superstar can do on his own.
I think, if Dolan consented to a trade that would have brought Lowry to New York, and DeRozan followed him out of Toronto shortly thereafter in a full-scale rebuild authored by Ujiri, DeRozan would have been mostly a franchise footnote, although a well-liked footnote. He would have been thought of as a player who was never quite good enough, never quite what the Raptors needed him to be, but a well-intentioned player who tried to fill unfillable cracks. His legacy would have been that of a less-smiley Jose Calderon: He came, he tried, he was not talented enough, he left. Calderon is one of the most beloved players in Raptors history. There are worse things.
Andrea Bargnani never got the benefit of the doubt in that same way, even if he deserved it sometimes. As he fulfilled his destiny of heading overseas this week, signing with Saski Baskonia in Spain, it is time to ask why.
Maybe it is unprofessional to say this, but as a long-time beat writer covering the Toronto Raptors, I eventually started to resent the prospect of writing about Bargnani. It is not because I disliked him as a person who I had to deal with often—I was largely indifferent to him. (He never seemed very interested in engaging with the media, but neither does Lowry. Bargnani occasionally dropped some matter-of-fact lines that made me laugh. I could not find the precise quote, but I'll never forget asking him, in the run-down locker room at the old Amway Arena, to assess a loss to the Dwight Howard-era Magic. His conclusion: The Magic were good, and the Raptors were bad. Auerbachian insight, that.) It was because as the league evolved in ways that could have theoretically—with Bargnani, it always comes back to theory—meshed with Bargnani's strengths, the forward remained the same, seemingly uninterested in any evolution of his own.
In keeping with the spirit of Bargnani's own frankness, then, the primary reason Bargnani never attained any sort of positive reputation with Raptors fans was that he was bad and not good. And, really, that is true. No matter what the raw statistics said from time to time (for fun, Google "Andrea Bargnani 13-game stretch"), he was a perimeter-oriented big man who was a bad 3-point shooter in the second half of his career, and a horrendous help defender, far outweighing his "Well, actually" ability to play passable man-on-man post defence, which is a fairly low-leverage NBA skill, anyway. There is no scenario, given his production, that he could have left Toronto as anything close to beloved.
Optics did not help, though—although he was certainly responsible for some of that, too. He did not ask to be picked first in a draft without an obvious top pick. (Looking back, not selecting LaMarcus Aldridge because of a questionable fit with incumbent star Chris Bosh and assuming Bargnani would mesh with Bosh was totally unreasonable.) Aldridge or Rudy Gay or maybe even Brandon Roy, even knowing what we know about his ultimate professional fate, would have been better choices for the Raptors. None of those selections were obvious at the time, though.
Certainly, Bargnani did not need The Italian Dirk stuff thrown around by the media. He did not need his general manager and most ardent supporter justifying his contract extension by comparing his statistics to Aldridge, and saying that the Raptors got a $15 million discount on Bargnani despite only giving up a few points and rebounds per game relative to Aldridge—as if all raw statistics are created equal, and defence did not exist.
Bargnani did not need to be on a slow-footed team that accentuated his own weaknesses. Thinking a team that gave heavy minutes to Calderon, Bargnani and Hedo Turkoglu could be even passable defensively was a pipe dream. In both 2009-10 (the Turkoglu year) and 2010-11 (the year after Bosh and Turkoglu both left), the Raptors were the only team in the league to allow more than 110 points per 100 possessions. Bargnani became an avatar of that failure, even if the problem was largely one of roster composition and coaching.
And Bargnani definitely did not need to be sold as a potential all-star after his better-than-usual start to the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. The market had lost patience for him by then, and that only made his last season and a half in Toronto more disappointing. Even Colangelo, who stubbornly defended Bargnani for years and years, had to admit both club and player would be better off with a divorce before the end of his tenure. That he did not recognize it sooner was one of the chief indictments of Colangelo's time in Toronto.
Bargnani always seemed either unwilling or unable to help himself, though. In sports, we often think we know who maximizes their potential and who works the hardest, simply by witnessing their playing styles. The truth is that unless you have unfettered access to all of the players in order to compare them all on a relative scale, you can never really know who is putting in the most time in order to get better, and who is doing so most efficiently.
Bargnani had the somewhat vacant gaze and the I've-got-better-places-to-be quotes, and those things did not help. More than anything, it was his inability to change that damned him. His free throws took a jump in the borderline-unwatchable years sandwiched between Bosh's departure and Lowry's arrival. Other than that, everything was static: the penchant for jumpers, the general awkwardness when a defender crowded him, his complete inattentiveness on defence.
Whenever he was in a shooting slump, Bargnani would say he was not worried about his offence. The implication that he was so naturally gifted at any part of his game that he did not need to fret about it was the wrong message to send for him. It already kind of looked like Bargnani did not give a crap. Even if that was not true (and if I were to bet, I'd say that it was not), he did not need to exude a laissez-faire attitude. Raptors fans would have been delighted if it ever looked like he was worried—about his shot, his team's fate, his next contract, anything.
Perception is at once a facade that can obscure what's true and a very tangible thing. The Raptors sold him first as a star and then as a key player, and Bargnani could not meet those expectations. That was not necessarily his fault. He gave off a distant vibe, as if he was either not aware or concerned with what people thought, but that would not matter if he had produced. He didn't, though. That he did not appear to care only made the Andrea Bargnani Experience more infuriating to fans. He was impossible to make sense of or to crack open. It was, and he was, utterly confounding.