Raptors: A Playoff Team With Bargnani?
In a season that many NBA franchises may remember more for injuries than the results on the court, it becomes easy to speculate just how much better things might have gone if certain players could have played the entire season. How many more games could the Bulls have won with a healthy Derrick Rose? What would the Hawks season have looked like with Al Horford available? Could the Knicks have passed Boston for first in the Atlantic if Jeremy Lin’s knee had not given out?
Established teams with enough experience and depth still made the playoffs despite their injuries, but rebuilding teams often see their season collapse with the loss of just one key player. In Minnesota, the Timberwolves fell immediately out of the playoff race without Ricky Rubio, and in Toronto, the Raptors found out they had only one go-to-guy in January without Andrea Bargnani.
“We saw a different Andrea at the beginning of this season,” said Jose Calderon. “The Andrea we saw at the beginning is the Andrea who is going to be here next year and the Andrea we need to keep growing. He grew up in almost every aspect of the game. He made things easier for us to play out there. He gave us a lot of space.”
In his first 13 games, Bargnani was averaging a career best 23.5 points on 47.6 percent shooting and had four 30 point games, but it was his defense that caught everyone by surprise.
“We started work on the defense since day one and if you work in the gym all day and that’s all you are working on, you are going to get better,” said Bargnani. “If you dedicate yourself to it and work on it every day, you are going to get better.”
Bargnani did dedicate himself to improving his defense and finished the season with a career best defensive rating of 106 points allowed per 100 possessions, a nine point improvement from the previous year. Most of the credit for the change rests solidly on the shoulders of new head coach Dwane Casey.
“He allowed me to coach him as hard as any star player would allow myself and my coaching staff to coach them,” said Casey. “I know Coach Messina (in Italy) coached him hard as a young kid and he responds to accountability and being on him and I was on him as hard as anybody else. In a respectful way, but when he made a mistake, he knew about it. There were specific rules and a system and I think that’s important to certain players. They want to know exactly what their job is on the defensive end and I don’t think there was a player on this team who didn’t know what their job was on the defensive end.”
Not unexpectedly, the Raptors were inconsistent early-on learning Coach Casey’s new defensive system, but aside from Bargnani, Toronto’s historically reliable offensive production was anything but consistent. The Raptors’ other face-of-the-franchise DeMar DeRozan was off to a terrible start averaging 14.1 points on 36.7 percent shooting in January.
After a 4-7 start with Bargnani, the Raptors went on a six game slide while their best player was side-lined for two weeks with his first injury of the season.
“It was extremely frustrating for me,” said Bargnani. “The worst part is there is not much you can do about it. It happened at the wrong time, two times. There is not much I can say.”
Bargnani had suffered a minor muscle tear in his thigh that the training staff determined had fully healed at the end of January, and on his return, he had his two best games of the season. Back-to-back on the road, Bargnani played 82 minutes to put up 36 points against the Suns and 25 on the Jazz in two unexpected victories, cementing his reputation as having taken the next step in his development in the minds of the Raptors’ coaches and management.
“Pre-injury he was rolling. He was playing like an All-Star,” said Casey. “Offensively and defensively, he was a great surprise to me at the beginning of the year.”
The rebuilding Raptors had a record of 6-7 with Bargnani.
When Bargnani returned after six weeks for the second time, his conditioning was gone and his shot wasn’t falling and in this condensed lockout shortened season, there were few opportunities to practice or work one’s way back into shape. In any case, the now 13-26 Raptors had conceded any playoff hopes and were planning for the draft lottery. Aside from continuing to work on Coach Casey’s defensive schemes, there wasn’t much left for Bargnani or the Raptors to accomplish for the remainder of the season.
“Andrea being out has been a huge blow to our offensive progress,” said Casey. “The main thing I look at is our improvement defensively. I am really happy, that’s further along than I thought. I thought it was going to be a year long process. I thought we would be further along offensively but defensively we are much further down the road than I thought we would be.”
The opportunity for the Raptors to exceed expectations was lost when Bargnani was injured and even DeRozan’s rediscovery of his offensive game in February was not going to be enough to change things. The sample size of the new Bargnani’s game was enough however to speculate about what might have been and what could be in the future.
“Andrea has a gift that you can’t teach,” said Casey. “He is seven foot. He has a wingspan that can cover the lane. He can shot the three, a post-up game, a great passer, so he has a package that you can’t teach. The one thing that proved to me was his defensive mentality. He knows. I have to tap him on the shoulder every once in a while to keep reminding him how important the defensive end was as you do most great players, most offensive-minded players, but Andrea is a talent in the NBA that you can’t teach what he brings to the table.”
“I played at a level that I never performed at before so I am very happy about that and I have to keep that level next year,” said Bargnani. “That’s where I want to play and I want to do even more so I have to keep getting better on defense and offense.
“I played much better defense that’s for sure and I kept getting better on the offensive end. I proved I can play at the level so that’s what I expect from myself next year.”
In a weak Eastern Conference where it looked like the bottom three playoff teams were trying to avoid making the post season over the final month of the season, maybe the Raptors would have had a shot at eighth. It certainly didn’t look like anyone would have stepped up to stop a concerted effort and many of the Raptors losses came at the end of games when Bargnani’s offense could have made the difference. While they can’t go back, with a few changes next season, the Raptors plan on following a healthy Bargnani into the playoffs.