It may seem like a lot of time has passed since Andrea Bargnani last suited up for the Toronto Raptors. Yet it was actually less than one year ago when new general manager Masai Ujiri made it his first order of business to ship the former first-overall pick out of town.
The deal had been agreed upon more than a week in advance, but it was officially announced on July 10, after the league-wide moratorium on signings and trades had ended.
To the delight of fans and media, a new era of basketball began in Toronto.
The 7’0″ center had become a lightening rod for criticism, to some extent because of the team’s lack of success, but more so because of his apparent unwillingness to commit to the fundamentals of the game — namely, defense and rebounding.
While there is something to be said for a big man who can spread the floor with his 3-point shooting ability, it has less meaning if he has nothing to offer when his shots aren’t falling.
So when Bargnani was finally traded, it was seen as a long overdue move and one that former general manager Bryan Colangelo wasn’t willing or able to make.
By the time Ujiri arrived on the scene, everyone knew that Bargnani’s time was up — there just wasn’t a scenario by which it made sense for him to remain with the Raptors.
Especially considering how fans turned on him by the midpoint of the 2012-13 season.
This isn’t to say that Bargnani is a terrible basketball player. A lot of it had to do with the fact that he was initially sold to fans as being the next Dirk Nowitzki. On top of those lofty expectations was that, to no fault of his own, Bargnani was drafted ahead of players such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, and even Rudy Gay.
A player isn’t necessarily easy to move when his time has run its course, particularly in the case of Bargnani who still had two years and approximately $23 million remaining on his deal.
Had Bargnani been simply bought out or traded for an equally unwanted contract, I would not have complained. Quite frankly, it was time for him to go. That’s what made Ujiri’s handling of the situation all the more impressive.
Camby and Richardson ended up being waived before the start of the 2013-14 campaign and Novak was seen as nothing more than a role player, but that didn’t stop the general perception from being that the trade was an absolute steal.
To say the least, Bargnani was not missed in Toronto this season, nor did he do anything to win over the fans at Madison Square Garden. On that note, the feeling of frustration that boiled over for Knicks’ fans can best be illustrated by this sequence in a game versus the Milwaukee Bucks.
The end result was a double-overtime victory for the Knicks, but the damage to Bargnani’s reputation had been done and what Raptors fans had been struggling with for years became apparent in New York.
Bargnani’s career has been in decline ever since he signed a five-year, $50 million extension, with the exception of the 2010-11 campaign when it first kicked in. That season, Bargnani appeared in 66 games and averaged a career-high 21.6 points along with 5.2 rebounds on 44.8 percent shooting from the field.
He appeared to be picking up where he left off in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season with averages of 21 points and six rebounds, but he was limited to 31 games because of two separate elbow injuries.
Bargnani played in only 35 games for the Raptors in 2013-14, his last season with the team.
The injury bug caught up with him again in his debut campaign with the Knicks, when he suffered what turned out to be a season-ending elbow injury on Jan. 22 after 42 games, 39 of which were starts. At the time, Bargnani was averaging 13.3 points and 5.3 rebounds, while connecting on 44.2 percent of his field goal attempts.
A lot of weight was placed on Bargnani’s shoulders in Toronto from the outset. First, he was tasked with being the complementary piece to help Chris Bosh turn the Raptors into a contender. Then after Bosh fled to the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade agreement, Bargnani was placed under the spotlight as the team’s new centerpiece, a role that neither he nor the fans would ever embrace.
Rather than being a player relied upon to carry the scoring load, Bargnani has long seemed better suited as a third option, perhaps even in a backup role — one that could diminish his shortcomings in other areas of the game.
Aside from the pressure that goes along with the bright lights and big stage, that opportunity appeared to exist with the Knicks. That is until an early-season injury to Tyson Chandler left the team with no better option than to insert Bargnani into the starting lineup where his flaws were once again exposed.
Bargnani will continue to be placed under the microscope in 2014-15, the last year on his contract. Unless he is cut loose, he will be under the watchful eyes of Phil Jackson and a new (yet-to-be-named) head coach. If Bargnani has a desire to play in the NBA beyond next season, then this will be his last chance.
The problem for Bargnani, other than injury woes, is that the expectations for him have always far exceeded his capabilities, or at least his motivation level. That is what led to his exit from Toronto and is also why I never complained about him being moved.
It is the same feeling that Knicks fans will likely have in a year from now.