After seasons of debate over the value and upside of Andrea Bargnani, RaptorsHQ takes its deepest dive yet on the subject and brings in some SB Nation associates to help get to the bottom of the mystery of Il Mago...
Nothing gets Raptors' fans more up in arms than Andrea Bargnani.
Not Hedo Turkoglu.
Not Jay Triano.
Not Bryan Colangelo.
Maybe not even Vince Carter.
He's the single most polarizing subject on the site; it's a guarantee that any article that touches on his performance, past, present or future, touches off a firestorm of discussion on both sides of the fence.
Two Sundays ago, I wrote about the Phoenix Suns, and how they might be a good example of a team the Raptors want to emulate next year in any "re-stocking" attempts. As part of that discussion, I compared Andrea Bargnani to Channing Frye as statistically, both had extremely similar seasons. This again set forth a tsunami of discussion, dividing our readership between those who felt Bargnani was indeed not much different than Frye, and those who believed the statistics didn't tell the whole story; Bargs was still a much superior talent.
The whole discussion got me thinking; have I and others at the HQ indeed been too hard on Bargs? Sure the big 7-footer has failed to live up to his first overall draft hype, and is hardly a defensive presence, but are there indeed mitigating factors? On a team of average to above average defenders where he would be the focus on offence, could he take his game to another level?
I decided therefore to poll SB Nation's crack team of basketball bloggers to get their take on things, starting with the following question:
Hey folks - I posted an article on RaptorsHQ about the Raptors looking to the Suns' as a blueprint for how to bring in pieces that fit, and in the process, a debate broke out regarding Andrea Bargnani vs Channing Frye. Looking at their numbers per 36 minutes last season, there really was very little difference, and in fact, Frye had a better "wins produced" score.
At times I think as fans of a team we get a bit jaded about particular players so I wanted to poll our basketball bloggers:
If given the choice, who would you rather have on your team, Andrea Bargnani or Channing Frye...or, does it even matter because you consider them to be eseentially the same player.
Here were the answers:
Steve Perrin, Clips Nation: Bargnani.... but you're point is well taken. Still, one can't help but think that Frye was in the perfect place this season, and that he can't play much better, while Bargnani still has a lot of headroom. I'd like to see Bargnani rebound more, as I'm sure you would as well.
Tom Lewis, Indy Cornrows: Bargnani. I agree with Steve on the headroom difference. I noticed improvement from Bargnani this year so I'm assuming he'll continue developing his game.
David Arnott, Rufus on Fire: Gimme Bargs. Dude's been better for longer, and one season with a slight edge to Frye, in which he was in the perfect situation with guys helping cover defensive deficiencies, doesn't change that.
Andrew Sharp, Editor, SB Nation: I'd take Frye. You're paying for Barg's "headroom" with that $50 million extension... And he's still bad enough on defense to cost you some games, but not good enough on offense to win you some games. Given what he makes and where he was drafted, he'll play a bigger role than Frye going forward, but if I'm looking for a 7-footer to stretch the court, I'd rather have the guy that makes 1/4 of his salary and provides 3/4 of his production.
Franchise, RaptorsHQ: I think that's my major issue, the contract, as productivity wise, I just don't feel there's a huge difference between the two right now, yet one is being paid as if there is.
Seth Pollack, Bright Side of the Sun: If money is no object, Bargnani simply b/c he can put the ball on the deck and score in more ways. Frye does have some upside in that area (still pretty young) and don't count out Channing's defense and rebounding which aren't always there but he's shown flashes. Not to mention he punched Earl Watson in the back of the head and leads the Suns in post-season Flagrant Fouls (2).
Mike Prada, Bullets Forever: Frye was total crap before this year, so I'd take Bargnani. I'm pretty sure Frye would have continued to be crap in Toronto. Phoenix was the perfect place for him.
The real issue in Toronto is that they're asking Bargnani to simultaneously be the guy who stretches the floor as well as the guy who rebounds and protects the paint. You don't give a guy like Bargnani that contract unless he's paired with a good defensive center. Bosh/Bargnani was doomed to fail. But Bosh or Bargnani with a good defensive center like Robin Lopez? That's a different story. (Then again, Jermaine O'Neal didn't work. But he was also Jermaine O'Neal, and they gave up too much for him).
As we've discussed before, I think the Bargnani contract itself isn't the problem; it's the Bargnani contract in combination with the way the rest of that roster is constructed. Historically, you usually get a better deal on players if you sign them before they hit restricted free agency (I did a post on this back in October), so there's nothing really wrong in isolation with giving a guy like him $10 million when that's what most guys who play his position cost. He was likely to improve enough to increase his price, historically. But for where that team was at, it really didn't make much sense. I think Bryan should have figured out Bargnani's deal this summer and tried the Danny Ferry "cycle players on short contracts in and out until we find good ones" approach with finding talent around Chris Bosh. That way, they would have avoided all these debilitating long-term contracts.
Anyway, I'm going off track. Point is, in isolation, Bargnani is fairly paid. He makes less than Troy Murph, Antawn Jamison (at 33), Kenyon Martin (okay, not a "stretch" 4) and Rashard Lewis and is in the same salary bracket as Boris Diaw and Charlie Villanueva. Picking Frye out is cherrypicking to a degree. It's just that giving him $50 million was a bad idea in that specific situation.
Frank Madden, Brewhoop: I agree with Mike to a large extent on the "situational" circumstances in Toronto, though I also struggle with rationalizing salaries based on other teams vastly overpaying other guys. I think those examples show Bargs isn't ridiculously overpaid, but I still think teams are so fearful of letting talent walk and admitting mistakes that they end up with long-term contracts that just crush them for years (Bargs' isn't that bad by itself, but add it to Hedo and Calderon and...yikes).
I'm definitely somewhat biased by the Bucks' experience, but I think it's something of a copout for GMs to throw $50 million contracts at third or fourth bananas. It's tough because many of them don't have the job security to think very long-term, but that just reinforces the short-term mindset so many GMs have. Unless you're talking about a superstar, it's much easier to recover from the loss of a solid-but-not-great player than getting stuck with a non-cornerstone player who goes south when he gets a five year deal at an inflated valuation. And yes, I'm worried the Bucks are going to give John Salmons a four year contract...
Matt Watson, Detroit Badboys: Put me in the "Bargs might be the better player but Frye is the better pick because of his contract" camp.
That said ... Frye may seem so one-dimensional now because over half his attempts are 3's, but he was pretty decent his rookie year and rebounded well in limited time in the past. If he combined his old skills with his new skill, he could be a dangerous player. And in terms of career minutes played, he hasn't had as much time as Bargnani to develop, so the age difference is probably moot in terms of judging upside, especially for a player who just proved he can drastically change his game when asked to.
Steve Perrin, Clips Nation: My original answer was totally focused on the player, not taking the contract into consideration. But isn't the contract question more than a little unfair? Channing Frye played more minutes and scored more points this season than he did in the prior two seasons combined. He was probably the best non-rookie-contract bargain of the entire NBA this season - good for the Suns for getting him, but you can drive yourself crazy comparing your players to outliers like that. Besides, isn't the second year of Frye's contract a player option? Something tells me he's going to make more than $2M next season (Seth P would know the answer to that one better than I).
It's interesting to note that Frye's rookie season PER of 18.1 remains far and away his best career PER (he had a 15 PER this season). PER is not the be all end all, and he's punished a bit in it playing so far away from the basket in Phoenix, but it's interesting that we think of this as his breakout season, when he was arguably better as a rookie.
I just happen to like Bargnani, even if he is overpaid. His ability to put the ball on the floor and to score around the basket, combined with his range, make him a tantalizing offensive talent. Of course, I only watch him about twice a season, but I like what I see.
Mike Prada, Bullets Forever: Yeah, I think Steve said my point better than I did. The reason I brought in those other contracts is not necessarily to compare Bargs to them, but just to say that it's Frye that's the outlier, not Bargnani.
Seth Pollack, Bright Side of the Sun: Yes Frye has a player option for next year and yes, he's already said he's tearing that up and looking to get paid (and he was almost that blunt about it).
As for his three-point shooting, that's on him. The Suns thought he could shoot but they never imagined he would be this good. Mostly, I think it's a case of him being in a bad, bad situation in Portland. He is basically the same guy as LaMarcus Aldridge but a lesser version so he never had a shot. I will say that his defense and rebounding and toughness are a bit underrated (he's not as soft as advertised). He's shown flashes of a post game, he's shown flashes of being able to dribble drive on close outs and he's made some nice passes at times. His attitude is great and he's got plenty of upside left.
Remember when looking at any of the Suns numbers, that everyone is giving up a little for the team. Amare could be scoring more on a worse team. Nash certainly could shoot the ball more. Jason's sacrificed his game as much as anyone. Grant Hill talked yesterday about going from a #1 offensive option to being the team's top perimeter defender. That's just another example where stats break down. Bad players on bad teams can look good and good players on good teams can look worse.
A big shout to our SB Nation basketball bloggers who weighed in on this interesting topic.
From the discussion, I think it's safe to say that the masses reached the following conclusion; they'd rather have Bargnani all things being equal, but Andrea's current contract doesn't provide the value that Channing's does, and combined with Toronto's other mess of contracts, it looks even worse.
In addition, the blogger discussion did nothing to dissuade me from my original belief regarding the Bosh/Bargs frontcourt pairing...it ain't gonna work. A closer look at his offensive game last year, using Synergy Sports' technology does nothing to disuade that notion.
(Disclosure: Synergy Sports Tech has provided RaptorsHQ of the Sun with a free My Synergy account.)
For starters, it's evident that both Andrea's number one option to score was the spot-up J. He made this his primary choice on offense 38% of the time last year, hitting on 46% of his attempts. Going back to the Channing Frye compare, Frye also viewed this as his go-to move and it accounted for an even higher percentage of his O, almost half of his offence came from the spot-up J (49.3% to be exact.) He was slightly less accurate than Bargs, hitting on 44%.
Things diverged a bit after that regarding the two.
Andrea's second-most common offensive move? Surprisingly, it was posting up, which he did 16% of the time and where he converted 45% of the time. Frye did very little posting up, it only accounted for 7% of his offensive game, and when he did post-up, he only scored on 38% of those possessions. Frye instead was much more effecient in pick-and-roll scenarios, his second-most common offensive possession. This should come as no big shock considering he plays with perhaps the premier screen-and-roll point guard in the league, Steve Nash.
Right away then we see some major differences in terms of these two as Frye simply did not post up.
However before we extoll the virtues of Bargnani's back-to-the-basket game, I decided to compare his percentages to two of the more traditional bigs in the East, Kendrick Perkins and Al Horford. Posting up accounted for 30% and 35% of their offensive arsenal respectively, so Andrea has a ways to go. This is even more so the case when you compare Bargs to the likes of Shaq and Dwight Howard. Posting up accounted for over 60% of their offense!
Now I have no illusions that Andrea needs to get his game to that level. But I think his lack of a low-post game was a major problem last year for Toronto considering they were depending on him to provide that type of scoring paired next to another face-up big, Chris Bosh. The problem is, he's just not that type. He's essentially a shooting guard trapped in a center's body.
Even comparing his offensive choices to those of Dirk Nowitzki backs this up. Dirk simply has a much more well-rounded offensive repertoire as he posted-up 27% of the time last year, spotted up 18%, was involved in the pick-and-roll 10% of the time and was involved in isolations 20% of the time on offense. In fact, Dirk's breakdown is eerily similar to the way Chris Bosh attacked on offense, not Bargnani.
It strikes me as odd then that Bryan Colangelo continues to drone on about the compatibility of these two players. Looking at the Synergy breakdowns, if you've got a Bosh type who excels at face-up, isolation and pick-and-roll type plays on offense, don't you need a complementary piece who posts-up and makes short cuts to the hoop? This is one of the reasons the Celtics have been so successful with the combination of KG and Perkins. KG uses much more of a face-up game, looks to make the pass, and has someone like Perkins cut to the hoop for baskets, something Kendrick did last year on 26% of his offensive possessions. Bargs? He simply wasn't involved enough in this manner, cutting to the basket on only 5% of his offensive plays.
Now one may look at this sort of data and note that the system these players play in accounts for a good portion of "why" certain types of offensive sets are preferred over others but I disagree. I think in the majority of cases I examined, the offense the subject in question played in was tailored to fit their respective games. You just didn't see many unexpected results, like a high percentage of isos run for a Kendrick Perkins, or spot-up J's being the top offensive option for an Anderson Varejao. The Raptors last year once again failed to take advantage of Andrea's strengths, and part of this blame lies on Bryan Colangelo. Why bring in a player with a very similar skillset in Hedo Turkoglu? This team, as I so often argued in the past, desperately needed a player who could do many of the things a traditional center would do (rebound, block shots, dive to the hoop, etc, etc) since Andrea is not that type, and if not up front, then from the wing position. This again is why I really felt that keeping Shawn Marion was the best option if the team wanted to win in the short term.
One final note.
In his recent book, Stumbling on Wins, Dave Berri looked at a player's performance in respect to his age. He found that after the age of 25, the majority of players start to decline statistically, and that coaches tend to exagerate the contribution of older players. (The OK City Thunder provide a good example of such a phenomenon, especially their near upset of the much more "experienced" Lakers in this year's playoffs.) There are a few exceptions to the rule of course, but this point resonated with me regarding Andrea Bargnani. Many continue to tout Andrea Bargnani's "upside" but considering his lack of statistical improvement last season, I have to believe we've essentially seen the best of Bargs. In essence, what you saw from him last year, is essentially what you're going to get going forward.
Therefore going back to our Synergy data, one would have to conclude that the onus is on the Toronto Raptors to do a much better job surrounding Andrea with appropriate talent. Like Channing Frye, he needs to be in the right situation to maximize his effectiveness. He's simply not going to be a dominant rebounder or low-post presence and while his Synergy stats indicate that he probably needs to continue rounding out those parts of his game ala Dirk, for the Raptors to take a giant step forward in the win column next season, it will likely have to be the result of better pairings with Il Mago, not because of his individual development.
That's why from here on out, Bryan Colangelo should ensure that every move made, from the draft to any sign-and-trade transactions re: Chris Bosh, are made under the "better fit" premise. If Bargs is going to be a central figure next season, he needs players to play with who can maximize his strengths and help to hide his shortcomings, not more Hedo Turkoglu's.
And speaking of Hedo, shouldn't the same analysis be run for him?
Because for better or for worse, he too will likely form a key cog in Toronto's starting five next season.