Rebranding the Toronto Raptors Part III - The Problem of Perception

The HQ looks at the importance of changing personnel to align with a new brand philosophy...

Years from now -- when it's routine to see him dropping three-pointers over the outstretched arms of clumsy, lumbering big men and SportsCenter regularly features him spinning on the block and posterizing clawing defenders, when his uncanny passes draw comparisons to those of Bill Walton and Chris Webber -- we'll point to a cold November morning in Denver as the NBA birth of Andrea Bargnani.    

-Chris Broussard for ESPN the Magazine, Feb 28, 2007

Bargnani has played five seasons, including one in which he fell off a cliff (his second season) and this past year when he regressed in some significant areas. There is no threat of him leading a preschool class across the street, let alone an NBA franchise deep into the playoffs.

-Michael Grange for the Globe and Mail, April 14, 2011

It's been over five years since Andrea Bargnani was the selected as the first overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft.

After his selection, I voiced some immediate concerns regarding his similarities in style to Chris Bosh, but also saw the upside, and viewed the selection as Bryan Colangelo "thinking outside the box."

In fact after Andrea's rookie season, I even wrote the following:

If Andrea had been healthy for an entire season perhaps we'd be watching a Raptors vs. Cavs series now...and an off-season of post work and strength training could see Toronto sporting two of the league's most dangerous young players.

He still needs to prove he can rebound in order to become a starter for Toronto next season but in terms of my expectations prior to this season, Il Mago surpassed all of mine.    

However over the next four seasons, we saw very little development outside of scoring.

And in fact we saw almost nothing in terms of what Broussard described in his quote above.

Uncanny passes?

Few and far between.

Low-post spins and posterizations?

Are you sure we're not talking about Blake Griffin here?

The reality is that Andrea hasn't turned into the player Broussard or many others, myself included, expected, and considering the vast majority of NBA players have completed the bulk of their development by year six, it's extremely unlikely we're going to see Bargs reach those heights.

So as we've discussed many a time, this leaves Toronto Raptors' management with a major dilemma.

Do they attempt to move Bargs?  The $40M+ owing to him over the next four seasons makes that a tricky task, so the alternative may be to try and utilize his strengths while attempting to hide his major flaws.

But on a roster with very little other talent, this task may prove to be impossible, new coach and system or not.

During Andrea's five years as a Raptor, the team has racked up a record of 183 wins and 227 losses, resulting in a winning percentage of .4462.  During most the bulk of those seasons, Bargnani had major help at both ends of the court but still struggled, especially in his second season.

Last year as the team's top offensive option he upped his scoring, but many of his other metrics decreased, and many times fans were left wondering if the club was better off with Bargnani on the IR, or at least coming off the bench.

However I don't want this to become another excavation into Andrea's effectiveness on the court, nor do I want this to be a post that laments his defensive and rebounding woes.

Keeping in line with our rebranding discussion, I'd like to discuss Andrea in one context; his importance in terms of altering the perception of the Toronto Raptors' basketball team.  

Because right now, I'd hazard a guess and say it's not great.

(In fact I've done a little exercise with our other SB Nation bloggers regarding the team's perception which I'll be posting later this week, and I'm guessing the results won't be so positive.)

Changing the perception means winning games certainly, and as I discussed on Friday, this then syncs up well with a successful rebrand.  

Again, this means not only a new logo, uniforms etc, but also a product that matches this new look and feel.  The product in our case is hopefully on-court success, but I'd also argue part of this transformation involves the personnel who result in the product put forth for the fans.  When you change the personnel, you not only impact the club's won-loss record, but also the perception the public has of the team, something we've seen many a time in NBA history.

A successful example of this would be the Detroit Pistons' in the last two decades.  In the late 90's they transitioned from the skill and speed of the Grant Hill - Jerry Stackhouse era, to the gritty, defense-minded clubs of the early 2000's featuring Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, 'Sheed and others.

There are countless other examples, including the most recent NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, who went from being labelled as a "soft" team, to that of a "never-say-die" champ.

This transformation needs to take place in Toronto as well and luckily I'd argue, is already underway.  The drafting of players like DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis, have moved the club away from the "soft, Euro-team" stigma that unfortunately gets thrown about when discussing the Dinos.

Think the stigma doesn't exist?

Just hearken back to the recent drafting of Jonas Valanciunas for all the proof you need.  It didn't matter that his game was more akin to Tyson Chandler than Vladimir Radmanovic, the bulk of the outcry from Raptors' fans was "oh no, here we go again."

As one of my media counterparts noted in relation to Jonas, "if his name had been Johnny Vegas and he had played at Kentucky, Raps' fans would be throwing a parade for Colangelo."

The stigma is there, and unfortunately one of the biggest reasons it still exists is because of Andrea Bargnani.

Regardless of how effective you think he is as an NBA player, and how much of a "fan" you are of his game, with Chris Bosh gone, it's Bargs that carries the "soft" torch because of the way he plays.

Is this fair?

Not necessarily.

After all, Dirk Nowitzki was labelled as being soft for years and just won a title without changing his game to a great extent.

However we all know that "Dirk soft," and "Andrea soft" are two entirely different levels on the "soft scale" so to speak, so it's not exactly an apples to apples compare.

The bottom line for me is that for this team to continue its reversal of fortunes, Andrea Bargnani has to go.

Again, forget stats, wins produced, 20 point a game scoring averages, forget everything.

Sometimes you simply need to make a change to alter the culture and perception of your club, a perception that directly influences everything from locker room banter, to on-court chemistry.

Sometimes this change also comes at a cost, in Toronto's case it may very well mean giving up a frustratingly talented player for a lot less, simply to signal a changing of the guard.

I'll point again to the Pistons for an example of this.

Detroit gave up a first round pick and one of the league's top scorers in Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre midway through the 1988-89 season.  It seemed to be a high price to pay but Aguirre was a perfect fit off the bench for the Pistons, helping them to two straight NBA titles.

Maybe Andrea doesn't fetch an Aguirre for the Raps.

But I'd argue moving him somewhere far, far away would be another big step in turning around the image, culture and eventually success of the basketball team.

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