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Raptors What Ifs: Andrea Bargnani and the 2006 No. 1 pick

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“With the first pick in the 2006 draft, the Toronto Raptors select... LaMarcus Aldridge.”

Toronto Raptors v New York Knicks

There are certain words that, when uttered, evoke strong feelings in Raptors fans. For example, hearing about the Brooklyn Nets might induce feelings of resentment. When the Cleveland Cavaliers are brought up in conversation, the topic may provoke feelings of existential dread. Many players and teams have been the cause of city-wide heartache in Toronto. Aside from Vince Carter, I’d argue that Andrea Bargnani, the physical embodiment of lethargy, injury and frustration, is the most frequent culprit. If, however, Bargnani never rocked Raptors gear, would things have shaken out differently in Toronto? I’d like to answer that question, but first, let’s set the scene.

On the night of the 2006 NBA Draft, David Stern sent shockwaves throughout the NBA when he announced who Bryan Colangelo, the Raptors’ General Manager at the time, selected with the team’s first overall pick.

At the time, the perception of Andrea Bargnani was that of a project player, a player who had the potential to be Dirk Nowitzki, or a heaping pile of garbage. Many scouts questioned his quickness, defense and rebounding ability. However, Colangelo touted his tantalizing skills on the offensive end. Moreover, he was picked because of his potential to jell with Chris Bosh, the team’s cornerstone. In hindsight, though, this never came to fruition. Instead of becoming an oasis in a rough Raptors history, the pairing’s on-court fit became discordant. Their games never meshed, and when Chris Bosh left the Raptors in 2010 to join the Miami Heat super team, Toronto was left with a hobbled Bargnani, devoid of all the positive qualities he displayed in 2006, including the ability to shoot the basketball.

Bargnani started out his career in Toronto on a positive note. His encouraging play alongside Bosh culminated in the Raptors’ first playoff berth since 2002. Additionally, then-Raptors coach Sam Mitchell was awarded Coach of the Year for the 2006-2007 season, while Bryan Colangelo won the Executive of the Year award. All seemed to be looking up for the Raptors, until the next season began. Bargnani, unable to take positive forward strides, rode the bench for much of the season. A shooting slump and defensive dearth lead to a decrease in playing time, further hindering his development and confidence. Come playoff time, his play deteriorated even more, along with his minutes. The Raptors lost in the first round to the Orlando Magic.

After a disappointing start to the 2008-2009 season, Sam Mitchell was fired, just one year removed from Coach of the Year honours. Jay Triano, the Raptors’ new head coach, increased Bargnani’s playing time, and his shooting thrived. However, a lack of consistency and health from his teammates led to the Raptors’ elimination from playoff contention near the end of the season.

Before the 2009-2010 season, the Raptors replaced most of their roster, hoping to benefit from a change of personnel. While their season saw marginal improvement, it wasn’t enough, as they failed to make the playoffs yet again, falling one game short. Bargnani saw more of the floor, and his efficiency remained satisfactory, but his team was in disarray. Chris Bosh was due to enter free agency at the end of the year. As an attempt to lure him back, Colangelo signed Hedo Turkoglu, with hopes that he’d become the Raptors’ Turkish delight. Instead, his signing was an unmitigated disaster. He was benched for attending a nightclub immediately after a stomach virus prevented him from playing in a game. Soon thereafter, he confessed his desire to leave the Raptors, citing a lack of respect from management.

The confusion in the Raptors’ front office had an adverse effect on Bosh, who ultimately opted to part ways with the Raptors and team up with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami. Bargnani became the focal point of the Raptors offense, along with a young DeMar DeRozan, who was drafted the previous summer. However, the 2010-2011 campaign was riddled with disappointments. Bargnani saw a decrease in his shooting efficiency, and the Raptors finished with the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference. The following year, Bargnani suffered an injury that sidelined him for months, and yet another shooting slump ensued. Fans became impatient with his nonchalant attitude towards losing, and began booing him during home games.

Despite starring in an unintentionally-hilarious and often-mocked commercial for Primo Pasta, Bargnani left a sour taste in fans’ mouths. His injuries, coupled with his infuriating indifference and poor play left fans pleading for a trade. Despite being saddled with Bargnani’s albatross of a contract, newly hired General Masai Ujiri pulled off the seemingly impossible. He fleeced the New York Knicks in a trade that packaged and sent Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, Marcus Camby and a flurry of picks to Toronto in exchange for Andrea Bargnani, thus ending the rampant dysfunction that permeated the Raptors organization for years. Fans rejoiced, and hailed their new messiah: Ujiri.

Of course, this sequence of events all began when Bryan Colangelo picked Andrea Bargnani first overall in the 2006 NBA Draft. But, what if Bargnani never donned a Raptor uniform? Buckle up.

In this Bargnani-less timeline, the Raptors opt to pick LaMarcus Aldridge instead with their first overall pick. Considering the Raptors selected a big man in Bargnani, picking a different one in Aldridge makes some sense. Even though there were concerns about fit with Bosh, Colangelo figures that, in this alternate timeline, Aldridge’s quickness, prowess in the post and defensive potential makes for a worthy pick.

LaMarcus shows promise in his first year on the team, but his lack of a three-point shot causes an inability to play heavy minutes with Chris Bosh. In the standings, they drop a few extra games and place fourth, as opposed to third. Come playoff time, they get knocked out by a far superior Bulls team in the first round of the playoffs. Neither Sam Mitchell nor Bryan Colangelo receive awards at year end.

Bosh decides to work on his three-point shot that offseason, to play a greater number of minutes with LaMarcus. Thus, during the 2007-2008 season, Sam Mitchell increases Aldridge’s playing time, in contrast to Bargnani, whose minutes decreased due to poor play. Aldridge thrives next to a marginally-improved shooter in Chris Bosh, and it’s reflected in the Raptors’ record. Instead of finishing sixth in the conference, they finish a few games ahead, catapulting them into fourth, ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Subsequently, the Raptors advance past the inferior Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs, but are ultimately defeated in the second round by the eventual champion Boston Celtics. Still, the Raptors benefited greatly from Aldridge’s superior play in the playoffs, while, in reality, the Raptors were hampered by Bargnani’s poor shooting and inability to play substantial minutes.

In a universe sans Bargnani, there is a significant divergence from reality, in terms of the Raptors’ offseason moves, for the 2008-2009 season. The Raptors elect to grow with a young core of elite talent. Thus, they keep their most recent draft pick, Roy Hibbert, instead of trading for a known-commodity in Jermaine O’Neal. This season, the team fails to repeat their previous year’s success due to several injuries sustained by the Raptors’ then-starting point guard Jose Calderon. While Aldridge plays a solid year, his team sees little success, akin to what occurred in Bargnani’s third year. Roy Hibbert plays limited minutes as a rookie, and is unable to make any significant impact. In the 2009 NBA draft, the Raptors are still able to select DeMar DeRozan ninth overall.

In this alternate version of the 2009-2010 season, the Raptors do not overhaul their roster, envisioning a viable future with their young pieces. Instead of signing Hedo, the Raptors proceed with a core of Amir Johnson, Sonny Weems, DeMar DeRozan, Roy Hibbert, Calderon, Aldridge and Bosh. Originally, a Bosh injury derails the Raptors late in the season; however, the elite play of Aldridge, in tandem with an improving defensive force in Hibbert, lifts the Raptors into the playoffs. However, with an injured Bosh, the Raptors are not able to advance past the first round of the playoffs.

Although the Raptors possess a talented young nucleus entering the offseason, Bosh still opts to join the Miami Heat, citing the opportunity of a lifetime, subsequently ushering in another era of rebuilding for Toronto. However, in this alternate scenario, a bright light shines over the Raptors in the form of a tantalizing core of youthful pieces. In reality, that light was dim, shrouded by pasta sauce. In the real 2010-2011 season, the Raptors were held back by an injured, dreadful Bargnani. In this alternate timeline, the Raptors enjoy a healthy centrepiece in Aldridge. However, he is accompanied by raw and inexperienced talent, so they struggle throughout the season, though not nearly as much as they did in reality. The Raptors still miss the playoffs, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference, as opposed to fourteenth.

In the 2011 NBA draft, the Raptors find themselves in need of shooting, with Aldridge, Hibbert and DeRozan unable to stretch the floor. In the original timeline, the Raptors drafted Jonas Valanciunas with the fifth overall selection; they needed an inside presence, and were granted a higher selection in the draft due to their abysmal record. Appropriately, in the alternate timeline, the Raptors draft Klay Thompson with the tenth selection, just one spot ahead of where he was originally selected.

I’ll leave you with an encouraging, or rather, discouraging, thought: the Raptors enter the 2011-2012 NBA season with a starting lineup of Calderon, DeRozan, Thompson, Aldridge and Hibbert. Is this starting five enough to make the Raptors an eventual powerhouse in the Eastern Conference? Would Aldridge have stayed in Toronto long-term? Let us know in the comments below!