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The Inbounds: The Pierre-Bargnani Defensive Mirror

Aug 17, 2012, 9:00 AM EST

Toronto Raptors Andrea Bargnani reacts after hitting a shot during their NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City Reuters

Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

Some of you will be aware of this, but for those of you aren’t, let me catch you up real quick. You know how Andrea Bargnani has this reputation as being the very definition of a horrible defender? It’s not entirely a fictional archetype, but it’s also not really so much in love with the truth that the two have announced the relationship on Facebook. Synergy Sports ranked Bargnani in the 88th percentile in post defense on a per-possession basis, and the 56th percentile in isolation defense last season (with a gaudy 95th percentile overall). It wasn’t all Dwane Casey’s wizardry last season (though his work with Bargnani’s defense should not be ignored, but we’ll get there. In 2011, he was 47th percentile in post and 83rd percentile in isolation. 2010? 72nd percentile in the post, 28th in isolation. Bear in mind these numbers are regardless of the number of possessions, so someone that defended in the post once successfully logs in at the top of the chart. So basically, he’s even better than these numbers indicate, relative to his position.

But as so many people that don’t understand nuance, statistics, or empirical information suggest, “numbers don’t tell the whole story.” It’s easy to say that, but what about who he was guarding, etc. Unfortunately, if you have too much time on your hands, as I have over the past four years, you can actually watch the game video and discover that, whoops, often Bargnani was actually defending the better offensive threat due to his raw height. Surprise! Andrea Bargnani is a pretty good man defender. Let your world shake into a new comfort. Even with the problems afforded Synergy and the metrics used in that glorious environment, it’s impossible to deny that Bargnani at least does a decent job of distracting the guy he’s matched up with into missing his shot a lot of the time.

But notice I said “man defender” there and not “defender.” Because the reason Bargnani has so consistently been set aflame by Twitter, bloggers, and your average Raptors fan is because he is, at his heart, an absolutely atrocious help defender. He never crowds the lane on perimeter penetration. He doesn’t nail the weakside block. He fails to rotate the first time, much less the second, and too often is already out of position for a rebound when the ball is in the air. There’s a lot to dislike.

Modern NBA defensive criticism is interesting because it specifically targets centers with fault for failing to cover for the mistakes of their teammates. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Why is it Andrea Barganani’s fault that Jose Calderon can’t contain perimeter penetration? Why should Bargnani have to clean up the mess for DeMar DeRozan? No one’s blasting wing defenders for not committing to the double team when Bargnani’s outmatched. This isn’t to suggest Bargnani’s victimized, it’s fair criticism. It’s just worth noting that for a fanbase that tends to lean towards traditional models of personal responsibility, we hold centers culpable for the wellbeing of the entire defensive state. They’re supposed to raise themselves up by the bootstraps and take care of their neighbor, so to speak.

And in another way, it’s hard to fault Bargnani for the thought process. He’s essentially torched because he fails to abandon the man he’s been tasked with keeping from scoring.  Think about that. He’s a bad defender because he carries out his assignment too much (while failing to execute other assignments that, depending on the time, have a greater priority). That, again, seems contradictory to our model of what we hold one another too. But it’s how it is, and when you consider the essential manner each defender is dependent on every other, the criticism rings true.

So what does Bargnani need to do this next season to make the major leap forward he started last season prior to injury? He needs to emulate JaVale McGee. And McGee needs to be like the seven-foot Italian. McGee is a block machine. He’s able to swat nearly any shot out of the air, even hooks from seven footers. He can alter any possession with his athleticism, and has great timing when he manages to channel his boundless energy into a significant play.

He also has defensive ADD. He sees the rabbit and dives after it, despite the electronic collar. He’s always chasing the weakside block. Too often he goes to close on a driving player who has been successfully corralled by a teammate, only to lose his man who sneaks weakside for the dump-off score. He’s chasing the bunny rabbit and loses the buck behind him.

So Bargnani is hammered for not helping his teammates enough, and McGee is hammered because he abandons his responsibility in pursuit of helping those same teammates too often.

But for each, it may mean something different. McGee speaks of wanting to lead the league in blocks. If you have the ability to defend the shot, even if your teammate has it well covered and the player is unlikely to convert, how can you not swat that thing? If you have your guy locked down, why are you worried about what someone else was or was not able to do?

We’ve seen over the past four-to-six years a familiar trend from the past reasserting itself. Older big men are blossoming. It’s really 26-plus when players come into their own. Because nowadays, system defense is what matters, what makes an impact, and that takes time to add to a skillset. Bargnani is 26. McGee is 24. To make the adjustments they need to reach the next level, it means letting go of their own personal concepts of right and wrong defensively, and playing as one cog in a greater system. The singular great defensive player is gone, even Tyson Chandler relies on teammates funneling players to where he can achieve.

If the two hyper-long freak athletes are going to fulfill their potential, they have to recognize the value of what’s on the other side of the mirror. It’s not a skill question, an ability question, or toughness question. It’s just bout understanding the big picture and being able to bridge those gaps in knowledge. If they can, the big men in the league could be in for a jolt. Defense has evolved from checkers to chess, and next season represents a chance for the young players to learn the game they’ve been fumbling through for years.

  1. thomaskouns - Aug 17, 2012 at 11:02 AM

    Nice to see an article that goes into some depth and reviews the tape before making conclusions.

  2. blueintown - Aug 17, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    Another winner, Matt. Keep ‘em coming. So refreshing to see posts on this site that don’t solely consist of ‘Dwight Howard/Kobe Bryant/LeBron James is/is not a pudwhack because…’.

  3. borderline1988 - Aug 17, 2012 at 1:17 PM

    I always thought Bargnani was a decent defender. He’s big, long, strong and smart.

    The problem is, he has no motor whatsoever. He can’t rebound for the life of him, and has no ability to fight for loose balls. He is slow to get off his feet (and lacks any sort of explosiveness). He also doesn’t move laterally very well.

    He’s kind of similar to Perkins in that sense. Good one-on-one post defender, but can be exposed in the pick and roll, or when the opposing centre can play at the perimeter.

    As the author said, today’s defensive systems are more and more a team concept (because individual players are just too good to be defended one on one). Therefore, I wouldn’t consider Bargnani a good defender. Maybe 30 years ago, he’d be considered a good defender, because there were so many post players who utilized back to the basket skills. But the game is different today.

    • limonadamas - Aug 17, 2012 at 2:24 PM

      Great subanalysis!

  4. kellyleichert - Aug 18, 2012 at 12:33 PM

    I certainly agree that he has been asked to cover up for some poor defenders. Also, before Casey was coaching it seemed that the overall defensive scheme was lacking. Last season, Andrea appeared to put forth a lot of effort on guarding the post and on screen and roll defense. With Fields, Ross and Lowry in the mix this year, he will likely be expected only to do his defensive job, which I agree, he does quite well.

    He is not the athlete LeBron or Kobe is, so it is difficult to be an elite defender and offensive player due to the his size and stamina levels of being a seven footer. The move to power forward should help him as he will have a size advantage here and is mobile enough to cover most 4’s. Jonas looks like he may develop into the rim guarder that Andrea is not.

    All in all he gets a bad ‘rap’ – to me he works to the extent of his ability which is all one can ask. This is the plague of being a number one pick, unless you are MVP and win a title, you will have, rightfully, high expectations placed on you. Some of which you are physically not able to meet.

    Nothing wrong with a 20-6 guy, who can hit a three and is willing to put forth effort on D.

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