When Masai Ujiri does business with the New York Knicks, good things happen… at least for Ujiri’s team. Just over two years ago, when Ujiri was G.M. of the Denver Nuggets, he traded a disgruntled, and increasingly toxic Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks and received a very respectable return in the form of Danilo Galinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, and a first round draft pick. The Nuggets were seemingly in a position of weakness, with a superstar who clearly wanted out, but they salvaged what they could from a bad situation and were able to retool and remain a very competitive Western Conference team.
Fast forward two years and Ujiri, the newly appointed G.M. of the Raptors, is at it again. With the blockbuster Celtics-Nets trade officially going through, and the somewhat nauseating Dwight Howard-wooing in full swing, Ujiri’s deal with Glen Grunwald’s Knicks may have flown under the radar—but not among the fans in T.O.
Ujiri somehow managed to unload Andrea Bargnani, the most unpopular Raptor since Vince (at the end of his tenure), for Steve Novak, Marcus Camby, Quentin Richardson, and most importantly, one first round and two second round draft picks.
We’ll get to why the hell the Knicks did this in a bit, but for now let’s look at the deal from the Raptors viewpoint—a viewpoint that should be nothing but positive… positive and shocked.
Back in 2006, the Raptors, despite just an 8.8% chance of doing so, won the NBA Draft Lottery. With that pick they selected Bargnani who became the first European player selected first overall. The merits of using a first overall pick on Bargnani can be argued ad nauseam. You only have to glance at the Wikipedia entry of that draft to know that more than one team swung and missed on their selections (Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, Shelden Williams, anyone?) There was undoubtedly talent in that draft, however, LaMarcus Aldridge being a good example, and also Brandon Roy. Despite Roy’s injury woes, he could’ve paired up well with Bosh and given the Raptors more good years than they’ve subsequently had with Il Mago.
In defense of Bryan Colangelo, however, the idea of Andrea Bargnani—a stretch 4/5 who hit could hit shots from anywhere on the court and score in a variety of ways—was always enticing…more enticing than the reality. Unfortunately that potential, other than for brief moments during the abbreviated lockout season, was never realized. Where it becomes harder to defend Colangelo is when he decided to double-down on that debatable selection by signing Bargnani to a big extension. Once it became clear that Andrea wasn’t going to morph into the next Dirk Nowitzki, the Raptors should’ve pulled back. They didn’t and it cost them, both in money and team growth.
Probably the most frustrating thing for Raptors fans watching Bargnani over the last 7 years—and I’m sure for Colangelo too—is the fact that the potential to improve was always there. It just seemed like the effort was severely lacking—and you can only cruise so long on talent and potential alone.
Offensively Bargnani was better than average—although that side of his game has declined rapidly in recent months—but defensively he’s always been atrocious, unable or unwilling to rebound, and a terrible help defender. These are things you’d assume a guy could work on—especially a guy who was a picked first overall and was expected, post-Bosh, to carry the franchise—but he never seemed interested in bettering that side of his game. According to people within the organization, at times he wasn’t even interested in showing up in shape. He just didn’t care enough.
Bargnani’s last few games for the Raptors, after his elbow injury, were particularly brutal to watch. The Raptors fans were ruthless in their booing, and were criticized in some forums, and by coach Dwane Casey, for wrecking Bargnani’s confidence and hindering the team. But it wasn’t like the fans booed and Barganani played poorly because that booing turned him into a nervous wreck. On the contrary: he played like crap. The fans booed because of that.
But back to the trade.
Both Colangelo, in his final months as Raptors G.M., and Ujiri, made it clear that getting rid of Bargnani was their number one priority—another way of saying, “Hey opposing teams, he’s available, it won’t take much to get him!” At one stage it felt like the Raptors would be forced to use their amnesty on Bargnani (they can now use that on other deadweight, like Linas Kleiza) but then the Knicks came along and saved Ujiri the hassle. Forget about the players that Toronto received in the trade—Richardson and Camby are unlikely to have any impact going forward—but simply receiving picks for a guy you were probably going to dump for nothing is an unfathomable bonus.
And why would the Knicks do this? Well, because they’re the New York Knicks. That’s what they do.
For over a decade now they’ve been trading draft picks for overpaid, past their prime players. It’s part of the reason why they haven’t won a championship since 1973. The other answer is the Brooklyn Nets. Their noisy neighbours across the bridge mad a huge splash in bringing Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to New York, and the Knicks panicked and felt like they had to make a move to keep pace, no matter how short sighted that move was.
For the Knicks, Andrea Bargnani really makes no sense. Last season they were one of the best offensive teams in the league; they had no problem hitting the 3, and in Carmelo Anthony, still possess one the best scorers in the game. Sure, Bargnani at his best can stretch the floor, but so can Steve Novak, and you don’t have to pay Novak $23 million over the next two years to do it. What’s more, Bargnani hasn’t been a good, efficient shooter for over a year now. In other words—just to spell it out for Knicks fans—at the end of the court where he’s supposedly good, he’s been regressing.
Where the Knicks struggled last year was defense and rebounding. Bargnani does nothing for you in those two facets, and may even make you worse. He’s an atrocious rebounder for his position (maybe even worse than Novak) and it’s hard to imagine him on the floor against the Indiana Pacers, who killed New York on the glass during their playoff series. Defensively he’s almost as bad as Amar’e—Tyson Chandler might foul out in record time trying to bail out his team in games team next season.
The Knicks wouldn’t have been any worse just keeping Novak and Chris Copeland—Copeland, at this stage, is basically a cheaper Bargnani—but they saw Prokhorov throw money at a problem in Brooklyn, panicked, and made a dumb move. Paying Bargnani over $20 million when you’re already paying Amar’e $44 million is bad enough, but as Matt Moore of CBS rightly points out, giving up draft picks as teams enter the new CBA, where developing talent is essential, is unforgivable.
Ujiri took advantage of the Knicks’ desperation, inability to plan for the long term, and desire for a quick fix, and the Raptors are the better for it. Just don’t be surprised if Il Mago’s departure is the first of many this offseason. Rumour has that no one on the Raptors roster is safe. There’s a new sheriff in town and he’s out to right the wrongs of the past few years.