When the New York Knicks acquired Andrea Bargnani, most fans, media and observers panned the move. Some defended it. Others wanted to see how things played out. One of the main criticisms of the move (aside from the ransom the Knicks gave up, obviously) was that Bargnani didn’t seem to fit with what the Knicks did well in 2012-13, and more specifically, with Carmelo Anthony. After Anthony’s career-year led the Knicks to their best record in seemingly forever, why make a move that might marginalize the team’s best player? Why throw a monkey wrench into a style that worked so effectively a year ago? These were the main concerns, and so far they’ve mostly rang true.
Anthony is a great midrange shooter. So far this season, according to NBA.com, Anthony is shooting 46.4% from 15-19 feet out, and 45.6% from 20-24 feet out. But the difference between Anthony’s midrange shooting percentages when sharing the floor with Bargnani and when he doesn’t is staggering. From 15-19 feet, Anthony shoots 41.3% with Bargnani on the floor, as opposed to 53.6% when Bargnani sits. From 20-24 feet, he’s at 41.7% with Bargnani and 50.9% without.
While Bargnani isn’t a natural big man, the Knicks’ spacing is much better when Anthony is the unquestioned power forward and Iman Shumpert/J.R. Smith/Tim Hardaway, Jr is the clear small forward. And if Anthony operates well in the midrange, the Knicks should do their best to maximize that. As showcased in recent games against the Bobcats, Lakers, and Celtics*, Anthony is a near-impossible cover for most 4s; he’s able to blow by bigger, plodding guys like Ryan Kelly, Anthony Tolliver and Brandon Bass, and he’s able to bully smaller ones like Wesley Johnson. It hasn’t just been this season that we’ve learned this. It happened all of last year.
*If you’re here you probably know this already, but the Knicks are 3-0 since Bargnani got hurt
It’s not rocket science as to why the Knicks struggle defensively when Anthony and Bargnani share the floor (as a pair, they allow 106.4 per 100 possessions). Both of them are actually better defenders than generally given credit for, and they’re quite similar in where they’re strong and where they struggle. Go one-on-one against either of them in the post, and you’d be surprised how much resistance both of them provide. It’s when you get them moving and, particularly in Bargnani’s case, engaged in the pick and roll where you start to see the shortcomings. Neither is adept at providing weak-side help in the paint. This season, teams have routinely gotten to the basket when the two share the floor; according to NBA.com, Knicks opponents have scored 904 points in the paint against the duo of Anthony and Bargnani. That’s the most any Knicks duo has surrendered this year. Bad pick and roll play combined with poor rotations and rim protection leads to easy buckets.
Individually, according to 82games.com, Anthony is a more effective defender against opposing 4s than he is against opposing 3s. And Bargnani is a better at defending the center position than he is at defending 4s. Anthony having to share the court with Bargnani forces one of them to have to cover a much tougher opponent than they’re equipped to. This is especially true when the two of them play alongside Tyson Chandler.
The trio of Anthony, Bargnani and Chandler has played 189 minutes this season. It’s not a huge sample size, by any means, but it’s the Knicks’ 30th most-used trio this season out of 250 total. They’ve been a garbage fire defensively, allowing 114.3 points per 100 possessions; the New Orleans Pelicans’ league-worst defense allows 109.6. That 114.3 defensive rating is the worst among any of the Knicks’ top-30 trio combinations. For some context, the should-be terrible trio of Tim Hardaway, Jr., Amar’e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith allows 108.6, which is indeed terrible, but isn’t as terrible as the terrible 114.3 put up by the terrible defensive trio of Anthony-Bargnani-Chandler. Terrible.
If Anthony and Bargnani are both better when they play the 4 and 5, respectively, there is zero reason that Bargnani should be in the starting lineup whenever Tyson Chandler is healthy. If the Knicks are all healthy, the starting lineup should be Raymond Felton-Pablo Prigioni-Iman Shumpert-Carmelo Anthony-Tyson Chandler (a lineup that has a Net-Rtg of 24.7 so far this season). Where does Bargnani fit, then, if at all?
It’s unfortunate that the Knicks gave up so much for Bargnani, because if there is a niche on this team for him, it’s probably as a reserve center/power forward. He should play about 15-18 minutes per game, only getting more time when the Knicks need some offense. He’s been a terrible 3-point shooter, but is still pretty effective from midrange, especially on the left side of the court (which, in lockstep with this entire issue, is where Anthony likes to set up and is most effective as well).
It’s not that Bargnani is a terrible basketball player. He does some things well, and could be a very useful role player if utilized correctly. Thus far in his Knicks career, he hasn’t been. There’s time for things to change but so far, the trade has been a bust in both theory and practice, and that’s mainly because of how he’s negatively effected the Knicks’ best and most important player.