Bargnani struggles with new Rap role

October 13, 2010

Cooling down after a workout this week, various Raptors glanced up as a group of players replaced them on the practice floor.

The objects of the brief NBA attention were four middle-aged white men, male-patterned pot bellies, warming up for a pickup game. Sonny Weems, the Raptors' 24-year-old swingman, smirked at the scene.

"Hey, Coach," Weems said. "That's your league, right there. That's your league."

Jay Triano, the Raptors coach, is greying and balding; he laughed at Weems's joke. And though Triano keeps himself trim and strong at age 52, if you watched his team play last season, you could have been convinced he was a proponent of retirement-home hoops.

His Raptors played something best described as rocking-chair defence. They sat back on their duffs while the world (and a steady stream of blurry opponents) passed them by. Then they grumbled under their collective breath, and occasionally to the press, about the sad state of the whole rotten mess.

Triano is determined to change his team's defensive ways this season. This summer saw the club swap out last year's defensive-focused assistant coach, Marc Iavaroni, for P.J. Carlesimo, a proponent of a relentless, aggressive style. And with no stat-hound stars to placate - with Chris Bosh and Hedo Turkoglu out of town - parts of the first few pre-season games have featured a Toronto squad that, for its many obvious faults, plays with impressive effort.

Perhaps the first half of Tuesday night's loss to the Bulls didn't qualify as one of those parts. With the little-known likes of David Andersen and Julian Wright in the visiting starting five, the Raptors allowed the Bulls to shoot 56 per cent from the field and rack up a lead as big as 21 points. And though Toronto showed some flashes of oomph after intermission, they fell by a 109-90 final score.

"We were slow coming out and lacked aggression," said Triano. "We practised harder than we played against the Bulls ... It took a long time for us to find any kind of intensity."

Still, of bigger concern than a 1-2 record is that at least one Raptor has visibly struggled with the demands of the new defensive thrust. Andrea Bargnani, the 7-footer from Rome who is expected to carry a large part of the scoring load, has looked out of sorts. He has shot the ball poorly and rebounded it infrequently. On Tuesday night he missed six of nine field-goal attempts in compiling 11 points and three rebounds in 26 minutes. And his performance begs a question: Is the team's new defensive bent well-suited to everyone but its best offensive threat?

Triano says no, that Bargnani will find a way to contribute defensively while excelling on his favourite end of the floor. The coach has chalked up Bargnani's early offensive struggles to his penchant to rush his shots, and acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining an offensive bounce while expending increased energy on D.

"(Last year's defence) didn't work, so it's good to change," said Bargnani. "We'll see how this one works. ... Of course, you need to be in better shape. But we're a young team, so it shouldn't take long."

Said Triano: "It's an adjustment. But listen, we had nowhere to go. We had to change the way we played at the defensive end. We'll find ways to score."

Perhaps, but make no mistake: The Raptors need Bargnani to be a primary offensive weapon. He's the rare talent on the roster who can occasionally command a double team or cause a matchup problem. So it'll be interesting to see how he adapts as the season approaches. Triano said it can take time.

In Sunday's exhibition loss in Boston, for instance, Bargnani was guarded by Kevin Garnett, the defensive hound who, in the Italian's previous experience with the Celtics, had spent the night torturing Bosh. Bargnani, in other words, can expect to see better defenders this season, which will only make things more difficult for him.

Still, Triano is likely right: The Raptors had nowhere else to go. Given the roster - with scarce separation between the talent of whoever will be starting and whoever will be coming off the bench - the new approach makes sense. Retirement-home-style defence got the Raptors booed off their home floor a season ago. If Raptors fans have shown anything over 15 seasons, it's their willingness to get behind hard workers.

"We have to fight if we're going to get any respect," said Triano.

Kudos for recognizing that reality. The challenge, now, will be convincing the club to keep swinging through an 82-game slog, and to ensure Bargnani has the legs to actually land his punches.