New coach, a little faith help Bargnani turn into Raptors' leader
The message was so important that the new coach was willing to fly to Italy to deliver it in person. It turned out that Dwane Casey wasn't able to arrange a trip overseas before the lockout started on July 1, but he was able to make his case in a phone call.
Afterward there was another call. Following the lockout there were more calls and a dinner. Every conversation was the same as the last.
"He was talking about defense right away," said Andrea Bargnani, the power forward of the Toronto Raptors. "It was his main focus. You could understand from day one in training camp: For the first three days every drill was about defense."
Bargnani, a 7-footer from Italy, was the Raptors' most talented player. He was the No. 1 pick of the 2006 draft, and his scoring average had risen each of the last three seasons to 21.4 points per game last year. But the Raptors had missed the playoffs each of the last three seasons and it was becoming easy to question their choice of Bargnani ahead of LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-NBA power forward of the Trail Blazers.
"I laugh at people who criticize [team president] Bryan Colangelo, for taking him No. 1," said Casey, who was an assistant coach of the champion Mavericks before he was hired by Toronto in June. "Because there's not a lot of 7-footers with his skill-set taking guys off the dribble."
At the same time, Casey understood his priority was to bring out that talent, to turn Bargnani into an All-Star capable of leading a playoff team. Bargnani, now 26, was ready to listen. "He's got the money, he's got the notoriety, he's got his commercials," said Casey. "He's got everything, so now all he's got to do is win. Build a foundation to win, and that's what we're doing now."
Their construction was put on hold when Bargnani suffered a strained calf that sidelined him for six games. They lost all six while averaging 81 points, which increased the load on their defense. But Bargnani returned Tuesday at Phoenix and his impact was immediate. He scored 36 points and the Raptors beat the Suns, 99-96, for the first time in eight years.
As important as Bargnani is offensively, the Raptors welcomed him back to help establish them at the other end as well. Their future, as Casey sees it, is as a defensive team, and they won't fulfill that ambition without the buy-in of their star.
So far the Raptors' defensive turnaround has been dramatic and impressive. They ranked No. 29 in field-goal defense while inviting opponents to convert 48.2 percent last year. This season they rank No. 5 in the same category at 41.9 percent.
"That's the hard way to come in as a coach," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "If you take a new job and you want to make everyone happy, tell them, 'We're going to score -- we're going to score more points.' And then everybody on the team loves you. When you say it the other way -- the way Case has done it -- there's not a lot of fans of that. Yet he's won them over, obviously, by watching how they play and how they defend.
Casey has been winning over his players by coaching the defense through Bargnani, a scorer who hadn't been viewed as a strong NBA defender. "They know I'm holding him accountable -- I'm holding everyone accountable," said Casey. "And that's the same thing with most of your superstars. In Dallas, Dirk [Nowitzki] was held accountable defensively, and we turned that around. In Seattle (where Casey was a long-time assistant), Gary [Payton] was held accountable by George [Karl] defensively. So if you're star players are held accountable, especially on the defensive end, then nobody has a choice but to buy in. And everybody has, to date."
His focus on defense has appeared to sharpen Bargnani's offensive, who is averaging career-bests of 22.4 points and 48.8 percent shooting. As a teenager with Benetton Treviso of Italy, his coach Ettore Messina -- now an assistant with the Lakers -- demanded that he play defense, and Bargnani responded with 7.1 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.8 steals for the Italian league champions in his final European season. "I was really young," said Bargnani, "and Messina was definitely not going to let you play unless you played defense better than all the old guys."
I tried to show sensitivity by mentioning the stereotype he was facing as a European big man.
"No," he said. "Actually I never heard this before."
He never was told that Europeans are known as soft defenders?
"I swear to God it's the first time I heard this," he said.
Bargnani's next step is to show leadership defensively. "He'd probably be mad at me for telling this story," said Casey. "But in our first meeting when I had dinner with him before the season started, I told him, 'I know you don't think guys understand what you're saying, or you're speaking broken English, but guys feel it from your heart. They know when you say something in front of them it's coming from your heart and they're going to buy into it. So don't be afraid to say something to guys.'
"It's not in his personality. It's not easy for him, but he's getting there."
The Raptors will go into the summer hoping to use cap space and a lottery pick to add talent around Bargnani. They aren't going to make the playoffs, but they can establish a defensive style that will lead to success eventually because their best player is leading the way. "He's a better athlete than Dirk," said Casey, raising the comparison that often has been made between Bargnani and Nowitzki. "He has all the tools to be a great defender -- moving his feet, running to stick his nose in there, he has length. So he can be a really good defender."
Bargnani sees no reason why that shouldn't happen. "Defense doesn't require talent, it doesn't require hours of practice in the summertime," he said. "It's not like you have to learn a fadeaway jumper, or you're learning to dribble between the legs. It's much easier. It's just a matter of doing it."