A riddle: What does a 7-foot Italian forward with excellent perimeter skills have in common with a 76 Chinese center?
The answer might surprise you. Their commonalities have very little to do with similarities in their respective games, and everything to do with the politics of prying away a countrys national treasure to compete on the worlds biggest basketball stage.
Most will remember the exhaustive and perhaps even tedious process that Carol Dawson and Rudy Tomjonovich went through to secure Yaos availability for the 2002 draft from his Chinese overseers. There was the Shanghai Sharks, the professional team that controlled Yaos rights, like most international professional basketball teams, but there was an additional layer of red tape and political intrigue tied into the plot because of Yaos superstar status in his native land. Although Bargnani might not have reached those heights in Italy as of yet, you can believe that they will not let go of the best young basketball prospect their country has ever produced very easily.
When Yao was rumored to be available for the draft, the media focused on the broader social overtones that symbolized the political and social shift that such a move would represent, ushering in a new era of cooperation between the East and West. Perhaps it wasnt high drama on quite the same scale as Nixons visit to China, but dont tell that to Dawson or Rudy T, who surely felt like they were every bit the politicians, jumping through bureaucratic hoop after hoop, in the hopes of getting the player that would replace the Dream in the hearts of Rockets fans, and lead their team into the future.
Whats the relevance of this walk down memory lane? Dont look now, but were seeing a similar scenario play out with the first pick of the 2006 NBA draft. Andrea Bargnani might not be the consensus number one pick in this years draft, but dont go telling that to Bryan Colangelo. There is little doubt in the minds of draft insiders what name the Raptors new GM wants to hear called when David Stern steps up to the podium to announce the first pick. Making that happen, however, is going to be fraught with the type of intrigue and innuendo thats the stuff of basketball legends.
Why? Shouldnt it be a cake-walk? I mean, this is a player that plays for a Euroleague team. This isnt negotiating a hostage release with the Chinese government. Shouldnt this be pretty straight forward?
Throw those preconceptions out the window. Andrea Bargnani is a national treasure in Italy, and more specifically to his Euroleague team, Benetton Treviso. And by treasure, we do intend that usage in the literal sense. Money, however, isnt the primary motivating factor complicating what should be a relatively straight forward scenario. Pride and reputation are at stake, and the competitive jealousy that comes from wanting to establish that you know how to develop young players better than anyone else, NBA bankroll or not.
Out of this context, the characters begin to emerge. You have Benetton, who is a basketball powerhouse in Europe, and is pulling all the strings where Bargnanis future is concerned. They are highly invested in their young star, and do not want to see him become lost in the NBA abyss of forgotten young European players that have toiled on the end of NBA benches. Their own Nickoloz Tskitishvili fell victim to exactly that dreaded outcome only 4 years ago, and the memory is still fresh. They have seen whats happened with Darko. They do not want to let Bargnani fall into the same trap.
Oh, and they want to get paid. Bargnani doesnt have a fixed buy out agreement with Benetton, and you can bet that they are going to want to cash in if theyre going to give up their most valuable young asset. The rumored buy out terms are that Benetton will be expecting a solid 2 million dollars or more, with an agreement that whatever team selects him comes to Italy once or twice, and gives Benetton the opportunity to cash in on the ticket sales, marketing, and TV rights. All indications are that a buyout will be reached, and that the situation isnt as ominous and unpredictable as is the case for fellow Euroleague prospect Tiago Splitter.
Enter in Bargnanis agents and those that are invested in him, personally. They share a similar goal as Benetton, in one respect. They do not want to see Bargnani go into a situation where he wont be allowed to flourish. They want him somewhere hes going to get minutes. Teams that have significant front office instability need not apply. They also might want him somewhere that has an international flavor. A strong Italian community would ease the social transition for Andrea, and provide other benefits. Certainly Toronto, who hosted Benetton in 2004 for a pre-season exhibition, could provide that, as evidenced by the significant Italian cheering section that turned out to cheer on their fellow countrymen at the game.
Bargnani is in the final stages of hiring an American agent to help ease this process into fruition. The three front runners are reportedly uber-agent Arn Tellem (Pau Gasol, Jermaine Oneal), Leon Rose (Lebron James, Allen Iverson), and Jason Levien (Udonis Haslem, Kevin Martin). It doesnt hurt to have a power broker of the stature of any of these established agents negotiating on ones behalf, and Bargnanis camp is sensitive to this necessity. Playing a leading role, on the other side of the divide, is Maurizio Gherardini. Gherardini is Benettons General Manager, and is widely regarded as one of the best basketball minds in all of Europe. More importantly to Brian Colangelo and the Raptors, however, might be Gherardinis potential role as intermediary between Benetton and the Raptors in securing Bargnani.
Word has it that Gherardinis appointment as the new Assistant General Manager in Toronto is all but a formality at this stage, and with that position would bring the key to securing Benettons prized younger. Apparently the announcement will come at the end of the Italian season, but in the words of an Italian source with close ties to Gherardini, It is a done deal. The move is tactically brilliant, as Gherardini would presumably take the role of double-agent in this behind-the-scenes drama, conceivably having a foot on either side of the negotiating table.
Its important to make clear that Gherardini is a coup for the Raptors, regardless of his influence on the Bargnani process. Hes as highly regarded as a talent evaluator and cunning GM as anyone currently outside of the league. He has already been considered for top management positions by other NBA teams before now, and most likely will hold the reigns as an NBA GM before long. However, his involvement with Colangelo cant come as a surprise to Phoenix fans. They have a keen awareness of Colangelos involvement with Italian basketball, and his hiring of Mike DAntoni, an ex-Benetton coach, is reflective of that relationship. The context for Colangelos affection for Bargnani begins to grow clearer as these relationships and links with the Italian basketball community are brought into the light.
Rumours of negotiations between the Raptors and Gherardini have been going on for some time now. This reflects just how enamored with Bargnani Bryan Colangelo has been over the long-term. There was rampant speculation that if the Raptors had stayed in their pre-lottery position of having the 5th pick in the draft, that Gherardini and Bargnanis American agent would have sent a fax to other NBA teams, basically saying to stay away from Bargnani because if any other team than the Raptors picked him, he would simply stay in Europe, ala Fran Vasquez. That has been denied by people in Bargnanis camp, but it seems at least conceivable with the level of politicking going on.
There can be little doubt about Colangelos interest in Bargnani. Not only has the process of securing the elements that will allow for his selection to take place been under way for some time, but his comments in the media have appeared quite thinly veiled for someone with such a reputation for misinformation and holding his cards close to his chest.
Chad Ford of ESPN was on a Toronto sports radio station recently, and said that Colangelo has spoken glowingly of Bargnani for atleast three years in personal conversations theyve shared while Colangelo was still the GM in Phoenix. Whats meaningful, according to Ford, is that because Colangelo did not believe that the Suns would likely be in a position to select the young Italian, he was quite candid in his praise. Theres little doubt that if Colangelo had been able to gaze into the future, he mightve been more selective in how open he was in his admiration for Bargnanis game, because now theres little chance of hiding it from the rest of the GMs sitting at the proverbial poker table that is the NBA draft.
The fact the Raptors lucked into the #1 pick has made things both easier and harder at the same time for Colangelo. Easier in the sense that trying to manipulate the scenario such that Bargnani drops to wherever the Raptors are picking is no longer necessary, harder in that he now has to try to sell this to Toronto fans that have grown insecure over the last couple of drafts with picks that, at the time, seemed questionable at best. The process of selling this to Toronto fans is already under way. Colangelo has floated out to various media sources that the top spot is Bargnanis to lose, and in doing so, hes laying the foundation of pre-conditioning that will establish that expectation in the minds of Raptors fans. Even though Colangelo has made some effort to appear impartial in his comments regarding the various possibilities at the top of the lottery, its hard not to notice that of all the possible candidates for the #1 pick, its Bargnani that hes spent proportionately more time speaking of than any of the other players, in the media.
When you have the first pick, posturing and misdirection isnt as meaningful as it is for those selecting on the basis of someone elses choice. Not only that, but like the Rockets with Yao, dealing with the unique circumstances that go along with trying to pry away a young star from another professional team requires an element of ingratiation that isnt necessary in securing college prospects. The result is a very tenuous balance between not wanting to show your hand, and at the same time being public enough in your praise for the player that their handlers are reassured by your overt declaration of intention towards their player. By being subtly effusive in praise for Bargnani, Colangelo strokes the ego of those in Benetton who are invested in how the perceptions of Bargnani reflect back on their program and perceived competence as a first class organization.
Sending Wayne Embry, a senior Raptors advisor with major clout at all levels of the organization, and Sam Mitchell, the Raptors head coach, to watch Bargnani in action, could be considered a move to build consensus amongst his staff. The idea most likely being to build the type of political capital necessary to make taking the first European ever with the first overall pick in an NBA draft a legitimate move in the perceptions of fans and those around the league.
Its hard to imagine a scenario where Sam Mitchell doesnt come back talking glowingly of Bargnani, considering his tenure as the Raptors head coach has come under significant scrutiny over the last while. You would think someone with Mitchells awareness of the politics of keeping ones place in the food chain would recognize the practical benefit to him personally of supporting Colangelos pet player regardless of what he may or may not think of him in reality. Its quite possible that Colangelos attempt to build consensus may in fact end up being more of a self-fulfilling prophesy, with those underneath him telling him what he wants to hear, and attempting to establish their spot in the hierarchy of the new regime as a result.
The effect of a unified staff is that the move doesnt set off a negative reaction amongst fans and the media, and put an undue level of expectation on Bargnani in his rookie year. Again, there are lessons to be learned from what happened with Darko in Detroit. From a public relations standpoint, it establishes confidence with Benetton that their player is going to an environment where there is top to bottom support in helping Bargnani succeed in the NBA.
If there is a division between the coach and the GM about a player, often times the player is the one that pays the price as the pawn that gets manipulated in the power struggle between coach and GM. There was certainly talk of that type of tension in Detroit last season with Larry Brown and Joe Dumars being at odds over Darkos playing time. Raptors fans are acutely aware of the potential for that outcome after watching Araujo become the expression of the rift that existed between Sam Mitchell and ex-GM Rob Babcock.
Suffice to say, the stage is being set for Bargnani to become the Raptors pick, regardless of whether theres an effort made to move down to extract additional value for the number one spot, if someone like Aldridge is perceived more broadly to be the best player available. What complicates matters is that Aldridge would seem to be a perfect match for the Bulls, who are picking right after the Raptors. Therefore, the Bulls are nicely poised to play the role of spoiler to any attempt by the Raptors to move down and still get their man in Bargnani. If the Bulls believe that theyre going to lose their shot at Aldridge, they might threaten to take Bargnani to sabotage any Raptor effort to pick up an additional player or pick at a lower spot in the lottery, forcing them to take him number one, or risk losing the guy that they are so high on. Thats a plotline that can be expected to generate significant talk as the big day draws near.
Regardless of what happens between now and the draft, expect a great storyline to emerge, including drama, deceit, and the type of behind-the-scenes action that would rival your favorite spy movie. And when Andrea Bargnani steps up to the podium to shake commissioner Sterns hand, watch closely and you might see him mouth the words, albeit in broken English, Yao Ming aint got nothin on me!.