By Steve Lichtenstein
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With less than five minutes remaining in the Nets' 100-91 home victory over the hapless 76ers on Wednesday, there was an audible chant from a few in the Barclays Center crowd when Brooklyn backup center Andrea Bargnani stepped to the free-throw line.
I'm guessing those folks were either being sarcastic or that the initials stood for "Most Vine-d Player."
For a pair of years, it was former reserve big man Andray Blatche who personified the Brooklyn franchise. Blatche had loads of talent, but just didn't quite have the full package. Certain qualities were missing, especially in the area above the neck, that could have vaulted him (and his team) into elite status.
Bargnani is who the 7-15 Nets are these days -- a team chock full of one-dimensional players prone to the most mind-boggling gaffes.
That one dimension for the 7-footer, who was selected first overall by Toronto in the 2006 NBA draft, is scoring -- er, shooting the ball. On some nights, the ball goes through the hoop. On many others, it can be painful to watch the bricklaying.
Against a Sixers squad whose management configured a roster with no intention of winning games, Bargnani was in his element. His 23 points led all scorers. He shot 8-for-15 from the floor and grabbed six rebounds in 23 minutes.
On paper, you could conclude that he had a very good game.
The box score, unfortunately, doesn't tell you what he didn't do -- box out on the defensive boards, help teammates on defense, or spot wide-open shooters who were waiting for passes that never were delivered.
It's those misplays -- plus others such as his glorious stumble reacting to a crossover when he got caught switching onto Sixers point guard T.J. McConnell -- that have made Bargnani a favorite of those who post oddball NBA highlights on social media.
With starting center Brook Lopez saddled with foul trouble, Bargnani played nearly nine minutes in the fourth quarter of an inexcusably tight game. The Nets had gagged away a 16-point second-quarter lead and trailed, 74-70, heading into the final frame.
Bargnani produced 13 points in the fourth quarter, helping the Nets stave off what would have been a most embarrassing result.
"The big decision for me (in the fourth quarter) was do I go with Willie (Reed), T-Rob (Thomas Robinson), or Andrea when Brook got his fifth foul?" Nets coach Lionel Hollins said. "And I decided to go with Andrea simply because he was going to give us a guy that could score the ball from the perimeter and keep the court open -- keep them honest. We got a couple of offensive rebounds because a bigger guy was out there trying to guard him when a shot went up and Thad (Young) was able to go get a rebound or two. It all played out for us and I'm just thankful we got the win."
It worked out well for Hollins and the Nets mostly because they were facing the Sixers, who dropped to 1-22 on the season.
In 17 previous games, Bargnani had a net rating of minus-15.7 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, the worst on the team outside of Donald Sloan, who has played all of 28 minutes this season. Bargnani is ranked last among 55 qualifying NBA centers in both defensive rebound percentage (9.7 percent) and assist percentage (1.6 percent).
The Sixers came in with the third-worst offensive rebounding percentage in the league (20.2 percent), yet they scored 18 second-chance points off 15 opportunities on Wednesday. For all of Bargnani's touches on offense, he was credited with only one assist -- and that was thanks to some pretty generous scorekeeping. Bargnani handed the ball off to point guard Shane Larkin well outside the 3-point line and Larkin took two dribbles before canning a mid-range jump shot in the third quarter.
All of those deficiencies Hollins has shown he's been willing to live with provided that Bargnani continues to give scoring punch off the bench. Bargnani had been averaging a career-low 5.9 points per game on 41 percent shooting prior to Wednesday.
This was Bargnani's first game back since he exited the Nov. 29 contest against Detroit with a tweaked left hamstring, the same injury that kept him out of action the entire preseason.
Various aches and pains had sidelined Bargnani for 93 games during his two-year stint with the Knicks prior to his signing with Brooklyn for the league minimum (with a player option for a second year) as a free agent over the summer.
Most considered the Bargnani signing to be low-risk. If he didn't pan out, the dumping cost wouldn't be prohibitive.
Except, as Hollins indicated in his quote above, he considers Bargnani to be the best of a lot of bad options. Bargnani then enters games with a shoot-first mentality (he attempted five field goals in his first two minutes of action on Wednesday) and collateral damage be damned.
Bargnani -- and the Nets -- are just plain unreliable. That's their identity.
Hollins goes into every game with no idea what he's going to get night-to-night from anyone other than Young, who has had 10 double-doubles in his last 13 games, and Lopez.
Veterans like Joe Johnson and Jarrett Jack have sprinkled in solid efforts here and there. Mid-level Bojan Bogdanovic's effectiveness swings depending on his mood. Larkin has also been a bit up-and-down over the last couple of weeks. Bargain-basement types like Wayne Ellington and Robinson have yet to earn Hollins' trust beyond a game here and there.
Bargnani is just the Nets' designated poster child, or, if you will, their M-V-P -- Most Vexing Player.
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