Moving away from “mental toughness”: VanVleet, Brittni Donaldson talk mental health at Goldring

Speakers discussed personal growth, difficulty with balancing mental health with sports

Moving away from “mental toughness”: VanVleet, Brittni Donaldson talk mental health at Goldring

The Varsity Blues Basketball Excellence program hosted a mental health panel at the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport on October 29 with Toronto Raptors guard Fredderick VanVleet along with Brittni Donaldson, and Jarred Dubois among others. The speakers discussed their relationship with mental health on a day-to-day basis, and how they have learned to interact with others while keeping mental health in mind.

VanVleet’s personal growth

VanVleet spoke about the challenges that he faced growing up and the evolution of his relationship with his own mental health. Growing up, VanVleet faced a lot of personal troubles, which he said he needed to block out due to the expectation of “mental toughness” in his basketball career. He said that mental health was not something that he felt he had to deal with, especially when his whole life was revolving around basketball.

“But it wasn’t until I had kids that I really started thinking about what that means for me as a person and what my parents passed down to me, what I’m able to pass down to them,” said VanVleet. “You just start thinking… ‘how do I better myself and better the people around me so that we’re not passing down destructive emotions, feelings, thought processes,’ whatever the case may be. So you took the flip from ‘okay, I have to be mentally tough’ when I’m playing a game, but also what does that mean for me as a man, as a father, as a son to pass that on to my kids so they have a clean slate.”

He said that he needed to revisit a lot of personal trauma that he hadn’t dealt with, and thought back on certain experiences that shaped him into the man he is today. VanVleet stressed the importance of having conversations about mental health, and passing on these conversations onto the younger generation.

The difficulty of discussing mental health in sports

Brittni Donaldson, Assistant Coach of the Toronto Raptors, who played four seasons for the University of Northern Iowa basketball program, discussed her personal difficulties in being asked to leave her emotions aside in athletic settings. “Mental toughness is a term that’s used almost daily in our environment and what it means in the environment of basketball and [other] sports is suppressing any sort of emotion or feeling,” Donaldson said. “Putting [them] on the back end in order to complete the task that’s in front of you.”

She said that this not only applies to her emotional state, but her physical pain as well. “You’re kind of conditioned as an athlete to just push through those types of things or just ignore them completely in order to complete the task at hand,” she continued. “For me personally that manifests itself in a physical form. I played collegiate basketball and every day [I] was preached to about mental toughness. If you weren’t mentally tough, you weren’t going to play.”

“I ended up pushing myself so far away from my inner dialogue and the things that were going on in my body and my mind that I was playing through injuries and not even realizing it. And it got to a point where I had to have reconstructive leg surgery and to be told I could never play again for me to realize [that] I’m that far away from my inner dialogue and what my body, my mind is telling me.”

Getting the discussion started early

Jarred Dubois, Assistant Coach for the Detroit Pistons and Founder of the non-profit organization, Everyone Has a Story, spoke about how he wanted to make sure young athletes at his kids camp were receiving proper help. “We started with bringing in mental wellness professionals to speak to the parents,” Dubois explained.

“We all know that a lot of parents — especially in youth sports — are very forceful in trying to get kids to perform at a high level. You’ve got to be the next Fred, you’ve got to be the next ‘this person’ or ‘that person.’ Every player can’t be the next NBA star. And the psychological breakdown of [that on] a child takes a toll.”

He went on to explain that many kids who go through traumatic experiences do not know how to process their emotions and are often given inadequate resources to deal with them. He wanted to have a way to listen to and connect with other people with similar experiences, which is why he started his non-profit, which hosts other similar panel discussions, and intends to “promote compassion for others one story at a time.”

“Understanding [that a lack of communication] was the case for me and my story and I wish that I had something like this where I could come and listen to people who I could connect with, people who do things that I’m engaged with from a variety of backgrounds and a variety of expertise,” DuBois continued. “And so I created this panel process.”

Varsity Blues hosts panel discussion with Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse

Nurse discusses championship run, managing players

Varsity Blues hosts panel discussion with Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse

On Monday, November 4, the Toronto Varsity Blues Basketball Excellence Program hosted a talk featuring the Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse which touched on topics including managing underdog teams and working under pressure. The talk was moderated by Sportsnet’s NHL reporter Elliotte Friedman. The event was held at the Toronto Region Board of Trade and touched on topics including winning the championship and staying calm in high pressure situations.

Nurse started the discussion by holding up his NBA championship ring, and later passing it around the room for everyone to hold. “Somebody asked me, ‘When do you wear it?’ I said ‘when I come to things like this.’ We just got them so I think I’m going to give it to people, share it with them. That was the… best experience for me about the whole title… sharing it with everybody from Toronto and Canada.”

Nurse spent his formative coaching years in the British Basketball League (BBL), with his first stop being the Birmingham Bullets. Before Nurse took over, the Bullets, much like the Raptors, had a rather underwhelming history.

He recalled one game where his player grabbed a rebound in a tie game at the end of the fourth quarter, forgot the score, and dribbled out to the half court line to let time expire — much like JR Smith’s infamous mistake in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA finals. “Two stats guys [were] sitting next to me that have been keeping stats for 20 years for the team. One of them looked at me and said ‘typical Birmingham Bullet basketball,’” Nurse recalled.

“This guy motivated me, that I needed to change everybody’s mindset in the whole organization. So I went back and I titled this little letter. I wrote at the top ‘expect to win.’” Nurse’s motivation seemed to work, as the Bullets would go on to win the BBL title in 1996.

Nurse went on to discuss his experience coaching in the NBA Development League, now known as the NBA G League. He said that in his countryside house, just outside of Des Moines, Iowa, he had several large whiteboards where he would draw up plays for late-game situations. “I mean just literally hundreds of scenarios end-of-game. But we sat there and thought of everyone we could think of.”

Friedman asked Nurse if coaching in high-pressure situations like NBA Finals brought him back to his basement just outside of Des Moines. Nurse said, “I don’t know about that, but what I do believe is this: you’re totally there. That’s the one thing you don’t even notice: the 20,000 [fans]… the 800 media, you don’t notice the pressure of the situation. You’re not really thinking about ‘oh my God, this is the NBA Finals.’”

Nurse continued by saying that he wanted his players to mirror his calm. “I wanted to be confident so our guys would be confident… I don’t always pick the best play, I don’t always pick the guy to shoot it, but when we do leave that huddle, we’re going to walk out there together, knowing what we’ll do.”

The summer after the NBA Finals, Nurse met with Phil Jackson, who won 11 NBA Championships as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. When coaching in England, Nurse would watch tapes of Jackson’s Bulls, keeping an eye out for his famous ‘triangle offense.’ He finally got to meet Jackson this August in Montana and recounted a story of driving in Phil Jackson’s truck. “We drive around for like three hours eating cherries and spitting the seeds out the window. And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’m sitting here eating cherries with 11 time NBA Champion, Phil Jackson.’”

Nurse recalled the two best pieces of advice he got from the coaching legend on their last day together. “He said, ‘number one, don’t underestimate the power of the basketball gods… you’ve been hired by your owners to make, at all times, the best decision for the team. And you have to keep that in mind. That’s not going to be easy.’”

The next piece of advice was the most memorable, and one that Friedman included in his weekly 31 Thoughts column. “I want you to imagine you got this sword. He said that one end, the sharp end, you’re going to have to push those guys. You [have] got to prod them. You have to get on their asses. But every now and then I want you to turn around and look at the handle. And I want you to have that symbolize compassion because you have to understand where they come from and what they’re going through,” Nurse recalled.

“And then poof — he disappeared,” Nurse joked.

Blues basketball teams split doubleheader against Brock

Men win home opener while women yet to win in OUA play

Blues basketball teams split doubleheader against Brock

The Toronto Varsity Blues basketball teams went 1–1 against the Brock Badgers in their double-header home opener on Saturday, November 2. The women’s team lost in the first game, and the men’s claimed victory in the second.

Women’s team 

The women’s side took the court first, seeking their first Ontario University Athletics (OUA) victory of the season, following a tough loss on the road the previous night to the York Lions.

Brock drew first blood in the opening quarter after a fast break layup by the Badgers’ Meagan Charbonneau in the second minute. The Blues responded, however, as Nada Radonjić connected from distance on back-to-back possessions. The Blues led by as many as five points in the quarter and held an 18–16 lead after 10 minutes of play.

Toronto continued to dictate the pace into the second quarter, throwing out an ever-changing concoction of aggressive zone, press, and defenses to frustrate Brock’s shooters. The Blues limited the Badgers to just one field goal over the first five minutes of the quarter, and turned defense into offense, where they got great looks off of penetration.

Christine Jurcau, tasked with the unenviable assignment of guarding OUA All-Star selection Melissa Tatti, held the star Badgers guard to just four points on three field goal attempts in the first half — far from Tatti’s typical average of 16.6 points per game. The halftime score was 34–30 in favour of Toronto.

Toronto forward Sarah Bennett — averaging a near double-double of 9.3 points and 8.5 boards per contest thus far in her comeback season from injury — was benched with her third foul just 10 seconds into the third quarter. The two teams traded buckets briefly before Radonjić pushed the Blues’ lead back to six with 7:10 minutes remaining on the clock by hitting back-to-back three-pointers.

However, the injury-plagued Blues, who have seen up to seven of their 16-woman roster sidelined at some point this season, showed signs of fatigue and inexperience later in the game, while Brock’s shooters were hitting shot after shot. The Badgers went four-for-four from a distance in the quarter, and went on an 11–0 run before Jurcau stopped the bleeding with only 4:59 minutes left in the quarter, sinking a pair of free throws. Unfortunately, that was the last of the Blues’ scoring for the period, and the Badgers pieced together a 12–0 run to make it 58–43 for the visiting Badgers after three quarters.

The Blues continued to fight into the final quarter but ultimately could not recover from the deficit. They cut the lead to as little as 11 points, with 7:26 minutes to play on a three-point basket by Jurcau. Unfortunately, Brock’s shooters could not be denied, hitting a blistering 64 per cent of their three-point attempts in the second half and 50 per cent of their field goals overall. The final score was 78–59 in favour of the visiting Badgers.

Radonjić posted a double-double with a team high of 20 points and a game high of 11 boards, while fellow veteran Bennett wound up with 14 points and seven boards. Fiorella Granda led the team in assists with four, and first-year forward Nakeisha Ekwandja was solid with six points and six boards in only 29 minutes of action. Jurcau was a workhorse for the Blues, logging a career-high 40 minutes on the night and contributing 10 points to the scoring spread.

“I thought we opened up the game with a lot more energy. We played pretty well; we shared the ball well,” noted Coach Michèle Bélanger after the game. “Defensively, we were really alert, we rebounded the ball well. We boxed out. So those were all really great positives.”

Jurcau said that she was “extremely proud” of her team’s efforts, commending the work of rookies Ekwandja and Sarah Cumby in particular. Jurcau sees room for improvement but has faith in the team’s promise.

“I think people are starting to step up more… We have moments and spurts where we show [promise]… we’re just not at that consistent spot yet… We’re still a fairly new team and [have] a lot of stuff to deal with already, like injuries, but I definitely think… slowly but surely, we’ll be working together very well,” explained Jurcau.

MATTHEW AZEVEDO/THE VARSITY

Men’s team

In the second game of the doubleheader, the Varsity Blues men’s basketball team bounced back from a heartbreaking one-point overtime loss the night before to take down the Brock Badgers in a stunning comeback fashion.

Daniel Johansson opened up the scoring for the home side 1:43 minutes into the first quarter with a three-point bucket, and the teams traded baskets for much of the quarter. The Badgers took a one-point lead heading into the second with the score at 14–13.

In the second quarter, the Badgers continued to gain easy buckets in the paint off of some clean back cuts and crisp ball movement, quietly increasing their lead to as much as nine points with only 5:22 minutes remaining on the clock before the home side caught fire. The Blues swung the momentum on the backs of a 9–0 run over the span of just 70 seconds into the quarter, as Elie Mouyal breathed life into teammates and fans alike with back-to-back three-pointers and rookie Alec McGregor added another three-ball on the next Blues possession. The Blues and Badgers once again kept the contest neck-and-neck, and the Badgers maintained a 36–35 lead at halftime.

Just 15 seconds into the third quarter, Toronto’s Eric Rwahaire accomplished a rare four-point play as he caught a cross-court pass from Evan Shadkami and connected from beyond the arc on the right wing, while being bumped and sent to the ground by his defender.

After Rwawhire hit the ensuing free-throw to put the Blues ahead with a score of 39–38, the Badgers went on a mini 6–0 run. Shadkami responded, hitting a triple with 7:17 minutes left in the period. However, the Blues’ shooting suddenly went cold, and Shadkami’s three pointer would be Toronto’s last field goal of the quarter. The Badgers held their largest lead of the game, 53–42, after three quarters of action.

The Blues found a second gear in the fourth, a testament to their veteran experience and leadership. Iñaki Alvarez and Shadkami respectively sunk a layup and a three-point shot on the Blues’ first two possessions to open the frame, and then Johansson made good on a crafty Eurostep through two Brock players in the low block to cut the lead to 53–49 with 8:29 minutes left to play.

The Blues threw out a stifling 1-2-2 match-up zone that proved to be highly effective, forcing the Badgers to turn the ball over and take contested, low-percentage outside shots. Some timely scoring from Anthony Daudu, Shadkami, and Johansson tied the game at 63 apiece, with only two minutes left in the game.

The Badgers clung to their 66–65 lead with under a minute left. Though, when they failed to convert, the Blues regained possession with 24 seconds left on the clock. The home squad would end up getting statistical contributions from every player that saw floor time, but in the end it was the Blues’ dynamic fifth-year duo that secured the victory for their team.

Johansson would sink the go-ahead basket with about 12 seconds remaining, a clutch face-up long range jumper near the top of the arc that sent the crowd into a frenzy and gave the Blues a 68–66 lead.

After Godsman Kwakwah threw up a prayer on the ensuing Badgers possession, it was none other than fellow fifth-year, floor general Chris Barrett — the smallest player on the court in stature, but clearly not in heart — secured the crucial rebound on the miss. Barrett was sent to the line to stop the clock and calmly drained both foul shots, icing the game and capping off 28 points for Toronto in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, the final score was 70–66 for the Blues.

The win marked Toronto’s first OUA victory, moving them to 1-2, and was also their first win of the year over a nationally ranked team. Shadkami had a team-high 19 points, including five three-pointers, on 7–13 shooting from the field, and added five assists. Daniel Johansson added 18 points and eight boards, and the Blues got 18 of their 70 points from the bench.

Assistant Coach Mike De Giorgio was pleased with the team’s perseverance, noting that “last year, we kinda quit when we got down. And this year, when we [get] down, we [fight] back.” He noted, however, that the team will continue to work on being “more consistent with our effort… at the ‘smart things,’” including “trying to follow the game plan, trying hard to take the right shot, [and] not just the easy shot… really working hard at boxing out and going to get the ball.”

In addition to fifth-years Johansson and Barrett, the Blues are also enjoying the services of Division 1 transfer Eric Rwahwire, who De Giorgio has credited for vocal leadership on the court.

Opinion: In conversation with U of T Raptors fans

The defending champions look to remain competitive after the loss of two key starters

Opinion: In conversation with  U of T Raptors fans

After winning the NBA Championship this past June, the Raptors are in a unique position to start the 2019–2020 NBA season. Despite being the defending champions, they are still considered underdogs.

ESPN, Bleacher Report, and Sports Illustrated all do not list the Raptors as a top-eight team in their preseason power rankings. Analytics website FiveThirtyEight gave them just a two per cent chance of repeating as NBA champions.

These tempered expectations are understandable: very few teams lose two starters — one of them being arguably the best player in the NBA, Kawhi Leonard — in the offseason and still remain competitive, much less title contenders.

What is left is a mixture of wily playoff veterans, like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, alongside young talent like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. The latter will be asked to step into even greater roles with the absence of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

Despite these losses, the Raptors can still compete for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. Team President Masai Ujiri will have to decide whether he wants to run it back with the roster he has or liquidate his assets by trading away veterans and betting on the youth.

The precariousness of this position has not been lost on the numerous U of T Raptor fans. However, it is undercut with a sense of optimism that comes from having witnessed history as a Canadian team won the NBA Championship for the first time — a feat that awed even the most casual of Raptors fans.

“I’m a bandwagoner, “ admitted third-year life sciences student Deepak — but that didn’t stop him and other fairweather fans from being drawn into the fervour that swept Toronto. “The energy I felt when the Raptors won was incredible. It felt like the whole city went absolutely nuts… and I think the after-effects of that are still here.”

These good feelings even extend to the departures of Leonard and Green. “It’s heartbreaking,” acknowledged Dillon, a second-year engineering student, “[but] I would have been more resentful if they hadn’t won. I think the mindset now is ‘thank you, you won us a championship. If you want to leave now and do other things, more power to you. You don’t owe us anything.’”

Though interviewed students conceded that the Raptors’ ceiling had been lowered, they also expressed their strong faith in the Raptors front office, with Masai Ujiri being mentioned glowingly.

Thomas, a third-year medical science student, said “Masai is a special kind of genius… The Kawhi trade showed that he was willing to take big risks, [DeMar DeRozan] was loved by everyone and [Ujiri] knew that… but the trade gave us a championship… I have faith he knows what he’s doing.”

This faith is not without the expectation that the Raptors remain competitive. A general consensus among interviewees was that the rebuild should be held off for at least this year, and that the Raptors still have the talent to be a mid-tier playoff team. “We just re-signed [Lowry], and if the young guys take another leap, I don’t see why we can’t win a playoff round,” reasoned Dillon. He and others said that calls to ‘blow it up’ can wait for the offseason, or, as Thomas suggested, “at least until the trade deadline if they’re very bad.”

This season may not come with the expectations of a typical defending champion, but fans still expect the Raptors to be successful, and the afterglow of that magical time in June allows for them to believe in both the present and the future of this organization. 

The Raptors will start their 2019–2020 campaign with a banner raising ceremony at Scotiabank Arena, followed by a matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans on the NBA’s opening day. The game will be followed by a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers — for the fans who are still not over the departure of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, who signed with the Clippers and Lakers, respectively.

UTM hosts Raptors 905 Open Tryout

The Varsity sits down with General Manager Chad Sanders to discuss team’s future, U of T hopefuls

UTM hosts Raptors 905 Open Tryout

Last week, almost 100 basketball players from across North America were given the opportunity of a lifetime: a practice roster spot on the Raptors 905, the Mississauga-based minor league team for the Toronto Raptors. 

On Saturday, September 7, the Raptors’ G League-affiliated team hosted open tryouts at UTM, and participants were given a platform to showcase their skills in front of coaches and staff from within the organization. For a fee of $275 during pre-registration, or a $310 ticket on the day of the event, the dream of playing on a team that has previously featured NBA talents Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell, became more attainable. 

While the annual salary of a G League player is only around $35,000, a roster spot on one of these teams symbolizes a tangible route to the NBA and a career playing basketball on the biggest stage possible. 

In an interview with The Varsity, General Manager of the Raptors 905, Chad Sanders, provided insight on the open tryouts, Canadian basketball, and the relationship between U of T and the 905. 

The Varsity: How has the interest in the Raptors 905 team changed alongside the success of the Raptors in recent years?

Chad Sanders: I think we are definitely seeing interest in our team grow alongside the success of the Raptors. Our organization has worked hard to foster a meaningful connection between the two teams and I think that has been shown with how many players have some time with 905 as part of their development with Toronto. As it relates to our open tryout, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this season drew our largest number of attendees following the championship season that the Raptors had. 

TV: What does the enthusiasm surrounding these tryouts reflect about Canadian basketball?

CS: The one thing I have noticed over the last few years is how basketball has continued to grow  — particularly the growth at the grassroots level. We have a number of camps that we run which are well attended, and even just seeing kids at the public courts, basketball is really surging in popularity and we want to make sure we continue to help that happen. 

TV: How many students or alumni from U of T participated in the tryouts? What was the background of the participating of basketball players?

CS: We had a few players that had either attended U of T or played for the basketball team. The school has been so accommodating to us, whether it be at the downtown or Mississauga campus, it really makes the day run smooth when you have a good venue. 

Players ranged from your recreational men’s league players to professionals, and I think that’s the beauty of the open tryout, it really is for anyone. Some people just come out for the experience of being around basketball people and a professional basketball environment. It’s important that we as a staff and organization provide that experience for everyone and really treat everyone who comes out with the same mentality. 

TV: What were the scouts and coaches looking for? What types of drills and games did players participate in?

CS: I think we are always looking for a few key things: talent, potential, and intangibles. The unique thing about the NBA G League is that rosters essentially reset every season, so you are starting from scratch each year. With that reality, it is important to identify players who can play within the team, but who also have the ability to create for themselves. 

We structured the day so we could have some of the more individual aspects of the game come through in drills and smaller group games and then we organized full games that would put players in a position to show how they could operate within a team. 

TV: How has the relationship between the Raptors organization and U of T changed the campus atmosphere and the opportunities that are available to the U of T community?

CS: We have a great relationship with U of T and UTM. We have used the facilities numerous times throughout the last four years, whether it be for open tryouts, G League showcases, or practices. Last season one of our mentor coaches was Tamara Tatham, who is an assistant from U of T with the women’s team and she was great for our program. We have nothing but good things to say about our experiences with U of T. 

TV: How was the talent compared to past years’?

CS: We are really fortunate to be in an area that has really produced legitimate basketball talent. Lots of great players have come from Toronto and surrounding areas, and the open tryout is another opportunity to expose this talent. This season definitely stayed at the standard we have come to expect from the open tryout process. 

TV: Given that current Raptors players Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell have all spent time in the G League, playing for the 905, what advice would you give a to a Varsity student regarding a career in professional basketball, and the different paths it might take to get there?

CS: I think you hit the nail on the head with the last part; there is no one path to follow. I’ve been fortunate to work internationally, and the sport of basketball has such a global presence — great basketball is being played all over the globe. That being the case, scouts are all over the world searching for talent, and if it is out there, it will be found.

Someone like Pascal — who you mentioned — was first seen at a basketball without borders camp in Africa. If you look at the NBA, even in the last few years. with players like Luka Doncic and Giannis, the game is more global than ever. The other big thing would be to just keep working at it and focus on improving. All the players who you mentioned, Fred, Pascal, Norm, they all have such a strong work ethic and are constantly adding and improving their craft. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In Photos: A Raptors retrospective

From celebration to disarray

In Photos: A Raptors retrospective

As the final buzzer sounded in the Oracle Arena, signalling the first NBA championship of a Canadian team, waves of people flooded the streets of Toronto. Despite the scattered shattered glass and even the police horse excrement, the crowds continued to celebrate the historic night throughout the city. People danced, cheered, and climbed anything that they could just to show their enthusiasm for the Toronto team.

ON THE WAY TO UNION (KING STREET)

UNION STATION (FRONT STREET)


DUNDAS SQUARE (YONGE STREET)

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

The Parade

The Raptors’ parade seemed to mirror the night of their victory: the streets, scaffolds, signs, bus stops, and monuments were once again covered with people. Under the glaring sun, the crowd grew restless as the parade continued to delay. Families had been waiting since early morning and others camped out the night before. However, the spirit was still strong and Toronto was ready to welcome their team back home.

NATHAN PHILLIPS SQUARE (BAY AND QUEEN)


The celebrations were cut short after multiple shots were fired during the victory speeches. The crowds in the south half of Nathan Phillips Square dissipated and people were in disarray as they struggled to put distance between themselves and the shooters. Lost belongings, mismatched shoes, sprained ankles, and people in shock — the parade was over for those who were stampeded in the back. Almost three hours behind schedule, the crowds at the front continued the celebration as those in the rear tried to recollect their belongings and call their friends and families who they lost in the scramble.

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Here are the odds of the Raptors winning the NBA Finals

Some predictive models are giving the Raptors more than a fighting chance to dethrone the defending champs

Here are the odds of the Raptors winning the NBA Finals

The Toronto Raptors have never seen a team quite like the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs. It’s not that they haven’t had strong competition in the past: the Philadelphia 76ers are loaded with talent, and the Milwaukee Bucks had the best regular season record in the NBA this year, as well as the probable league MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Warriors, however, are a different beast altogether. They’ve won three of the past four NBA championships, have a full starting lineup’s worth of All-Star-calibre players, and two of the best players in the NBA. Yet the Raptors — a team which has never made an NBA Finals — are being given a chance to win them, and were even favoured at the beginning of the series.

How can this Canadian expansion project, with a history of underwhelming playoff performances, be favoured to defeat the greatest dynasty that the league has ever seen? Is it time to question the validity of these predictive models? Or is it possible that the Raptors are actually a good team?

Roster Construction

Raptors President Masai Ujiri and General Manager Bobby Webster were diligent in addressing their shortcomings this offseason. Last July, Ujiri made the tough decision to trade fan favourite DeMar Derozan, along with Jakob Poeltl, to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

Both Green and Leonard have played in two NBA Finals, and won an NBA championship together, with Leonard winning Finals MVP. Ujiri and Webster not only upgraded the team’s talent, but its experience and championship pedigree as well. The Raptors front office also reportedly refused to include forward Pascal Siakam in the trade for Leonard and Green.

This seemed like an odd decision, given that Siakam had only averaged 20.7 minutes and 7.3 points per game in the previous season, but he has since blossomed into a starter and the Raptors’ secondary scoring option after Leonard. At the trade deadline, the Raptors acquired veteran centre Marc Gasol, who brought more playoff experience, as well as elite defence and passing.

By the numbers

The American data outlet FiveThirtyEight gave the Raptors a 54 per cent chance to win the NBA Finals at the start of the series. That number dropped down to 49 per cent after game two but has since increased to 87 per cent. FiveThirtyEight uses a projection model called CARMELO, which takes into account numerous factors.

CARMELO is a more advanced version of Elo ratings, which factor in which team won each game, the margin of victory, and where each game was played. Elo is a somewhat useful statistic, but has numerous flaws in evaluating future performance. For example, if a player is injured, or is resting — as was the case with Leonard throughout the regular season — Elo would not be able to account for that.

Adding Leonard, Gasol, and Green to the roster has quite clearly made the Raptors a better team, but this did not show up in their Elo score: the Raptors highest ever Elo rating came in March 2018, before acquiring any of these players. CARMELO incorporates individual player projections to account for offseason transactions, injuries, and rest. FiveThirtyEight also later added a playoff experience adjustment to account for the advantage that more experienced teams have.

A U of T model

U of T statistics professor Jeffrey Rosenthal has been working on his own model for the NBA playoffs, although he admits that it is much less advanced than other models like FiveThirtyEight’s. He created this model in response to media inquiries asking him to calculate the probabilities of Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beating shot in game seven against Philadelphia.

“That was an interesting one because I couldn’t find actual statistics about how often the shot… bounces four times. It’s extremely unlikely,” Rosenthal recalls.

Rosenthal’s predictive model is heavily based on past performance. “I just looked at the regular season records and outcomes of the competing teams, and compared their performances at home and away, and extrapolated from that into the playoffs to give an estimate for each game of the probability that one team would win or the other, taking account of home court advantage and that kind of thing. And then do that to get an estimate of the probability for each game,” he explained.

He found that there was a huge difference in how certain teams performed at home versus on the road, noting that Toronto and Milwaukee played much better at home, whereas Golden State was about even in both settings. The Raptors had a better regular season record, giving them home court advantage in four of the seven games this series. Rosenthal gave the Raptors a 51 per cent chance at the start of the series, dropping down to 48 per cent after game two, and now at a high of 89 per cent going into game five.

Many are also predicting that the tides will turn even more in Golden State’s favour when star forward Kevin Durant returns from an injury, but Rosenthal isn’t so sure. “You can say, ‘He’s a great player, and coming back, it’s going to make all the difference.’ Or you could say, ‘They’ll have a new guy back in the lineup, he’s missed a few games, he’s out of rhythm and he’s still hurting,’ or whatever. So, it’s hard to say.”

With only one more win needed, Raptors fans are counting on the team to overcome the odds and bring home its first championship title. “It’s the cliché, but there’s a reason you have to play the game, right? You can [only] get so much by trying to predict,” Rosenthal notes.

Why the Lakers failed

With LeBron and the Lakers faltering, will this be the first postseason without the King in over a decade?

Why the Lakers failed

Over the past 15 years, LeBron James has amassed one of the most impressive postseason résumés in NBA history: nine finals appearances, three championships, three finals MVP awards, and 13 consecutive playoff seasons. Now, in his 16th season in the NBA and his first for the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron is at a crossroads.

Still arguably the best player in the league, the lofty expectations that followed him to LA have not been met, and for the first time since 2005, a LeBron-led team will not appear in the playoffs.

On March 22, the Lakers’ 2018–2019 season came to a bruising end. With a 111–106 loss to the Brooklyn Nets — who were led by D’Angelo Russell, a former Laker lottery pick who was traded away and has since become an All-Star — the Lakers were officially denied a chance at the playoffs.

During the post-game conference, LeBron said, “It’s been a tough season for all of us,” voicing his dismay over how the season had transpired. “It’s not what we signed up for.”

More specifically, this is not what LeBron had signed up for. After leaving a conference where his teams went to eight consecutive finals, the man — who, when is all said and done, could be considered the greatest player to ever live — was unable to lead his team to a top-eight finish in the West. A season that began with high hopes has now reached an unthinkable conclusion, and the question remains: what went wrong?

Injuries

First and foremost, the Lakers would not be in this position if LeBron had stayed healthy. Having never suffered a major injury in his professional career, LeBron’s Christmas Day groin injury during a game against the Golden State Warriors was completely unexpected and amounted to the single longest absence of his career. Up to that point, the Lakers had been in a comfortable position for playoffs at 21–14, but his departure resulted in a 6–11 tailspin that almost pulled them from the running.

This was exacerbated by the continued absence of Lonzo Ball, an ultra-long point guard who both relieved some of LeBron’s playmaking burden, and provided valuable defensive strengths for a mediocre defensive team. Scariest of all, Brandon Ingram, who had been in the midst of a late-season surge, had his season cut short in early March by deep venous thrombosis (DVT), a condition caused by the formation of blood clots in his right arm.

Though the following procedure was successful, DVT has life-altering repercussions. In serious cases, this condition can lead to a pulmonary embolism, which can fatally clot arteries in the lungs and can lead to early retirement. The most famous case of this was with former Miami Heat power forward Chris Bosh. Add in the multiple injuries to veteran backup Rajon Rondo, and the Lakers were forced to spend much of their season without depth at the playmaking positions.

A lacklustre supporting cast

Even without his career-threatening injury, Ingram’s stagnation has been one of the biggest disappointments this year. After flashes during his first two seasons in the NBA, the former second-overall pick was expected to finally live up to the hype.

Unfortunately, the fit with LeBron has been awkward. Both players thrive with the ball in their hands, and Ingram has not proven to be a good enough shooter — 33 per cent from the three on a minuscule 1.8 attempts per game — to be an off-ball threat. LeBron’s absence provided Ingram with an opportunity to prove his worth, but his inability to break out, alongside the team’s lacklustre record during that time, did not inspire confidence.

After LeBron returned, but before DVT ended his season, Ingram started to improve. But while hope that he will become a top-end talent remains, there’s no guarantee that he’ll reach stardom or that his ascent will come before LeBron’s decline. The rest of the Lakers’ young core, including Ball, Josh Hart, and Kyle Kuzma, have shown varying signs of improvement, but none have progressed to the point where they can be considered stars; an aging LeBron cannot afford to be patient.

Among the older NBA players, the veterans that LA signed for one-year deals during the offseason have ranged from Rondo, who is decently valuable, to Michael Beasley, who was an unmitigated disaster and was recently bought out by the Chinese Basketball Association.

Young coach Luke Walton has had to manage this ill-fitting roster all year, and make the messy transition from overseeing a young team on the rise to working with a highly unlikely contender.

The inability of the young players to rise to their potential, coupled with the general mediocrity of the offseason signings, has left Walton with a disgruntled star and a team that does not fit around him.

Front office failures

The questionable free agent signings were not the only black marks for General Manager Rob Pelinka and President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson, as they also dealt with the fallout of the failed trade for Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans.

The superstar big man had requested a trade shortly before the February 7 trade deadline. Soon after this announcement, news leaked that the Lakers were prepared to offer the Pelicans a substantial deal involving young assets, many one-year veterans, and a litany of draft picks. However, the deal was not accepted, and the deadline passed with Davis remaining a Pelican.

This was a total fiasco, as the Lakers missed their chance to trade for a top-five NBA talent. According to ESPN, the trade rumours had also been “weighing heavily” on the young players, which has not boded well for team chemistry.

This dysfunction has been par for the course in the Johnson-Pelinka era. Other than their acquisition of LeBron, the rest of their moves, including successful attempts to trade away young talent — the 2017 Russell trade and this year’s trade of promising centre Ivica Zubac to the Clippers at the trade deadline, to name a few — have had abysmal results.

With a front office that has shown no indication that they know what they’re doing, LeBron may find that the team signing him on was the only smart decision that the Lakers have made.  

The King’s twilight

Lastly, there’s LeBron himself, a player so richly deserving of praise that criticizing him can feel downright blasphemous. In the games he has played, LeBron has posted his usual impressive stat lines and had enough highlights to suggest that he is still the sport’s premiere star, but his age may finally be starting to catch up with him.

The eye test has shown that he is ambivalent on defense, has looked sluggish at times, and has perhaps had trouble adjusting to the tough workloads that Western Conference teams must face on a night-to-night basis.

On top of this, his groin injury evidences that durability fades with age, and that even LeBron is not a superhuman. This is to be expected for a 34-year-old who has played an ungodly number of minutes in his career, but also speaks to the fact that Father Time is undefeated. On top of these admittedly small signs that his play has slipped, LeBron’s off-court activities have also raised eyebrows. An important wrinkle in the aborted Pelicans trade is the fact that Davis is signed to the Klutch Sports Group, an agency run by Rich Paul, who is one of LeBron’s oldest friends. Although LeBron has no financial stake in the company, he is Klutch’s premiere client, and from the outside, this trade request looked like a calculated move by LeBron’s camp to force out his young teammates in exchange for proven talent.

Moreover, LeBron has been involved in a myriad of entertainment ventures this season, from being announced as the star for the long-awaited Space Jam sequel, to providing A&R guidance during the recording of rapper 2Chainz’ new album.

Taking advantage of the opportunities that LA has to offer is understandable, but it runs counter to the criticisms that he has levelled against his teammates on occasion. This makes comments, such as the one following a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies that “if you’re still allowing distractions to affect the way you play, then this is the wrong franchise to be a part of,” at best ring hollow and at worst seem drenched in hypocrisy. LeBron is unquestionably the engine that drives the Lakers, but at this point in his career, it is reasonable to wonder how his age and priorities affect his team’s chances as an automatic contender.

The future

With this season more or less over, sights have to be set on the upcoming free agency and 2019–2020 season, as building a team worthy enough to be a playoff contender may be challenging once again. This year’s free agent crop is bountiful, with proven stars like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. However, these players have shown no indication that they wish to be LeBron’s sidekick.

Durant has been linked to the New York Knicks for much of the season, and his comments about how hard it must be to play with LeBron make it unlikely that he would want to find out for himself. Leonard — a California native — has been linked to LA’s other basketball team ahead of his free agency; the Clippers have been courting him from the moment he was traded to the Toronto Raptors.

Beyond these proven superstars — along with playoff-tested veterans, like Warrior Klay Thompson who looks like he’ll re-sign, and former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving, who has also been linked to the Knicks — the talent starts to thin.

Players like Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, and Tobias Harris may push the Lakers into the playoffs, but they aren’t good enough to forge a true contender, especially if they command a maximum salary on the open market. The prospect of a Davis trade still looms, but with teams like the Boston Celtics now able to make enticing offers and the Lakers’ young talent in jeopardy, this trade seems less likely than it did in February.

Of course, not all hope is lost.

Natural progression could bolster the Lakers’ young core, LeBron could bounce back from his injury with a renewed sense of purpose, and the Lakers could land a marquee free agent to alter their competitive ceiling. What is troublesome is that all three things may need to happen for the Lakers to shake off the losing mentality they now have, or else next year could turn into another lost season for LeBron in Los Angeles.

On March 6, LeBron passed Michael Jordan to become the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history. The next day, a report emerged that LeBron would be under a minutes restriction for the remainder of the season, a move that showed that the Lakers had given up on making the playoffs after dropping to 30–35, which had them 6.5 games behind the eighth seed at the time.

These two events demonstrate the tension that has plagued the Lakers this entire season. Even as Lebron continues to break records and showcase his waning yet undeniable brilliance — especially as he passes his childhood idol and challenger for the ‘greatest of all time’ title in scoring — the Lakers have continued to lose, unable to coexist with a player whose mere presence irrevocably alters every aspect of whatever franchise he joins.

No one person is to blame for the Lakers flaming out, but no one is innocent either. Even if the main reason that the Lakers will miss the playoffs is because of LeBron’s injury, the signs that they were not a true contender this year have persisted throughout the season. The front office failed to build a complementary team around LeBron, despite having over a decade’s worth of evidence in Miami and Cleveland about what works around him. The young players have not distinguished themselves enough to justify LeBron moving to a tougher conference, and the failed Davis trade shows that neither the Pelicans nor the Lakers think highly of them.

Then there’s LeBron, the bellwether for NBA excellence from almost the moment he entered the league. Despite his missteps, this season will not alter his legacy, and he could retire tomorrow knowing that he has accomplished more in his career than almost anyone in NBA history.

Still, this is not a moment for re-evaluation. It is a moment for reflection. The 2010s have been defined by LeBron’s playoff performances, whether in his valiant efforts before losses or his miraculous moments of victory. This postseason will have none of that, and even if the Lakers regroup next year and prove to be a formidable team, this season ends the notion that having the King is a playoff guarantee.