Can the Raptors reach the NBA Finals?

Toronto lost key players Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll in the offseason

Can the Raptors reach the NBA Finals?

It’s that time of year again: the NBA season is about to begin. Last season, the Toronto Raptors finished 51–31, which was good enough to lock up their second straight 50-win season and third place status in the Eastern Conference. Their impressive regular season success, however, didn’t translate in the playoffs in the way fans were hoping for.

After a tough six-game series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors advanced to play a familiar foe in LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. While many were hoping for a competitive rematch, LeBron and company had different ideas: they swept them in four games.

After a long offseason, the Raptors were able to re-sign core team members Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell in hopes of climbing the Eastern Conference ladder.

Despite many players returning to the franchise in 2017, one familiar face won’t be back. The Raptors traded DeMarre Carroll and two 2018 draft picks to the Brooklyn Nets for Justin Hamilton.

After the trade was completed, Carroll told Postmedia, “I feel like a lot of guys didn’t trust each other, and a lot of guys, they didn’t feel like other guys could produce.” Raptors team President Masai Ujiri dismissed the comments and said that he takes them “with a grain of salt.” While many fans were also quick to dismiss Carroll’s comments, the numbers never lie — if we look at Toronto’s on-court stats, his statement seems to hold true.

The Raptors ranked dead last in assist percentage per game last season and were ranked second in isolation basketball. It’s easy to come to the incorrect conclusion that, since the Raptors won 51 games last year, their system works. You might be able to get away with playing isolation basketball during the regular season, but against tougher teams night in and night out during the playoffs, you need to be able to rely on other players.

The numbers show this to be true: the Raptors’ offensive rating ranked sixth in the regular season, while in the playoffs it was ranked third worst. Essentially, the Raptors were too predictable in the playoffs, which was almost their downfall against the Bucks, who ranked first in defense ratings in the playoffs, and it was certainly their downfall against the Cavaliers. Ujiri did try to address the team’s offensive woes by acquiring sharpshooter CJ Miles and drafting OG Anunoby. These additions add versatility to the wings and three-point shooting that is vital to making a deep run in the playoffs.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the Eastern Conference has become less competitive over the past decade, though with all the moves made this summer, you could argue that the notion is a thing of the past. The blockbuster trade of the summer happened between the top two teams in the east last year, the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The trade centred around star guards Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas. It’s too early to tell who won this trade, but we know that it gives Boston the star power they were looking for and Cleveland the depth they were lacking. For the Raptors, this means that their strongest competitors last year arguably got even better.

While many teams have decided to wait out the Golden State Warriors era in basketball, there are still some teams in the west that are competing and changing up their rosters in the hopes of taking down this dynasty.

Oklahoma City Thunder made the biggest splash this offseason by adding all-stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony; the Houston Rockets added Chris Paul to pair with James Harden; the Minnesota Timberwolves added Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler to their young core; and the San Antonio Spurs added Rudy Gay to add depth to their roster.

For the Raptors, the road to the finals is a long one. But the key to their success this year is moving the ball a lot more on offense. With a full training camp and preseason to get familiar with one another, it’s important that trust is built between players.

Sports Industry Conference

Conference helps students bridge the gap from sport enthusiasm to sport industry

Sports Industry Conference

Hosted by the University of Toronto Sports and Business Association (UTSB), the theme for this year’s sports industry conference was “Behind The Game: Building the Playbook.” Over 360 students from different universities across the province were in attendance.

Rookie season

There was a panel dedicated to mentorship and development that included Tyler Currie, —the director of international affairs for the NHL’s Player’s Assocation, and Rachel Bonnetta the host of Major League Soccer. 

The panelists agreed that mentorship was a key factor in the growth of the industry. “There is no substitute for a great boss,” said Saint John Sea Dogs president Trevor Georgie.

Currie spoke to the value of encountering what he refers to as an “anti-mentor.”    

Each speaker commented on the relationship between chance and preparation and the importance of honouring personal values. Each story emphasized that meeting a potential mentor is not enough to guarantee a smooth transition into the working world, but rather that students must make an active effort to engage with, and learn from, guidance.

No “I” in team

The second panel of the day highlighted the role of community and partnership in the industry. Jillian Svensson, vice president of business development and operations for You Can Play, explained that when it comes to removing barriers in sport, partnership is essential. Together, the COC and You Can Play have formed the “One Team” initative, which runs programs and promotes the acceptance of LGBT+ athletes in sport.

Shooting hoops

The first keynote panel of the day explored basketball and its growing popularity in Canada. Canada Basketball president and CEO, Michele O’Keefe explained that, while it will be a while before basketball reaches the level enjoyed popularity of hockey in Canada, the number of participants in the sport is on the rise. TSN insider and panel moderator Jack Armstrong recalled the evolution of basketball in Canada, from generating practice players to athletes “with the skills and athleticism to start and get drafted to the NBA.”

Former resident and current manager of the Toronto Raptors and Phoenix Suns Bryan Colangelo, added that he would like to see more funding coming from the federal government to encourage the sport’s growth.

Money ball

The third panel of the day, Data and Analytics: Staying Ahead of the Curve, featured industry insider Jason Rosenfeld, the director of basketball analytics for the NBA. The panel, which was moderated by Scott Cullen an analytics columnist for TSN, highlighted the importance of analytics and statistics in sports.

“The NBA needs to translate international statistics to NBA statistics [and] use data to see what is wrong and how to improve on that,” said Rosenfeld. He mentioned that fans are slowly but surely becoming interested in sports statistics. “It’s great to have fans excited about stats and data in the leagues; it’s fantastic.”

Going for gold

The fourth panel of the day, The Pinnacle of Sport: Sports at the Highest Level, discussed how far sport has come in Canada, and the importance of specific endeavours in that development. Masai Ujuri, general manager of the Toronto Raptors, was praised for his direction of the country’s sole NBA franchise. Johann Koss, founder of Right to Play, remarked that behind every successful sports team are multiple people and organizations who helped make the success possible. He suggested that “To build a successful team, [one should] build relationships and establish young communication with everyone you work with.” Tim Bezbatchenko, Toronto FC general manager, added that when creating long lasting success, “trust with the players is crucial.” 

Over time

The final talk of the night, International Expansion, saw TSN’s Leafs Lunch host Andi Petrillo interview NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

Daly, who was named the deputy commissioner in 2005, spoke about the potential for two new teams to emerge in the NHL. “We are discussing it, still in the early stages. Either [it] will be in Quebec City or Las Vegas,” he said.

Overall, the conference was a huge success. When asked if he believed this type of event was helpful to delegates, Tyler Currie said that a passion for business and sport is what brought the delegates to the conference.

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Blues take Centre Court during NBA All-Star festivities

All-star exhibition was held in Toronto for the first time last weekend

Blues take Centre Court during NBA All-Star festivities

The Varsity Blues (5-12) men’s basketball team fell to the Ryerson Rams (15-2), 79-94 during the NBA Centre Court festivities for the 2016 NBA All-Star game.

The game celebrated the opening of the NBA All-Star Weekend in Toronto. The All-Star exhibition is an annual weekend of basketball festivities held by the NBA, which includes skills competitions, most notably a slam-dunk competiton, and a final match up between the best players in the eastern and western conferences. 

This year, host city Toronto ensured fans of all ages could enjoy various basketball drills and activities at the NBA Centre Court event, which were facilitated by All-Star staff, former NBA player Dikembe Mutombo and current San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge.

The Blues represented U of T in a showcase of Ontario varsity basketball talent throughout the weekend. The men’s team took on Ontario University Athletics (OUA) leaders and cross-town rivals Ryerson Rams. The day prior, the Queen’s Gaels defeated the Windsor Lancers in the women’s All-Star showcase.

More than just an opportunity to give varsity athletes a taste of the pros, the event displayed the strong passion for basketball many Torontonians harbour in a hockey-dominated nation. It comes at a time when the Toronto Raptors are second in the Eastern Conference standings and the Leafs sit at the bottom of the NHL.   

During the matchup between the Blues and Rams, U of T kept it close in the first half before the Rams went on a scoring run in the third quarter. Using their size and firm defense to gain momentum, the Rams built a significant lead over the Blues.

Despite early fouls by the Blues’ Sage Usher and strong Rams defense on lead scorer Devin Johnson, U of T was able to keep the game at 24-27 at the end the first quarter. 

The Blues enjoyed an offensive surge from forwards Miroslav Jaksic and Manny Sahota off the bench. In the second quarter, the Rams’ tight defense continued, and the Blues switched to a more traditional line-up with the 6’10” Jaksic matching up with the Rams’ 6’9” centre Kadeem Green.

Despite a slow start, Devin Johnson led the Blues with 10 points to keep the score at 37-40.

With the game tied at 42 at the 2:12 mark, Rams forward Adam Voll recorded a huge block on the Blues’ Devin Williams, leading to a retaliation foul and two made free throws. The Rams used the late surge to maintain their lead at 44-47 heading into the second half.

In the third quarter, Sage Usher was once again benched early on after recording his third foul.

The Blues’ Wilson Torres slashed to the basket for the two points and made his one free throw to make it 49-50 at 8:03.

Ryerson’s Adam Voll recorded a huge dunk off a pick and roll with teammate Aaron Best to swing the momentum once again. From there, the Rams would go on a 10-0 run to make it 49-60. Devin Williams would end the Blues’ scoring drought at 5:45.

The combination of poor shooting and fouls led to a 61-75 deficit for the Blues going into the fourth quarter.   

In the fourth, Devin Johnson continued to be neutralized by the Rams’ big men in the middle and by defensive wing players who were able to keep the Blues’ star player isolated. The Rams strong inside presence forced the Blues to take several contested three pointers by constricting the passing lanes.

Despite his early struggles, Devin Johnson was named player of the game for the Blues with a team leading 19 points. Manny Sahota, Wilson Torres, and Daniel Johansson also scored in double digits for the Blues.

  The Rams’ Roshane Roberts was named player of the game for Ryerson. Ammanuel Diressa and Roberts, who both scored 17 points, and Kadeem Green, who scored 15 points and recorded three blocks, led the Rams to their 79-94 victory.

In a post-game interview, second year Blues guard Oluwaseun Olutogun acknowledged his team’s good ball movement in the first half. Moving forward, he believed the team needed better focus, as well as needing to “stay cleaner” on offense throughout their games. 

The Blues are tied for seventh spot on the OUA leaderboard with Laurentian and Algoma. Ryerson shares the top spot with the Ottawa Gee-Gees.