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.

Top prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft

Zion Williamson projected to be generational prospect, with RJ Barrett, Ja Morant expected to be franchise players

Top prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft

While NBA playoff teams are battling it out for the ultimate prize — an NBA championship — less fortunate teams will have the opportunity to turn their franchise around. The NBA Draft Lottery, which determines the draft order of teams who missed the playoffs last year, occurred on May 14. Teams that have spent months, if not years, losing basketball games will find out if their losses pay off by getting the chance to draft a transformative prospect.

In previous years, the NBA teams with the worst record had a 25 per cent chance at the top pick in the draft. However, this year’s rule changes have made it so each of the NBA’s three worst teams — the New York Knicks, the Phoenix Suns, and the Cleveland Cavaliers — had an equal 14 per cent chance of picking first overall at the NBA Draft. Despite the odds, the number one overall pick went to the New Orleans Pelicans, who only had a six per cent chance of getting the first choice. 

This draft class has three prospects that project to be a cut above the rest. Zion Williamson, a freshman forward from Duke University; Toronto native RJ Barrett, a freshman guard and forward from Duke University; and Ja Morant, a sophomore guard from Murray State University. These players will most likely make up the top three of the NBA draft on June 20.

Zion Williamson

If you have anything more than a passing interest in basketball, you’ve most likely heard of Williamson. This year, Williamson entered Duke as ESPN’s second-ranked prospect in the collegiate system — though already famous from the viral clips of his high school dominance that circulated on House of Highlights and other platforms — and emerged as the rare prospect whose internet notoriety was not only earned, but was somehow understated.

His unbelievable athleticism allows him to be a two-way force, with the ability to block seemingly uncontested shots on one end and to throw down ridiculous cross-country dunks on the other. Add that to a six-foot-seven, 285-pound frame, and you get a combination of strength and agility unseen since the time of young Blake Griffin, only with better defence, passing, and a relatively clean injury history, save for one mild knee sprain in February.

His utter dominance at the college level, currently at 23 points, nine rebounds, and two assists per game while shooting 68 per cent from the floor, broke both the analytics and the eye test, as he boasted the second highest field goal percentage for a player who averaged over 20 points in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. He did so with thunderous dunks and impressive post moves, making him an overwhelming force which made his opponents seem like middle schoolers scrimmaging against a hall-of-famer.

Of course, like any player, Williamson isn’t perfect. His lackluster percentages from the free-throw line and from the third line indicate that shooting may be a problem early in his NBA career, and his efficiency may regress from its historic levels once he begins playing against NBA players closer to his own size. Although his defensive highlights and tenacity are impressive, his instincts are still those of a 19-year-old. Discipline will go a long way into making sure he’s not gambling for blocked shots that may put him out of position. There’s also the question of what position he will play: with the height of a wing but the strength of a centre, he is best suited for playing at the fourth or fifth line next to a front-court player who can shoot. Although Williamson has some ball handling ability, his talent would ultimately be maximized playing alongside a passing point guard who can run the pick and roll with veteran efficiency.

RJ Barrett

Barrett is an excellent player, with the shot-making ability, playmaking skills, and defensive potential to become an all-star-caliber wing for years to come. Bursting onto the scene with his heroic performance against the American team at the 2017 International Basketball Federation U19 Basketball World Cup semifinal, Barrett’s tenacity and willingness to take over in big moments made him a point of interest for scouts around the NBA. Barrett entered college as the number one recruit in his class, and his fall to second place in this draft ranking after averaging nearly 22 points, eight rebounds, and four assists per game is more of a testament to Williamson’s unwavering brilliance.

While Williamson used his season at Duke to show NBA teams that he was a can’t-miss prospect, Barrett’s fantastic but comparably underwhelming season highlighted the limitations of his game. Though projected to be an effective shooter from all areas of the floor, Barrett shot just under 31 per cent from the three point line this year, and made questionable shot choices at times. This, coupled with mediocre defence and frequent bouts of tunnel vision, prevented Barrett from playing like the versatile, playmaking scorer he is projected to be. His takeover mentality proved less endearing when it appeared that he was liable to shoot Duke out of games rather than defer to his talented teammates.

These problems would seem less glaring if Barrett wasn’t constantly compared to his friends and teammates, but there are holes that will nevertheless need to be addressed if he wishes to become an NBA star. Barrett has the tools and wherewithal to work on these flaws, and in a league dominated by versatile wings, a young star with his potential is an alluring pickup for any franchise. Barrett’s flaws were magnified by the excellence of Williamson, but a player with his projections would be very successful in the modern NBA.

Ja Morant

Few basketball fans saw the rise of Morant coming. After a solid, if not unremarkable freshman season at Murray State, point guard Morant exploded onto the scene during his sophomore season, scoring almost 25 points per game and leading the nation with ten assists per game. Blessed with a 44-inch vertical leap and NBA-ready court vision, his college highlights are filled with the explosive dunks and the wizard-like passes of Russell Westbrook or pre-injury John Wall. Whether as a guard, wing, or even a centre like Denver’s Nikola Jokic, having an excellent playmaker is the key for almost every successful team in the NBA. For teams on draft night, getting Morant would give them a player who has the ability to make his teammates better.

Though the 19-year-old made considerable strides in his offensive abilities during his second year at Murray State, he will need to apply that same work ethic to the defensive side of the ball if he ever wants to be an elite two-way athlete. As of now, even mediocrity would be a step in the right direction, as someone with Morant’s agility should be far better on defence than he presently is. With his 175-pound frame, he will also need to gain muscle in order to finish around the rim with the same force that he showed in college. If he is unable to get stronger, scoring will be a problem for Morant in the NBA, as his shooting mechanics are substandard and his percentages — 34 per cent on three-point shots over his two years at Murray State — suggest that tweaks need to be made for Morant to be an effective scorer at the next level.

Still, if Morant proves to be more in the vein of a pass-first point guard like Rajon Rondo, his playmaking should allow him to have a positive effect on any team that drafts him, and allow him to work on the other aspects of his game. Morant may have more holes than Williamson or Barrett, but a player that can run the offence and finish strong around the rim will benefit tanking teams in desperate need of a point guard.

The draft lottery has now revealed what order teams will be selecting in the 2019 NBA draft. Williamson is the obvious first choice for all three teams, with Barrett and Morant subsequently being chosen based off team needs. However the draft goes, these teams will hope that their selections will change the fortune of their franchises, so that by late spring next year, they are more concerned with playoff matchups than lottery odds.

Could the Raptors win it big this postseason?

First round will be easy, but good luck against the Bucks and the Warriors

Could the Raptors win it big this postseason?

April marks a bittersweet time for NBA fans at the University of Toronto, as exam season is made slightly less dreadful with the countdown to playoff basketball underway.

With Toronto’s regular season success, Raptors fans are excited for what the postseason may bring. But are fans naïve for thinking that Toronto has any chance of making it to the NBA Finals, or possibly even winning it all?

Looking at potential first-round opponents, there’s little doubt that Toronto wouldn’t be able to easily do away with teams such as the Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, and the Detroit Pistons in a best-of-seven series with home court advantage.

The real question facing the Raptors is how they will fare against potential second round and Conference Finals matchups with the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Eastern Conference favourites Milwaukee Bucks.

Looking at the Celtics, Boston has struggled since the All-Star break with a record under .500 and a bottom-10 offensive rating during this stretch.

Offensive consistency is where Toronto appears to get the edge in this matchup, as the Raptors currently sit in the top 10 for offensive rating. Also, with Pascal Siakam’s dominant performances against Boston this season, it’s difficult to imagine the Celtics getting past the Raptors in a playoff matchup.

Shifting to the 76ers, the Raptors are one of the few teams in the league who can match up effectively against the Sixers’ starting five, one of the best in the NBA, due to the athleticism that the Raptors also have at all five positions on the floor.

This is what led to Toronto’s success against Philadelphia this season, as the Raptors defeated the Sixers in three of their four regular-season matchups, with Kawhi Leonard sitting out for the Raptors in their only loss.

The Sixers have the star power, but with their poor three-point shooting and defensive liabilities, the odds in this series are in Toronto’s favour.

The Bucks are Toronto’s biggest obstacle to hopes of a conference championship, as Giannis Antetokounmpo is sure to continue his MVP-calibre season through the playoffs. But Toronto does have some advantages over Milwaukee.

With the length and athleticism of Siakam and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors have strong defensive options to limit the damage that Antetokounmpo can do on offense. The Bucks have also been hit with the injury bug late in the season, as Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Nikola Mirotic, and Pau Gasol are all currently nursing injuries.

If the Bucks aren’t able to get healthy down the stretch, and the Raptors are able to limit spacing on defense and make things difficult for Antetokounmpo, Toronto has a strong chance of coming out on top.

Although the Raptors have a legitimate shot at reaching the NBA Finals, envisioning a Raptors championship parade in June is nothing short of farfetched.

The Raptors would be slated to face-off against the juggernaut Golden State Warriors in the finals, who are currently the favourites by far to win the NBA Championship.

Despite playing short of their full capabilities in the regular season due to injury concerns, the Warriors currently sit atop of the highly competitive Western Conference and are entering the playoffs with quite possibly the most talent-filled starting lineup in NBA history.

The Warriors are by far the best three-point shooting team in the league and would be sure to terrorize the Raptors’ defense across a seven-game series.

Also, the Warriors have the benefit of championship experience, as they are currently eyeing their third straight NBA title, unlike the Raptors, who have many new players that are still in the process of learning how to mesh together.

All in all, if you’re a Raptors fan who’d be satisfied with a conference championship, the 2018–2019 postseason is likely to be rewarding. But if you were expecting nothing short of a Raptors title banner? Maybe next season.

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.

Who will win the NBA’s Eastern Conference?

How the Raptors, Bucks, and Sixers are positioned to leapfrog one another following the trade deadline

Who will win the NBA’s Eastern Conference?

Following the NBA’s trade deadline, the home stretch of the NBA season has arrived. With less than 30 games left in each team’s schedule, the league has officially settled in for the playoff push. While none of the teams in the Western Conference made any moves to truly challenge the Golden State Warriors, teams in the Eastern Conference have answered the bell.

LeBron James’ exodus from the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer has left the Eastern Conference wide open for a new favourite to emerge, and prior to the deadline, three contenders made substantial trades. With these moves, the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Toronto Raptors have signalled their intentions to face the Golden State in June.

The Philadelphia 76ers took a large gamble that they’re hoping will pay off. They traded Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, and multiple draft picks to the Los Angeles Clippers for Mike Scott, Boban Marjanović, and Tobias Harris.

Harris is the crown jewel of the trade; he’s a high-scoring forward who the Sixers hope can be their fourth star next to Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler. To acquire him, Philly parted with two first-round picks, including an unprotected 2021 from Miami Heat. These picks are a costly fee for Harris — a free agent who may only be a rental if he chooses to sign somewhere else this summer — but the 76ers are determined to show that the years of tanking that led to the selections of Simmons and Embiid were not in vain. By sacrificing future assets in an effort to win now, the Sixers are signaling that The Process is now dead, and that they are ready to compete for a championship.

The Milwaukee Bucks pulled off their own big move, giving up very little to acquire the perfect player to complement their MVP candidate.

Since coach Mike Budenholzer’s arrival this season, the Bucks have roared to the top record in the NBA, buoyed by the performance of superstar Giannis “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo — who is jockeying with James Harden for the lead in the MVP race — is a playmaking dunk machine, who thrives when playing with three-point shooters.

On the day of the deadline, the Bucks acquired Nikola Mirotic from the New Orleans Pelicans for Stanley Johnson, Jason Smith, and two second-round picks. Mirotic, a power forward making 37 per cent of his threes this season, is an ideal complement for a player like Antetokounmpo: a sharpshooting big man who can space the floor for Milwaukee’s already potent offense. By giving up two non-rotation players and mediocre draft picks, the East’s frontrunner got significantly better, and the Greek Freak will be gunning for his first NBA championship ring.

Finally, the Toronto Raptors showed that they too were willing to make a major acquisition, trading away multiple rotation pieces for an aging star. Marc Gasol, the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year and a three-time All-Star, was traded to the Raptors by the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, and a second-round pick. The loss of Valanciunas and Wright will hurt the team’s depth, but a player of Gasol’s calibre is rarely available for such a low price.

Unfortunately, there are troubling reasons for his availability. The Grizzlies have been one of the worst-performing teams in the NBA this year, and the longtime Gasol and point guard Mike Conley tag-team has not been able to replicate the results that propelled the Grizzlies to playoff success in previous years.

Moreover, at 34, Gasol has shown signs of individual decline during his team’s collapse. The hope for Toronto is that the move to a winning team will revitalize his play, allowing him to show off the stellar defense and excellent passing skills that made him a star.

Raptors President Masai Ujiri is taking a big risk here, wagering that this move will put them over the top in the East. If he’s wrong, then this summer could bring some worst-case scenarios: Kawhi Leonard leaving in free agency and Gasol picking up his $25-million player option. But it seems that Masai believes the time for the Raptors to compete is now, and with conference rivals adding valuable pieces, this trade could give Toronto the necessary boost to win the East.

The Eastern Conference playoffs are poised to be a bloodbath. The Raptors, Bucks, and Sixers have all improved, and although the Boston Celtics remained silent at the deadline, they have a formidable roster that could pose a real threat, if they figure out their chemistry issues.

This will be the first Eastern Conference Finals without LeBron in almost a decade. With the East’s top teams armed to the teeth, the conference championship is up for the taking, but it will not be an easy fight.

LeBron James: leader or manager?

Does the NBA have an epidemic of poor leadership?

LeBron James: leader or manager?

Every basketball team has a clear hierarchy of talent with a leader who is required to give direction on defense and offense and to act as the clutch option at the end of games. Anyone in the NBA can score 25 points on a given night, but some players handle pressure without hesitation, and can score and defend with more ease and consistency than others. The most talented or poised player is often the team leader, and if you’ve reached the talent level of LeBron James, you can even become a team manager.

Where franchises now depend on assembling a “big three” group, three players with enough talent and star power are expected to lead a team to relevance. This trend began in 2010, when Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James teamed up on the Miami Heat. For James’ teams, this recruiting process has continued ever since. After a huge mid-season switch up in Cleveland and a mediocre start to the season this year, LeBron has made it his mission to recruit Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Mid-season recruiting tactics generate incredible media attention. However, as these last few weeks have proved, the Lakers are more concerned with chasing superstars to satisfy LeBron than with developing their young talents, and I am beginning to question his leadership tactics.

At first, Lebron’s decision to play for this young Lakers team appeared to be a humble career move. They had just missed the playoffs, and their championship potential was at least three seasons away. There was no clear leader until James came through the door. I assumed that the trade demonstrated a desire to remain patient and play a few seasons to develop young talent before winning another title.

Now in mid-season, the Lakers have offered five young, talented players — Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Ivica Zubac, and Kontavious Caldwell-Pope — in addition to two first round picks, to the New Orleans Pelicans in return for Anthony Davis, a top-three NBA player. This one is really easy to spell out. LeBron and Davis share the same agent, and after their game on December 22, they had dinner together. A couple of weeks later, Davis openly said that he wanted a trade and that his preferred destination was the Lakers.

Lebron recently returned to the Lakers following a groin injury that ended up being the longest injury setback of his career. The injury occurred on December 25, and he did not return to the court until January 31. American sports analyst Chris Broussard explained that James’ absence exposed the team’s lack of potential without their superstar. He added that the five week absence showed that, for the Lakers, “This is what [they] have, and if [they] want to win a championship, then [they] better go get more.” Of the first 10 games without LeBron, the team won three.

Sports columnist Skip Bayless responded to Broussard by saying that LeBron may have intentionally perpetuated a narrative that his team is not strong enough in order to increase the organization’s dependence on him.

I believe LeBron’s lengthy absence may have been a way to let his young teammates play on their own to boost their trade value. LeBron clearly knew the team would need a big change. So does he really appreciate Ingram, Ball, and Kuzma? Perhaps not enough to form a tight-knit, committed team culture.

We now know that the Lakers did not land Anthony Davis by the February 7 trade deadline. If they make the playoffs, LeBron will once again be talked about as the player who somehow lifted a bunch of solid, but not great, young players to success — a narrative he is happy with bearing.

But let’s consider the feelings of the younger Lakers. Their leader has sat out for an extended time, and now there has been a call to send about one third of the team and future draft picks to the Pelicans.

For the past 10 days, Lakers players have had to come into work not knowing whether they would be in the same workplace the next week. This is an uncomfortable reality for NBA players that is often dismissed as a ‘part of the business.’

But what if you knew that your team leader had a say in all of these decisions? Nearly every Laker knows they are trade options, and that, together, they have less value than a single player — Anthony Davis.

All along, the ball has been in the Pelicans’ court. They have Davis and will not move him unless they are completely satisfied with a struck deal. So what happens when they can’t make a deal? The Lakers end up being forced to play the next half of their NBA season knowing that their leader would have rather sent them packing.

Hours before the trade deadline, knowing that Davis would not be a Laker this season, LeBron was already working hard to once again change the narrative.

Harrison Barnes was traded mid game on Wednesday night from the Dallas Mavericks to the Sacramento Kings, and James was quick to make an Instagram post condemning this move as disrespectful to Barnes. In the meantime, he has helped shop nearly half of his team.

On Saturday morning, he said, “The suspense and the excitement around the trade deadline is always… pretty crazy.” He added, “There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have. Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake… There’s nothing I’m chasing for.”

While LeBron claims that he’s not pushing for anything, the drama is completely regular for LeBron’s teams. Of course he is pushing for something; he wants more rings. He’s LeBron James, after all.

Now that his plan has failed, James won’t let the public believe that he was in charge of the Davis pursuit. He’s a master at handling the media and controlling the narrative. After his routine mid-season trade push got the team nowhere, only time will tell if he’s still respected in the locker room.

The NBA needs to take a stand

Why Charlotte shouldn’t host the 2019 NBA All-Star Game

The NBA needs to take a stand

In February, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina will host the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend, where the best basketball players in the world will team up and compete against each other. On the surface, this may seem like nothing out of the ordinary — just another city hosting the final night’s All-Star Game. However, avid NBA fans know that this is Charlotte’s second go at hosting the event.

The city had been previously announced as host for the event’s 2017 edition, before having its role stripped in response to North Carolina’s passing of the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, or HB2, which discriminated against the LGBTQ+ community by excluding sexual orientation and gender identity from the definition of nondiscrimination.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver responded to the situation early, warning that if significant changes were not made, Charlotte would not host an All-Star game.

In an effort to regain the game, which typically generates tens of millions of dollars in revenue, the state government repealed HB2 in March 2017.

Keeping his word, Silver agreed to give Charlotte another crack at hosting the 2019 All-Star Weekend. While the NBA undoubtedly helped to catalyze change within the North Carolina legislature, it failed to uphold its own standards by not holding out for more change.

For many years, and especially since Silver was named commissioner in 2014, the NBA has prided itself on being the most progressive North American major sports league. While the NFL has not supported players protesting the national anthem, the biggest stars in the NBA have spoken out in support of social justice causes, with the support of the league’s front office.

The NBA as a league has recently launched new social justice platforms centred around diversity and equality. Individual teams have also taken on significant roles in their communities, ranging from the Boston Celtics leading anti-bullying campaigns to the Golden State Warriors hosting an open discussion between law enforcement officers and the community.

For a league that prides itself on standing up for what it believes is right, it should have been a no brainer to demand that North Carolina do better. So, while the NBA helped to get HB2 repealed, it stopped short of truly protecting LGBTQ+ rights. Upon repealing HB2, Governor Roy Cooper banned local governments from making any changes to discrimination laws for three years.

This is not an invalidation of all the hard work that the NBA has done over the years regarding social issues. However, there is a time and place to stand one’s ground. For Silver and the NBA, that should have been with Charlotte hosting the All-Star Game. As Silver himself put it, “In this day and age, you really do have to stand for something.”

He’s right, you do have to stand for something. In this case, the NBA should have stood a little longer.

Opinion from the Sports Ethicist: pay for play in the NCAA

How to incentivize college play for college athletes

Opinion from the Sports Ethicist: pay for play in the NCAA

Should college athletes be paid? Just last week, star high school basketball player Maori Davenport was suspended from playing on her team because she cashed an $857.20 USD cheque given to her by USA Basketball. A similar case occurred in 2016 when University of Texas swimmer and Singapore native Joseph Schooling received $740,000 USD from the Singapore National Olympic Council for winning its first gold medal in the 2016 Olympic Games.

This controversy around the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the non-profit body that regulates athletes and athletic programs in over 1,000 American schools and Simon Fraser University, was triggered last year. Evidence surfaced that various high-profile Adidas executives and coaches had paid men’s basketball and football recruits five-figure sums to influence their recruitment. American schools such as the University of Kansas and the University of Louisville were giving out scholarships to ineligible players, while they were also engaged in bidding wars to attract players to their schools.

These findings were followed up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In October, two Adidas employees and one agent were found guilty of wire fraud, sending shockwaves through the NCAA, with NCAA president Mark Emmert promising swift change in the world of collegiate sports.

While there are more federal trials left, as well as NCAA internal investigations, in early December, Emmert seemed to soften his initial stance when he announced that the NCAA panel overseeing the investigations will be put together in August, almost two years after the initial arrests.

So what has really changed as we enter 2019? In addition to the three arrests made, two Louisville Cardinals coaches were fired, while former Cardinals player Brian Bowen II has left to play in Australia after NCAA regulations restricted his eligibility. Nothing substantial, however, has really changed.

It seems that time and time again, athletes are being penalized for receiving any sort of pay for their athletic endeavours. A Drexel University study has shown that if college Division I basketball and football players were paid in equal proportions to their professional counterparts, the average player would be making $260,000 USD.

There are concerns regarding compensation, such as determining what the rates of compensation should be. Questions remain about whether players should receive equal pay, how to deal with discrepancies between school budgets, and how this could affect some of these athletes actually working on finishing a degree at these institutions.

While these questions have been debated for decades now, a utilitarian approach would be the most beneficial in this context.

Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy principle that dictates that the right thing to do in any situation is one that leads to the most happiness and least pain for the greatest number of people. If pay-for-play continues to be illegal, student athletes will continue to be put in an uncomfortable position — they are the ones bringing in nearly $10 billion for their schools, but they only see compensation in terms of athletic scholarships.

The current approach doesn’t maximize the gains for players, and coaching staff see none of the benefits. This gave rise to the current situation: underhanded deals between schools, athletic companies, and players that damage the reputation of college athletics. This approach has seemingly failed to provide equal opportunity in recruiting between institutions. It also promotes the current culture of athletes leaving after a year or two of post-graduate studies in order to support their financial interests.

“There’re student athletes participating in sport but they’re [receiving] scholarships to develop their academics and earn a degree, but they are clearly athletes first and students second, and many of them don’t see the benefit of that academic experience anyways,” says Simon Darnell, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education.

On the other hand, paying athletes seems like a fair distribution of the funds that the players bring in: it allows them to start to build their futures with a brand if they reach the professional leagues, while it also enables them to support themselves and their families. This approach, therefore, seems to bring in more benefits than the current restrictions do.

One thing that we commonly see are NBA players only spending one or two years in college due to financial issues: legalizing payment would allow players to stay in school longer, thus developing their games while also finishing their degrees. Caps on the amount of money each school is allowed to offer could potentially equalize recruiting opportunities across institutions, and strict regulations could ensure regular class attendance.

Through stricter regulation, this initiative limits the corruption that we have seen within the NCAA case, while it also seems to maximize benefits and minimize risks for all involved.

“It’s hard to imagine how [the NCAA] still justify that to themselves. There’s just so much money being made, and those who are labouring to see that money made don’t really see a cut in any significant way. There are lots of arguments to be made that their labour is being exploited,” says Darnell. “We have to give up on the idea that this is an academic enterprise and that this is a professional sport. It is a professional sport in every sense of the word except for paying the players.”

Paying student athletes isn’t a foreign concept — we’ve seen athletes like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James sign professional contracts right after high school. Why should it be so different for aspiring professional athletes in college?