Can Kawhi Leonard deliver the Raptors a title?

Six Varsity contributors provide their thoughts on the mega-trade

Can Kawhi Leonard deliver the Raptors a title?

Last week, the Toronto Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poetl, and a first-round draft pick, and I, for one, could not be happier.

The Raptors finished last season with a disappointing playoff run, but the team still has a great defense and one of the best benches in the NBA. The team was hindered by mediocre leadership from their star players.

Adding Leonard, a top-five player, NBA champion, and two-time defensive player of the year is the best possible outcome for the Raptors, even if he only plays for one season. While many idealists and DeRozan fans are hurting, I ask, what more were you expecting from DeRozan?

Do you like seeing a star choke and break your heart every postseason? Was he really worth holding on to? In the end, a four-game sweep by an inferior Cavaliers team signaled to Masai Ujiri that enough is enough, and DeRozan is expendable.

To the many fans who are appalled by the way DeRozan’s trade was handled, you probably haven’t been watching the NBA for very long. It is the nature of the league to send players away on short notice, and even against their desires. Nothing especially horrible or new has happened in DeRozan’s situation. The NBA is a business first.

And, to those who say that Kawhi is just a “one-year rental” and not worth the price, I encourage you to see this season optimistically.

Take pride in yourself as a Canadian and as a Raptors fan. We all assumed Paul George would leave Oklahoma City after one year, but this summer he extended his contract by four years because the Thunder fans showed him the love he deserves. Toronto is a far better home than Oklahoma City.

We must show Kawhi the same affection that we once showed Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, and DeMar DeRozan. Kawhi is one of the best on-ball defenders ever to play basketball and has the chance to be the greatest player in Raptors history.

The addition of Kawhi is a godsend for the Raptors and it’s time that fans let go of their DeRozan guilt, celebrate his contributions to the franchise, and welcome Kawhi Leonard with as much love and appreciation as possible.

— Isaac Consenstein

When evaluating the success of a trade, the two most important criteria to consider are: Did you get better players in exchange for who you gave up? And, did you do so without sacrificing your future? The Raptors passed both of these tests with flying colours when they acquired Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Poetl, and a protected first-round pick.

Leonard is an instant upgrade from DeRozan in nearly all phases of the game.

Since entering the NBA in 2012, Leonard has averaged nearly a third more rebounds per game than DeRozan at 6.2 to 4.1, has higher field-goal and free-throw percentages, and is a far better three-point shooter. And that’s just on the offensive end. Leonard is also known for his lockdown defense and his ability to defend four positions on the court.

In terms of the Raptors’ title hopes, welcoming Leonard makes them second favorites to win the Eastern Conference, just behind the youthful Boston Celtics juggernaut. Ogugua ‘OG’ Anunoby will also lessen Leonard’s defensive workload, hopefully spurring his offensive talents. Having LeBron in Los Angeles certainly helps as well.

I don’t believe Leonard will stay in Toronto beyond this season. However, having only played nine games out of a possible 82 in 201718, and never having played more than 74 games in a season, Leonard has a lot to prove. As Isaiah Thomas found out this season, talented players who are injury-prone don’t always command max contracts.

Leonard needs to use this season to reaffirm his love for basketball, or he may end up as just another “could’ve been great” story.

— Kevin Kapenda

If there were any doubts about Masai Ujiri’s culture reset, they were put to rest by the Leonard-DeRozan trade.

Ujiri made his promise in 2017 after LeBron eliminated the Raptors for the second consecutive season. The reset, which led to a much-improved playstyle, was supposed to help the Raptors overcome LeBron in the playoffs and make them champions, or, at least, contenders. Only, it didn’t.

LeBron once again swept the Raptors in 2018, which culminated in Masai’s decision to trade DeRozan.

While controversial, this gamble was a no-brainer for Toronto. Leonard is better than DeRozan in virtually all facets of the game. Leonard’s strengths also pair well with Toronto’s revamped system, further complementing the team in ways that DeRozan strengths couldn’t.

All signs point to Leonard being the X-factor that will push the Raptors over their playoffs hump. Despite last season’s embarrassment, the addition of Leonard to the team helps the Raptors retain their status as true title contenders, at least on paper.

— Long Vuong

It is safe to say that the Toronto Raptors are having one of the biggest offseason trades in franchise history. However, this trade poses more questions than answers. Nonetheless, there are three key takeaways we can pull out of this:

  • It may very well be a one-year rental.

Leonard’s expiring contract has many questioning if he will leave after this season. The superstar has made it clear that he wants to play in Los Angeles, however, like Oklahoma City Thunder did with fellow California native Paul George, the Raptors are hoping they can convince Leonard to sign a long-term deal.

  • He will play.

Of course, the first question Raptors fans are asking is if Leonard will play. After initially showing no interest in being here, Leonard has reportedly begun to “warm to the idea” of playing in the North. Even if he still shows no desire to be a Raptor, he would only be hurting himself  should he sit out in free agency.

  • On paper, this is a giant upgrade.

Assuming Leonard plays, this is an unquestionable upgrade for the Raptors. As great of a player as DeMar DeRozan is in the regular season, he infamously shrinks come playoff time. Leonard, when healthy, is the best two-way player in the world with MVP talent. In terms of personnel, the Raptors clearly won the trade.

Love the trade or hate it, no one can deny Masai Ujiri’s commitment to his promise of a “culture reset.”

— Yehia Mahdi

It’s been a tough week for Raptors fans since the news broke that the team parted ways with DeMar DeRozan.

DeRozan is a four-time all-star and the Raptors’ franchise leader in total points scored, games played, and minutes played, but his impact as a Raptor exceeds statistics as he has been the heart of the team since Chris Bosh’s departure.

Raptors fans are eternally grateful to DeRozan for this and it hurts to lose him, but after five consecutive years of playoff disappointments, something needed to change.

This trade is impactful because, by acquiring arguably the best two-way player in the NBA for a top-15 NBA talent at best, the Raptors are able to retain a competitive core while gaining a better centerpiece.

Leonard’s athleticism, defense, and unselfish play meshes well with the Raptors culture, which allows us to compete with Eastern Conference juggernauts, such as the Celtics, and offers valuable playoff experience to our young team.

Some fans fear that Leonard will merely be a rental because his contract expires next season, but this experiment is low-risk, as the Raptors will either  retain a star or gain the cap space to pursue another. Losing DeRozan is gut-wrenching, but it is a necessary decision in the pursuit of a championship.

— Tushar Sharma

Every avid Raptors fan has heard of the trade that happened Wednesday morning. What they need to know is that this trade will only be beneficial if Kawhi Leonard is able to be the superstar that this team needs.

DeRozan professed his loyalty to this city in the finale of Open Gyms’ sixth season. He “always wanted to give Toronto [a championship]; they deserve it” because he “look[s] at Toronto like a second home” and this city has accepted him as one of our own.

After consistently underperforming in the playoffs, despite their regular season success, it was clear that the team’s core needed a change. Hopefully, Leonard will provide that on both offensive and defensive ends of the court.

The loss of Jakob Poeltl also creates a discrepancy in possibly one of the best benches in Raptors history that contributed significantly to the success of the 20172018 Raptors team. CJ Miles commented on the bench, saying that “there weren’t another five guys off the bench that were doing what we did.”

Despite the uncertainty of the upcoming season, as DeRozan once said, “whatever needs to be done to get this opportunity again, we’ve got to do it. We have to trust the next step.”

— Amarra Mohamed

The NBA’s competitive balance conundrum

Can anyone beat the Golden State Warriors?

The NBA’s competitive balance conundrum

After the Golden State Warriors won their second consecutive NBA title against the Cleveland Cavaliers — their third title in four years — many NBA fans are growing restless with the lack of parity in the league.

In the past two seasons, the Warriors have lost once in the NBA Finals, which is especially concerning given that the Finals are usually set up to be the most competitive matchup in the playoffs.

One of the main critiques of these ‘superteams’ is that they have offset the competitive balance the league once had, but I’m not quite sold on the idea that superteams offsetting the competition is a recent development. If you take a look at the history of the NBA, there has never been much parity.

The NBA was built on dynasties. In the ‘60s, you had the Boston Celtics winning nine times; in the ‘80s, the Los Angeles Lakers won five times and the Celtics three; in the ‘90s, the Chicago Bulls won six times; and from 2000–2015, you had the Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and Miami Heat winning 12 of 15 championships.

There has never been any distinguishable movement in terms of who gets to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season. This is not a new problem for the league, and trying to eliminate superteams won’t solve it.

In an effort to deter player movement like the league is experiencing now, the NBA created a designated veteran contract — in other words, an incentive for players to re-sign with their team, and which allows them to sign a much larger contract.

So far, the top two teams in the NBA, the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, have each managed to sign a superstar — Chris Paul and Kevin Durant, respectively. They have decided to forego the designated veteran contract, along with the extra millions that would go along with it, and instead compete for the championship.

The largest competitive problem the league has right now is not superteams: it’s that the majority of NBA talent is stacked in the Western Conference. With LeBron James now moving out west to the Lakers, arguably, the top 10 players in the league are located in the same conference. The disparity in competition between the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference is a serious problem.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has announced that he will look into a reformed playoff structure to ensure the two best teams meet in the NBA Finals. The proposed new structure would lead to having the top 16 teams overall make the playoffs, regardless of which conference they came from.

In other words, the exciting seven-game series that the Rockets and the Warriors had this year could have been for the NBA championship, instead of the lackluster four-game series with the Cavaliers.

It’s very clear that the top teams in the NBA are on a different level than the rest of the league. So where does that leave teams who are on the outside looking in, like the Toronto Raptors?

As it turns out, the Raptors are in a tough spot. To compete in this league, they’re going to have to make bold moves, and that can come from big free agent signings or blockbuster trades. With LeBron moving to the west, the door seems to have opened for the Raptors once more. Under the tutelage of their new head coach, Nick Nurse, the Raptors are looking to retool, which may put them among the top few teams in the east ready to compete for a spot in the finals.

The signing of DeMarcus Cousins to the Warriors sent the league into a frenzy, with many coming to the conclusion that the NBA season is already over, and while that may be true, his signing itself isn’t simply the problem.

As fans, we tend to judge star players’ free agency decisions based off of what seem to be their reasons for signing. It’s either that they’ve signed for the money, in which case we criticize them for choosing money over championship rings, or that they’ve signed with a major contender, and we accuse them of taking the easy way out.

Fans can’t have it both ways. If players are judged solely on NBA championships, we can’t blame them for joining the top contenders.

The NBA is still about competition, and the Warriors are simply competing at a higher level than everyone else. After they lost the NBA Finals in 2015, the team replaced Harrison Barnes with Durant. They faced elimination twice this past postseason against the Rockets and have added Cousins, a perennial All-Star. The Warriors have refused to stay complacent, and other teams should follow suit.

Despite all the criticism the league is facing, ratings are the highest they’ve ever been, with fans tuning in hoping to see Goliath fall. The NBA has always been about dynasties, and true parity has never existed. As the saying goes, don’t hate the player, hate the game.

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.