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?

Why the Raptors deserve to play on Christmas

The NBA annually snubs Toronto on Christmas Day

Why the Raptors deserve to play on Christmas

For your common NBA basketball fan, enjoying a lineup of spectacular basketball is a beloved Christmas Day tradition.

Christmas basketball games regularly showcase the best teams in the league, highlighting the association’s biggest superstars and some key rivalries. Although the Toronto Raptors have made the playoffs for five straight seasons, made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016, and further raised their profile by acquiring a bona fide superstar in Kawhi Leonard, they will still be getting coal for Christmas this year.

The NBA’s decision to overlook the Raptors yet again is particularly frustrating given the stellar performance of Toronto’s team — currently on top of the Eastern Conference — and the actual lineup of contenders for December 25. The New York Knicks, currently sitting near the bottom of the East, will be playing for the umpteenth time on Christmas, almost exclusively due to tradition.

Another convention is to schedule a rematch of the finals from the same year. As with the last three years, that would mean a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. But of course, LeBron James doesn’t play in Cleveland anymore, which is why this year’s Christmas Day lineup will feature a game between Golden State and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The only franchises remaining without a Chritmas Day game are the Charlotte Hornets and the Memphis Grizzlies. The Raptors were gifted with one game, way back in 2001.

Not to be forgotten, Christmas is a very personal and special day for a lot of players, coaches, and their families. Players acknowledge that December 25 games are a sacrifice, but also an honour and a privilege. Consider LeBron; after this year, he will have played in 13 Christmas Day games in his 16-year career. Kyle Lowry, on the other hand, never has.

On the topic, Lowry told the media, “I’ve always in my life wanted to play a Christmas game… It’s never happened, but I’ve always had the opportunity to always be with my family on Christmas. It’s a blessing to be able to not play, but at the same you always want that one time you play on Christmas… You get the special shoes. The Christmas jerseys. That’s one I want to frame one day. Hopefully, I get the opportunity to do it.”

There are five games on Christmas; that means that 10 teams play. If the NBA reasons that out of 30 teams in the league, the Raptors don’t qualify as being in the top 10, then they’re the ones on the naughty list this year.

Hopefully, a new generation of Raptors fans will get to see their team play on Christmas one day.

The importance of free agency

Kevin Durant’s move to the Warriors exemplifies the purpose of free agency

The importance of free agency

In July 2016, NBA superstar Kevin Durant became an unrestricted free agent. After eight seasons with Oklahoma City Thunder without winning a title, Durant wanted to play elsewhere.

In the history of the NBA, it’s rare for a player of Durant’s calibre to become an unrestricted free agent in the middle of his prime.

The entire free agency process — from his four-hour meeting with the Boston Celtics to a two-hour meeting with almost the entire Golden State Warriors team, and so on — was covered minute-by-minute by the media.

With Durant’s ultimate decision and without games on the horizon, his free agency gave fans something to talk about.

Durant joined the Warriors on July 4, 2016, and we all know how that went: the team won two straight NBA championships. So, how did this whole ‘free agency’ fiasco even start? And how has player mobility empowered stars like Durant?

Free agency, along with the NBA’s salary cap increase from $70 million to $94 million in 2016, has allowed stronger NBA franchises to pay multiple superstars at one time, creating a top-heavy league. As an additional caveat, many superstars like Durant have signed on below market value to increase their mobility and play where they want.

For example, DeMarcus Cousins signed a relatively cheap short-term deal with the Warriors in July after an Achilles injury. ‘Cheap’ is the operative word, as he will make only $5.3 million this season, a substantial decrease from $18.1 million in 2017–2018.

While four all-stars playing on one team is infuriating for fans outside of Oakland, maintaining player rights and freedoms is more important than allowing teams to own players.

Sports leagues have not always allowed players to become free agents.

In 1975, pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith refused to sign their contract with the MLB’s Oakland Athletics and demanded freedom in the open market. Baseball contracts used to include a reserve clause, which meant that players were bound to their team in perpetuity and the team had the right to extend a contract without a word from the player.

The arbitrator’s decision that November ruled in favour of free agency, allowing players to sign on the open market once a contract expires.

Up until 1988, NBA players could only be drafted or traded as their teams essentially owned them.

In 1987, the Seattle SuperSonics drafted two frontcourt rookies, making six-foot-ten forward Tom Chambers a hindrance to their lineup. Chambers, a proven NBA star, needed a franchise that would make the most out of his talent. Head of the NBA player’s union Larry Fleisher told Chambers that he may be able to “get this unrestricted free agency thing done.”

A few days later, it was official. Players whose contracts had ended could freely join any team as long as they had been in the league for over seven years and had finished two contracts. Chambers immediately joined the Phoenix Suns and led them to the Western Conference Finals in consecutive seasons.

Durant’s move to the Warriors wouldn’t have been possible without Chambers and Fleisher.

Free agency has allowed players to choose where they want to work, a freedom that all citizens are rightfully allowed.

Players are no longer treated as a small piece of a larger business. Their talent, coupled with the freedom of free agency, allows them to make the demands necessary to nearly run an organization. After all, shouldn’t those who produce the entertainment reap the most benefits from their skill?