Clash of the Titans – Lakers hold off League Best Bucks in Staples Center Duel

Friday night saw the best in the West take down the best in the East and you can’t say you didn’t get your money’s worth. The teams with the two best records, the Lakers and the Bucks, and also the two top MVP candidates in LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, clashed in Staple Center. The Lakers were looking to avenge a loss earlier in the season and prove that they could beat the Bucks in a theoretical Finals matchup. The Bucks meanwhile are on a historic tear, some even suggesting they might become just the third team ever to have a 70 win season. But in order to keep on pace, the Greek Freak would have to dethrone the King – and for one night at least, LeBron showed no sign of passing the torch.

If you saw the Raptors play the Bucks last week, this game began very similarly. The Lakers know they have to win by hitting from deep, but instead of probing the Bucks and seeing if they could get inside early, they settled for outside shots every time down the court. Los Angeles opened up with a pair of missed 3’s, including Davis from deep, where he has struggled this year. It’s an unusual struggle given his excellent form and high skill level, he went 0/4 from 3 for the game.

As Jeff Van Gundy noted, if Giannis hits three’s you lose, it’s as simple as that. An NBA team defense can’t take away everything, cheating off Giannis a couple of steps gives defenders crucial time to stymy the Greek Freak’s charges into the paint, if he ever gets to shoot so well as to need serious attention outside – there simply isn’t a good choice to be made when guarding him. Knowing this Giannis has studiously attempted to improve from outside, with mixed results.

Luckily for the Lakers, he went 1/6 on the night, a trade they’ll gladly make in a potential Finals series.

Van Gundy also noted that the Bucks allow a lot of three’s, which they do, by design. While the rise of 3 point shooting has changed the geography of an NBA court, the Buckschoose to allow above the break 3’s from certain opponents. Layups, dunks, and free throws remain the most efficient points in basketball – even though analytics is often portrayed as only valuing 3’s but one of the greatest values of shooting 3’s is that it creates court spacing that makes scoring layups easier. By sacrificing some open 3’s, the Bucks can shutout opponents at the rim, and it’s been a very successful tradeoff for them.

To begin the game Giannis penetrates and draws attention as he always does, but Bledsoe passed up an open 3. The Lakers were fouling Giannis over and over as he attacked, and the Bucks were relentless getting to the basket.

Anthony Davis quickly picked up a second foul against Giannis, but he stayed in the game, an admirable gamble – most coaches are too prone to pulling players with early foul trouble. Often players sit longer in total time than they would have if they had simply played normally until fouling out. In a matchup like this, it’s a necessary risk – the Lakers will not beat the Bucks if Davis plays 25 minutes. If he fouls out, you lose, but if he sits, you lose anyway – most coaches take themselves out of it without giving their player a chance to not foul out. And particularly with players that aren’t prone to fouling out like Davis, it’s a good trade-off. 

But later Davis committed his 3rd foul on an illegal screen, and Vogel didn’t have the stomach to stick with his gambit. Down 9, he took AD out, he only played 10 minutes in the first half and added a mere 5 points. 

The Bucks players outside of Giannis were shooting erratically, they seem to get tight in big games.  Middleton shot a brick off the backboard and started 2-8 from the field. You would never know he was in the 50/40/90 club.

It wasn’t just a matter of good defense, teams were missing makeable shots. Now some of that you can credit the two defenses for not allowing any flow or rhythm, and you’d have a point, but neither team was executing on offense at a high level to start. After the first half, the two teams had combined for 25 3 point attempts and only 3 makes.

Mark Jackson said during the first quarter that Brook Lopez was the worst defender among the Bucks starting lineup. For what it’s worth, Brook is number 2 league-wide in defensive PIPM – and is widely considered among the best rim protectors in the NBA. It’s an ignorant statement and not one that can be defended as a mere difference in opinion, while Lopez made his money as an all offense All-Star during his Net’s years, he hasn’t been that player in years.

It was 22 – 19 Bucks after one, very low scoring quarter. As Mike Breen noted, it is only the second time this season that Lakers finished with fewer than 20 points in the first quarter – the only other instance had been the previous game against the Bucks.

But in the second quarter Lopez starts reversing the shooting trend, he as he added his second and third triples of the night. That’s a big deal because he’s shot below average this year and his spacing opened up the Bucks offense last year. If it stays dipped, opposing teams might decide to leave him open behind the arc. If he and Giannis are both missing from deep in a game, the space around the basket could get awfully crowded for the other Bucks players. 

The Lakers managed to win the minutes where Lebron, AD, and Giannis were on the bench. And entering halftime it was all tied up at 48 apiece.

When the third quarter started, Vogel shifted defensive assignments so LeBron was guarding Giannis, to keep AD from fouling out. This led to moments of heightened excitement as the two squared up one on one, leading to roaring cheers from Staples Center as the wily LeBron outmaneuvered Giannis.

LeBron’s movements are brush strokes, an elegant calligraphy, while Giannis plays like young LeBron in many respects. Giannis is a dropping hammer to anvil.

The 3rd quarter was an avalanche for the Lakers. The Bucks committed countless turnovers and LA hit shot after shot. The Lakers went on a run totaling 18 straight points. Milwaukee did themselves no favours by fouling early and often. They were in the penalty less than 4 minutes into the quarter. By games end the free throw disparity was 38-23 in favour of LA, clearly showing

Dante Divenchenzo was one of the few Bucks roleplayers to be a positive difference-maker. If not for his solid play in the 3rd, it would have been a verifiable rout for the Lakers. He had 12 of his 17 points in the quarter.

Giannis looked gassed early in the 4th. It’s not something you see often. Giannis only averages around 30 minutes a game because the Bucks typically annihilate the competition, and it could be he’s simply not used to this level of and length of exertion. It didn’t help that most of his teammates were having off nights offensively and he had to carry an even larger than usual load.

All that said, the Bucks chipped away with LeBron on the bench and after Giannis hit is 9th and 10th free throws the game was within 4 points. They might have cut it to one, if not for an impressive block by a trailing AD on Middleton in transition. Davis redeemed an otherwise pedestrian game with a killer 4th quarter full of timely shot-making.  LeBron had another masterful performance, and though Giannis is the rising star of the next era of the NBA, tonight at least, the student could not surpass the master. LeBron’s line was 37-8-8, and the Lakers downed the Bucks 113-110.

Seeding the NBA Eastern Conference

It’s March and unless you’re a college basketball over the next month that means the NBA playoffs are a scant five weeks away. For the Raptors, that means considering the path they’re set to take in the post-season, who they’ll play, and what matchups are likely to create an easier path to what seems like an inevitable Final Boss in the Milwaukee Bucks for the eastern crown.

At the moment, the Raptors are in a virtual dead heat with the Celtics to claim the second seed, but they gained a significant leg up with the Celtics shocking last-second loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday night. The Celtics held the lead and the ball with less than 10 seconds left,  when Kemba Walker foolishly allowed himself to get trapped in the corner, leading Thunder guard Dennis Schroder to steal the ball and hit the game-winning layup. 

The Raptors knocked off the Sacramento Kings that same evening by a single basket – a coinflip for either of those games and the race would have been all that much closer. Still, the Raptors have not sealed their position as the number two seed, and they have a critical game against Boston on March 20th, which could well be the deciding game on the matter. Celtics lead the season series 2-1, if they win again they will hold the tiebreaker over Toronto. 

The full breakdown for NBA tiebreaker rules are as follows:

  1. Better record in head-to-head games
  2. Division winner (this criterion is applied regardless of whether the tied teams are in the same division)
  3. Higher winning percentage within division (if teams are in the same division)
  4. Higher winning percentage in conference games
  5. Higher winning percentage against playoff teams in own conference
  6. Higher winning percentage against playoff teams in opposite conference
  7. Higher point differential between points scored and points allowed

 

What matters next is who has the best Division winning record, currently 8-4 in Toronto’s favour. It *probably* won’t come to that, because overall record is the primary determinant of playoff seeding – but a win against the Celtics give Toronto added insurance against a last-minute losing streak.

 

The Raptors have an unusual number of games remaining against the other east contenders, which might inform their preferred path through the playoffs. In addition to the game against Boston, they have two games remaining against the Bucks and one each with the Sixers and the Heat. unfortunately for the Raptors, they don’t have any obvious games at the tail end of their schedule that will feature teams likely to be resting players – their final 2 games are against the Magic and the Heat, both of whom may need a win to secure their desired seeding to end the year.

So how do the schedules for the East contenders look now? You’ll note I removed the Bucks because they are a lock for the first seed.

Celtics (42-21) Games remaining: 19 (9 Home, 10 Away) vs. +.500: 7, vs. East: 16

Raptors (45-18) Games remaining: 19 (9 Home, 10 Away) vs. +.500: 9, vs. East: 12

Sixers (38-26) Games remaining: 18 (11 Home, 7 Away) vs. +.500: 4, vs. East: 11

Heat 41-23) Games remaining: 18 (10 Home, 8 Away) vs. +.500: 8, vs. East: 15

Pacers (39-25) Games remaining: 18 (10 Home, 8 Away) vs. +.500: 8, vs. East: 11

Magic (29-35) Games remaining: 18 (10 Home, 8 Away) vs. +.500: 6, vs. East: 15

Nets (29-34) Games remaining: 19 (9 Home, 10 Away) vs. +.500: 9, vs. East: 11

 

Assuming they secure the second seed, Toronto will play one of Orlando or Brooklyn. Of the two, the Raptors should prefer to play the Nets. The Nets have had a deeply uneven season, mired with public controversy and murmurings of poor morale. Those murmurs were given form when they suddenly decided to fire their very successful coach Kenny Atkinson. The interim coach is not of Atkinson’s caliber and his political capital is limited, the Raptors would likely beat the Nets at the best of times, but they are decidedly limping into the playoffs.

But if the Raptors should slip past the Celtics and fall to 3rd however, the going gets a lot tougher. It would mean a potential first-round series with the Sixers, Pacers, or Heat. While Toronto would be favoured in any series of the three, they each present distinct challenges that Brooklyn does not.

Though similarly dysfunctional, the Sixers have the highest pound for pound talent upside of any team in the East – it’s entirely conceivable that they figure things out just in time for the playoffs. if you’re a Raptors fan, you remember all too well how bruising and difficult the Sixers series was last year. Though they’ve lost Jimmy Butler, a long series against the Sixers would be an extremely taxing start to the post-season for the Raps.

 

The Heat are the most dangerous of the three, and in some ways mirror the structure of Torontos run with Kawhi Leonard last year. They have a dynamic playmaking center, a legitimate closer, shooting all over the floor, a propensity for zone defenses, and an excellent head coach.

 

The Pacers, last but not least, would be no cakewalk either. They’re still rounding to form with the return of Victor Oladipo, but if he reaches his potential they have 3 All-Star caliber players in him, Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon.

Falling to third would also be a disaster because it means meeting the Bucks a round earlier than necessary. Every team that plays the Bucks will be considerable underdogs, but the Raptors will hope to put off that series as long as possible on the off chance that a team like the Sixers manages a shock upset.

Authors note: All stats as far as tiebreakers current as of March 8th

Raptors Win a Wild One in Steph Curry’s Return

The Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors played Thursday night in a wild game that saw Norman Powell notch a career-high 37 points. It was the first game between the Warriors and Raptors since Toronto won Game 6 and sealed the deal last year.

If it strikes you as unusual that the Raptors and Warriors are only just now playing for the first time since the Finals, you’d be right. In recent years, a Finals rematch kicks off the regular season, the built-in assumption being that the two may once more square off in the Finals again in June. But even the most optimistic prognosticators didn’t give this years Warriors team, sans Kevin Durant, Andre Igoudala and Klay Thompson much of a chance of that. And even the most pessimistic forecasters didn’t predict happened, a broken hand for Steph Curry, Kevon Looney and Draymond Green both missing significant time, and the D’Angelo Russell experiment being over before the Trade Deadline. The Warriors have been a dire watch most of the season, but the Raptors are catching them on the upswing.

Steph Curry, perhaps only second to LeBron as the player that defines this current era of basketball, returned after missing 58 games. And since his departure, the team had been remade. After the acquisition of D’Angelo Russell didn’t work out, the Warriors swapped him for Canadian wing Andrew Wiggins. If just considering roster balance and positional need, it makes sense. The Warriors were already a guard-heavy team, and it never became clear that Russell and Curry would play well together. Wiggins is a wing, and the ultimate reclamation project for the organization that once claimed to be “light years ahead” of the competition.

On paper, the Raptors had the edge against the still depleted Warriors. You have to be an absolute diehard NBA fan to be remotely familiar with half the Warriors players and the names you are familiar with are far from inspiring.

The Warriors roster is made up of castoffs from other teams, G-League guys that haven’t cracked an NBA rotation before, and young players still finding their way. The Raptors meanwhile are a veteran squad, disciplined, and cohesive – in a typical game it should be a blowout. But that simply wasn’t the tenor of the game at all. The undermanned Warriors were ferocious, and Toronto had to scrap their way to victory, only pulling away in the fading minutes.

OG got Toronto off to a strong start, hitting his first 2 3’s in the opening quarter and playing his usual tenacious defense. And Norman Powell picked up right where he left off after a terrific game in Phoenix. Attacking early and often and capitalizing on a porous Warriors defense. He made his money in the first with soft floaters in the lane.

But as soon as Curry touched the ball, the crowd erupted. You’d be forgiven for forgetting this game wasn’t being played in Oracle Arena, the cheers seemed to drown out the announcers at points. Curry’s play is infectious, the crowd and he feed off each other, and suddenly a pedestrian roster is making highlight plays.

While Curry is rightfully known for his shooting – he is unquestionably the greatest shooter in NBA history – his passing was what opened up the game for the Warriors in the early going. He created numerous opportunities off simple pick and roll action and picked apart the normally solid Raptors backline. A laser behind the back pass in the first got the crowd off their feet.

Steph went scoreless in the first, but quickly notched his first bucket for a highlight and one in the second quarter. Then he knocked in a three and it felt like it was all the way back. Powell really turned it on in the 2nd, scoring a quick 15 points in the first 4 minutes, including back to back 3’s and a slithery layup at the cup. Powell showed no emotion as he continued to pour it on.

Terrence Davis got loose and punished poor transition defense by the Warriors for a dramatic slam. And then did the same thing soon after, when he got switched on Chriss. His athleticism was on full display. It makes you wonder every game how he went undrafted.

There remains nothing more fun than when Steph Curry gets hot. Curry hit a buzzer-beater to as part of an 11 to 2 rally that returned the Warriors to within striking distance when it seemed like the Raptors might pull off an early rout.

But the Warriors just had no ability to defend inside the arc consistently and when Toronto worked it inside, they had no answer. But this is why Pascal’s game was so disappointing. He was settling for fadeaways from inside the arc, which was just not an optimal play. It’s discouraging because he has a length and athletic advantage against everyone he was playing. Whether it’s either fatigue or mentality, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t have been more successful in this game.

If you only watched Andrew Wiggins when he plays against the Raptors, you might think he was an All-Star. That’s because Wiggins typically shows out against his hometown Raptors, indeed he had a triple-double earlier this season when still a member of the Timberwolves. But he was held in check by the Raptors, despite a few highlights plays including a block of a jump shot that led to a fastbreak.

With Curry on the bench the Warriors miraculously retake the lead due to strong play by Damion Lee, Eric Paschall and others. In part this was spurred by Golden State taking care of the ball, as the rally coincided with a 13 minute stretch without a turnover. It was their first lead since the opening seconds of the game. What had looked like a game well in hand suddenly was a dogfight for the Raps. After falling victim to the Box and One of the Warriors in the finals, the Warriors themselves went to a 2-3 zone to contain the Raptors in the 3rd, and it was then they made up major ground.

But Powell’s stellar and consistent shotmaking had a calming effect on the Raptors offense. His stoic demeanor was not reflective of what was an otherwise sloppy period for the Raptors.

Ultimately the Raptors prevailed, but Steph’s performance was a reminder of how quickly this team will be back to the teams elite. The Warriors are still missing Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, that trio that has terrorized the NBA the last several years. They’ll be back. And their other pieces have had unique opportunities to grow in their absence.

Super Tuesday Upended the Democratic Primary

The race for the Democratic Presidential nomination took a sharp turn this week with the arrival of the so-called Super Tuesday. If you’re not familiar, Super Tuesday is the first day of the primaries with major pledged delegates actually on the line including critical races in delegate-rich California and Texas. After the first three contests, Bernie Sanders was in the driver’s seat. He won the popular vote in all 3 contests and seemed poised to keep it close against Biden in South Carolina and nobody else seemed to have a viable path to beat him.

But Biden surged after a massive win in South Carolina and the math changed once more. With less than two days until the critical Super Tuesday, when a third of all the primary delegates on the line, Biden had resuscitated his campaign and Bernie was suddenly pressed.

Biden won a stunning string of victories on Super Tuesday that have catapulted him into a dominant position in the primary. Prior to South Carolina, his projected odds of delegate majority per FiveThirtyEight were less than 1/10, while Sanders had peaked at just below a 1/2 chance. Now the odds place Biden as a near 90% favourite, a complete upending of the race in less than 72 hours. Now, these odds are liable to change once again with the upcoming contests but make no mistake, Sanders is fighting for his life in the next few contests – and it would take a miracle larger than the one that just saw Biden’s surge to return him to equal footing with Biden. 

Sanders suffered for having adapted a more passive posture,clearly  believing that he was in a strong position heading into Super Tuesday and hedging against risking further acrimony with opponents who would need to soon be his allies. But the gambit backfired, eggs thoroughly counted before they hatched.

Since Tuesday, the Sanders campaign has adopted an attacking posture for the first time since January. Hitting Biden for his record on Social Security cuts, the Iraq War, Gay Rights and many other policy positions. It’s not clear how much any of it will matter. Biden’s argument for the nomination has been that he is the most electable candidate, and thus best suited to defeat Donald Trump – nevermind that there’s very little evidence for this being the case – his sudden position as frontrunner will seem to affirm that argument in the minds of those who were wavering. Winning begets winning, and even though Sanders and Biden do not have a significant delegate total difference – Biden has recaptured the momentum at a critical juncture.

How did Biden manage this sudden turnaround?

Well, it began with a strategic phone call from Obama to Pete Buttigieg. What happened behind the scenes is out of reach, but something tipped the moderates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar and even Beto O’Rourke to Biden at the 11th hour. Biden is rallying his supporters to form an Anti-Sanders coalition. It could be pressure from their donors, or promises of appointments to important positions in a Biden White House, regardless, much of it comes off as cynical politics.

While Amy Klobuchar positioned herself as very much of the political tradition of centrist pragmatism and thus a natural ally of Joe Biden, the endorsements by Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke speak to a more sinister, careerist aspect of electoral politics. While Pete had tacked right in an effort to find a lane for himself the later the contest got, he began his campaign representing new ideas, and a fresh way forward – and Beto was the same. To now be endorsing Joe Biden, the embodiment of the Democratic old guard, is a complete about-face. 

Much of this ties directly into the recently suspended campaign of Elizabeth Warren, who’s decision to stay on through Super Tuesday significantly harmed the Sanders coalition. And though she has dropped out, she has declined to endorse Sanders despite their supposed ideological similarities. Instead, she has hit out against the “toxic” elements in the Sanders campaign in multiple tv appearances. The first realistic candidate for a Jewish president just had White Supremacists show up and drop a Swastika banner at his rally. So you’ll have to spare me if I find the endless handwringing about a few rude Twitter personalities a touch trite. Sanders, a Jewish man whose entire extended family line was extinguished in the horror of the holocaust, has assembled a progressive coalition built on youth of colour, and organized racists in America know the danger he represents to their hateful ideologies.

Returning to Warren, even if she were to endorse Sanders now, the acrimony directed by her and her campaign towards Sanders has probably lowered the number of potential supporters that would willingly jump from the Warren to Sanders camps simply at he say so. Warren’s choice was to lose with dignity or to risk sabotaging the progressive causes she claims to champion. She chose the latter, and split the liberal vote with Sanders, leaving him to pick up far fewer delegates than he might have otherwise, particularly egregious as Warren was not viable in many states or districts, meaning her votes were essentially wasted. This means that not only did those votes not add to Bernie’s progressive total but that the portion of votes even in states where Sanders won went more favourably for Biden.

Bernie Sander’s coalition reflects the future of the Democratic coalition, all the segments of society that the party must win over to win in the future. The recent endorsement by Jesse Jackson could strengthen Sander’s legitimacy among a so-far elusive demographic, older Black democrats. While the Democratic primary is defined by class interests, it is playing out as a generational battle. Sanders wins every demographic under 40, while Biden dominates over 65 of nearly every race and income. Sanders will need to crack Biden’s support among seniors if he is to return the delegate math to his favour, one of the reasons he is hitting Biden so hard on his record on social security. Where it works, your guess is as good as mine, but if it doesn’t Biden will very likely be the Democratic nominee.

 

Who Will Ascend the NBA Western Conference Throne?

For several years now, the Western Conference championship has been fait accompli. 

The Warriors were a Western Conference powerhouse unseen since the days of the Shaq and Kobe era Lakers, without equal in the Conference and seemingly destined to win for years. But dynasties are rare for a reason, though injuries ultimately laid the Warriors low, their days were numbered long before Toronto defeated them in the 2019 Finals.

And so this NBA season began with the promise of that most elusive property in pro-sports: genuine competitive parity. For once, the season would not be a slow march to crown an inevitable champion. Leaving aside the stampeding Bucks in the East, there remains a level of uncertainty in who will crown themselves Kings in the West when June rolls around.

Before the season the Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, and Utah Jazz all had varying levels of contender-credibility.

With less than a third of the season remaining, who remains in the hunt?

The Rockets might not be the best contender of this group, but damn if they aren’t the most intriguing. Helmed by visionary coach Mike D’antoni, the Rockets have recently committed to a hyper unorthodox style, playing without a traditional center and maximizing spacing around Westbrook to beat opponents purely on the strength of a single idea. That 3 is more than 2.

These so-called Pocket Rockets are on a roll that might see them climb to as high as the 2 seed in the West and their unique style creates matchup problems for all other West teams save perhaps the Clippers.

D’antoni, despite having zero championships to his name, is the most influential coach for this era of basketball. Has spoken recently about his regret for not taking his 7 Seconds or Less era Suns to their logical conclusion. Now in the final year of his contract with no renewal in sight, Mike is at least going out on his own terms and leaving nothing on the table with this Rockets team.

The Clippers, by most accounts, are having a disappointing year. They’re the only team among the elite in the US to have publicized locker room issues, and they seem to be suffering the usual growing pains that befall a squad going from Cinderella darlings to conference favourites. This team beat the odds and made the playoffs last year and even stole two games off the Warriors – now the same players that did all that are having to take a backseat to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. 

But I’d argue the issues here are overblown, their most consistent enemy isn’t talent, cohesion or even fit (though they could really use a backline defender from the buyout market) – it’s effort. Kawhi is quite clearly pacing himself and will presumably turn the jets on come playoff time. Their other worry is significant – health. The Clippers have played XX games without one of Paul George or Kawhi and while some of that can be chocked up to maintenance, the pair of star wings clearly have ongoing health concerns that their opposition lack. The Clippers, at full strength, have all the makings of a dynastic-level contender. It is disturbing that the team seems to wax and wane with their best players’ effort, they often look like LeBron James Cavaliers teams post 2016 – except this team outside of Kawhi hasn’t won anything yet.

The Lakers. What does one say about LeBron James at this point that hasn’t already been said? He is unquestionably the best year 17 player of all time, and if not for Giannis would have a strong case to be the league MVP once more. The Lakers are a joyous group, they thrive with supersized lineups that punish in the post, rebound like hell, and generally bruise their opponents into submission. But this isn’t some regressive team, they play a modern offensive scheme, they just emphasize their old school strengths. Furthermore, their head coach Frank Vogel has had his trademark impact – this team is a terror on the defensive end.

The Denver Nuggets are clinging the 2 seed in the West and are buoyed by the MVP level performance of Serbian center Nicola Jokic. Still, the are pseudo-contenders and are the most likely of this group to catch a first-round upset in the wrong matchup.

The Utah Jazz, once thought they could fight for the best record in the conference, but their team simply has not coalesced so far this year.

In years past Quin Snyder has coached the Jazz to be more than the sum of their parts, this year they’re failing to maximize even their individual talents. The result is a disappointing season that was created serious doubts about what was already among the least probable contending teams.

Conley is no Kyrie, but there is a curious symmetry in the situation between the Boston Celtics last year and the downtrodden Jazz this year. Conley’s insertion seemed like a home run on paper but on the court, the Jazz have suffered from his addition.

Final thought – Will this be a mere interegnum?

The Warriors will return next year and Steph, Draymond and Klay will have a hunger and an underdog mentality unseen since the road to their first championship.

And while this year the struggled with non-rotation players filling outsized roles, they will have renewed salary flexibility, two lottery picks, Kevon Looney, Eric paschal, and a lot of players that have had seasoning against high-level competition. In reduced, roles, and with the spacing and defense playing with the Warriors All-Stars provides, they might turn competence into dominance.

They could potentially swing a trade for another star (though certainly not Giannis, as some are theorizing), or they can reload with their lottery picks, slide them next to their 3 existing stars and make a bid for San Antonio Spurs style perpetual contention.

Which makes the race for the Western crown this year all the more important, as it might be an even tougher slog next season.

 

The Bucks Beat the Raptors, What Does it Mean?

Raptors/Bucks Tuesday night was a marquis matchup.

Both teams have plenty of reason to relish a rematch. The Bucks feel like they dropped the ball last year and should already be holding their first trophy, while the Raptors have no fear of the league-leading Bucks, know their tendencies better than anyone, and are out to prove that even without Kawhi they still have their number.

The Bucks were on a back-to-back and on the road but still managed to throw water on Toronto’s growing hopes of an unlikely repeat title.

The game started off ugly, with both teams missing a ton of makeable shots. In some ways, it felt like Game 1 of a renewed Western Conference Finals, both teams were feeling each other out and the defensive intensity was playoff-caliber. Brook Lopez broke the drought as both teams went scoreless for more than the first 2 minutes of the game. While Brook is known now for his defensive impact and long-distance shooting, it was only a few years ago that he was an All-Star who built his game from the inside out. Thought Ibaka was one a premier defender in the league, this is one of those matchups where Toronto desperately misses Marc Gasol.

OG Anounuby continued his string of strong recent play, doing a good job of threatening the double-team against Giannis as Siakam took the main assignment. Overall the Raptors did an excellent job limiting Giannis. Even without Kawhi, the Raptors have so far proven that they are the only team in the NBA with the length and discipline to truly wall off the paint as the 2019 MVP stampedes toward the rim. Through the first 18 minutes of play Giannis was limited to contested midrange jumpers, and only hit 1/4. 

Chris Boucher, who has had difficulty with his outside shot this year, managed to rack up two early 3’s and make some clutch defensive plays, including drawing a charge against Antetokounmpo. With the Raptors short-handed Boucher stepping up was a key part of the Raptor’s early success.

But the Bucks did just as well preventing the Raptors from getting to the cup, and so the game devolved into a 3-point shooting contest for much of the action. This kind of game is where a player like Matt Thomas thrives – the efficiency and diversity of his jump shot mean that he draws a lot of attention moving on the perimeter. That level of attention means that Boucher and Ibaka have an easier time breaking down the interior defense and rolling to the rim. But the Raptors didn’t do this nearly enough and were warded off from too many inside opportunities – clearly indicated by what was a massive free throw disparity (36 to 21 attempts in favour of Milwaukee). Middleton, the Bucks second All-Star who is currently on the way to completing the rare 50/40/90 shooting season, was a non-factor in the first half. 

The Raptors seemed to have the edge, but in the fading minutes of the first half the Bucks went on a 11-1 run and the tide turned. Middleton ignited in the second half and the Bucks had a lot more success breaking down Toronto’s defense. After 3 quarters it was all Milwaukee, but the Raptors showed heart and ran out 7 straight points with Giannis resting in the 4th. 

But it wasn’t enough. The Bucks were 40-0 entering this matchup with Toronto when they outrebounded the opposition, and that went to 41-0 as they outrebounded the Raptors by 10.

So, if you’re a Raptors fan is it time to panic? Well, the Bucks were on a back-to-back and on the road, which speaks to just how scary they are to play. But Milwaukee was functionally at full strength, while Toronto was missing Gasol and Norman Powell, 2 of their 6 best. And Kyle Lowry played unusually poorly, his shooting and facilitating will be score to the strategy of beating the Bucks defensive gameplan.

So there’s hope, of a sort. Conventional wisdom around injuries has given hope to the Raptors all season long even as players have shuffled in and out the lineup in an endless, depressing carousel. But it’s coming to a point where the equation has changed from “when the Rap’s get healthy” to an ominous “if”. Yes, nothing seems to be positioned to be an ongoing issue with any of the players currently hurt outside of Gasols troubling hamstring issue, but the paucity of injuries has been so great, and so frequent, it has to be an open question if this team is whole in time for a title defense run. While a first-round victory is all but assured, even if they’re missing key guys, a second route out awaits them if they don’t have everyone back by then.

And beating the Bucks will take everything this Raptors team has, and even then will require a good bit of luck. Toronto is better than they have any right to be this year, they’d probably be close to an even shot against last year’s Bucks – but Bud’s team has taken it to another level this year and in my estimation, it’s their title to lose.

Obama’s Legacy is the Unending Battleground for Democratic Hopefuls

Barrack Obama has studiously avoided endorsing any candidate in the ongoing Democratic Primary race, though if you weren’t paying close attention, you’d be forgiven for not knowing so. Indeed, recent polling speaks to just this fact.

More than half of Democratic voters believe the 44th President of the United States has formally endorsed one of the candidates. And this is extremely important because Obama is unquestionably the most popular figure in the Democratic Party, with favourability ratings eclipsing 90% as recently as two months ago. It would not be inaccurate to suggest that in addition to their campaigning in early primary states like New Hampshire and Nevada that each candidate is also working to claim territory in the electorate’s minds – occupying the popular position currently afforded to Obama.

Of those who believe that Obama has endorsed, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tops the list. This is no accident of chance either. Bloomberg has produced a series of advertisements that portray he and Obama as longtime confidants and political allies, when the reality of their relationship is much more fraught. He has plastered Super Tuesday cities with advertising that ties the two together on issues such as gun control (something he feels he can attack Sanders liberal bonafides with).

Each Democrat is aiming to claim Obama’s legacy in their own way, some going as far as cynically adopting his speech. Pete Buttigieg brings up the former president often, even suggesting that “he was in Obama’s corner” during his tenure in the White House, but he was the mayor of a small Indiana college town. It’s quite a stretch to suggest that his support would have meant anything if indeed Obama had any idea who he was. But it demonstrates how desperate he is to tie himself to Barrack.

Pete, like Beto before him, has adopted a kind of Obama-doublespeak, mimicking language to such a degree that a college professor might be inclined to level charges of plagiarism against a student that turned in a paper with such striking similarities.

Elizabeth Warren has also had ads featuring prominent displays of the former president and notably has hired a significant number of former Obama staff to fuel her campaign.

Bernie is the only candidate seemingly not trying to directly court the designation as the heir to Obama’s legacy, but even he cannot escape the 44th president. For one, the comparison points between Sanders and Obama’s political organization are too numerous to ignore – the working class, multi-racial coalition that Sanders has coordinated to date is a mirror image of the so-called Rainbow Coalition that propelled Barrack to the White House. Furthermore, As part of ongoing attempts to dislodge Sanders from his frontrunner status, Biden and others are attacking Bernie for a perceived conflict between Obama and Sanders.

There was a recent report in the Atlantic that Bernie planned to primary Obama when entering his second term, sending the administration into a panic that such a populist figure would seek to challenge the president’s authority. Nothing came of it of course, and all principal parties including Harry Reid deny it ever happened – nevertheless, Biden leveled the charge at Bernie during the South Carolina debate as if it was fact – and whether or not Bernie sees eye to eye with Obama, he cannot afford to turn off the former presidents many supporters if he is to secure the nomination. Curiously, 10% of primary voters think Obama has endorsed Sanders.

Bernie has also turned to Obama to shield himself from recent red-baiting by opposing candidates. He remarked that despite their dictatorial government, Cuba had made envious strides in public health and education – to widespread condemnation by the party and media. But Sanders retorted  – accurately – that he was only echoing sentiments made by President Obama during his easing of the Cuban blockade.

And there are consistent murmurs that Bernie’s position as a frontrunner is of consternation to Obama, but at least to this point, unlike Hillary Clinton he has not given public word to such feelings in public. It is apparent that Obama doesn’t want the appearance of putting his thumb on the scale during such a contentious process, but that may change if Sanders falters in South Carolina and Joe Biden is given renewed strength.

Biden himself is a curious case, as his entire presidential campaign seems to be built upon the inertia derived from prior association with Obama. In every instance, he portrays the two as in lockstep on prior governance and ties himself to every success of the presidency as if he were himself in charge. It would not be unfair to charge Biden with essentially campaigning to court the vote of those who “would have voted for Obama a third time if I could” cohort.

And yet the former president has not endorsed his old friend Joe, and his poor performance in the early contests has shaken the belief that Biden’s campaign can simply ride name recognition and association to victory.

He has taken to calling the things achieved during  8 years he served as Vice President as the Obama-Biden legacy, if that sounds reasonable to you, consider for a moment who Ronald Reagans VP was (without cheating!) – and consider how ridiculous it is for Biden to be claiming co-credit for a position without any inherent legislative, executive or judicial power.

So while California looms as the biggest delegate total of Super Tuesday, the candidate who can ultimately convince Democrats that they are the heir to Obama’s legacy might claim the greatest prize of all. And it could win them the whole damn race.

Bojack Horseman and the Art of Endings

Warning, the following is a discussion of the endings of several recent prestige television shows including Bojack Horseman, Game of Thrones, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. As such these are innately spoiler-heavy conversations – you’ve been warned!

Bojack Horseman, to the uninitiated, is the story of an anthropomorphic horse. He’s a washed-up Hollywoo(d) star, an addict, and the current torchbearer for centuries of generational trauma.

Its presentation is such (a cartoon horse! He talks! That cat is a cop making puns!) that it begs to be perceived as frivolous. And yet Bojack defies you to consider it a trifle. For those who have watched it through to the recent conclusion, it is among the most meaningful tv experiences ever produced.

After 6 critically acclaimed and culturally influential seasons, the Horseman tied it up in February, laying to rest a cast of characters whose realism was only matched by their dynamic range. In the end, each character got their final send-off in turn, and the viewer is left to feel ambiguous about the future that awaits Bojack and his friends. Has Bojack, a fundamentally selfish character to the end, paid a steep enough price for his crimes? Is there hope that his fits and starts on the path toward change will take hold? Can any of us escape the trauma we accumulate in our lives even from a very young age – in essence, did we ever stand a chance?

Bojack gives the viewer hints, but will not spell out how the ending should make you feel. It is a fundamentally hopeful show, but it’s hard to describe hope as a rational act in such circumstances – despite representing a deeply hedonistic irreligious perspective, in some ways it is asking the viewer to take a leap of faith (or rather, it shows us that, for all our justifications, we must make that leap of faith every day just to keep going).But most TV shows don’t end on the high note that Bojack did. Few have good endings at all, most are unambiguously bad. Some of that is that it’s a product of life. We might think in linear start to finish stories in our minds, but life is nothing like that. Life lacks clear resolutions, and stories that finish too neatly are jarring to the human experience.

The Wire, for my money, is the best dramatic television series ever produced. But even it, in the end, betrayed it’s religious adherence to reality, bordering on self-parody at points in its attempts to portray the reciprocal relationship between the media and the police in its the final season. While Season 5 of The Wire still contains some of the finest storytelling of the entire series (particular shoutout the conclusion of “Bubbles” storyline, a meditation on grief without peer) it rings hollow compared to the slavish devotion to realism that defines the first four seasons of the show.

Game of Thrones’ ending was so poor that it called into question the cultural legitimacy of the entire phenomenon. After an entire generation of people named their children Daenerys, the audience was left staring agape as the creators dashed every beloved character arc against the rocks. They salted the earth more thoroughly than the Romans following the sack of Carthage – so much so that it has already had the effect of killing off one of the many proposed spinoff series and lead to a general backlash against any new fantasy properties outside of The Witcher.

Breaking Bad is the hardest in my view to evaluate. The last season was truncated in two just as Bojacks was, and features many of the finest episodes in the series history. In particular, Ozymandias, featuring Hank and Walts’s final confrontation, was poetry on screen. And many adored the thrilling ending that saw Jesse’s escape and Walt’s demise.

But ultimately Breaking Bad validated Walt’s actions, his legacy, and his life. Walt was in the end, too smart for his enemies, and controlled his own fate (in so far as anyone with terminal cancer can be said to do so). Walt never faced true comeuppance for his actions, would be akin to Macbeth being allowed to nobly fall on his own sword. Bojack sidesteps this, though he has made efforts to truly change, he cannot fully escape his own actions and dispositions – the viewer is left with at best a feeling of ambiguous optimism.

As you see, a good ending is a rare bird in television. Which makes saying goodbye to Bojack a little more sweet than it was bitter.

Raptors-Suns Recap

After a lackluster performance that saw the end of their best-ever winning streak, the Toronto Raptors returned from the All-Star break to face off against the Phoenix Suns.If you were watching at the beginning of the season, then you know that the Suns were one of the breakout success stories. Under the guiding tutelage of new head coach Monty Williams, the Suns rattled off an impressive series of wins and seemed (at last) on track to make the playoffs.

In part, this was because Devin Booker is having the best season of his young career. While previously skeptics have pointed to the Sun’s lack of team success as a way to denigrate Booker’s accomplishments, it has been clear for a few years now that Booker’s on-court impact is unquestionably a significant positive – and his line this season: 26/4/6 on 62% True Shooting, is outrageously good. Booker was a deserving All-Star before his injury replacement.

The Sun’s early success was all the more impressive because DeAndre Ayton, entering his second year with big expectations, missed 25 games to open the season due to league violations stemming from the use of diuretics (commonly used to mask illegal steroid use).

 

Since returning to action Ayton has made big strides on the defensive end, going from “impossibly bad” to somewhere approaching average. You might be inclined to read this as an insult, but I mean this as serious praise. Ayton is a center and a number one overall pick, it is paramount that if he is going to live up to his draft position that he becomes a very good to great defender given his offensive foibles. You see, Ayton is a skilled offensive big, he has a good stroke and a rather nice looking jumper. But for someone of his theoretical imposing figure, he rarely posts up or enforces his will inside, nor does he make a living on tip-ins or rim-running. This is all reflected in his absurdly low free throw rate for his position. He will need to improve in each of these areas, more drastically than he ha already improved on the defensive end, if he hopes to be the second star the Phoenix Suns so desperately need.

Ayton’s return also complicated things for Mont Williams, as one of the chief reasons for their winning ways had been the play of Aaron Baynes. Baynes is an unheralded, workmanlike figure in the NBA, but he did a lot to grow key skills that make him a valuable player on just about any team. He sets thunderous screens that knock opposing players out of plays and he’s developed into a more than competent outside shooter – giving more room for someone like Booker to operate at the rim. But playing Baynes and Ayton together turns a nimble, run and gun Suns squad into a lumbering Two Towers formation more suitable to the 90’s Spurs than the heirs to Mike D’Antonis 7 Seconds or Less teams. 

The bloom steadily came off the rose, and the Suns slipped down the standings to a paltry 22-34 when they faced off against the Raps.

Neither team looked particularly focused in early action, both accruing silly turnovers, miscues, and bunches of missed shots. Luckily Siakam stepped up big in the first with 17 points, starting him on the path to a dominant performance.

The Raptors surged to an 8 point lead at the end of the first which ballooned to 24 points by half, they never looked back.

37 points from Pascal Siakam, who looked every bit the player the Raptors hope he can be in the playoffs. Isolations, step-backs, quickly punishing switches in the post. Spicy P did it all and in style. It was a nice bounceback performance reminsicent of the kind of play that earned him MVP-adjacent talk over the first 20 games of the season, Siakam, like most the roster, benefited from the extended rest of the All Star break.

On the defensive end the Raptors warmed up more quickly, leading to season high 13 blocked shots, in one particularly notable instance, Serge Ibaka swallowed Kelly Oubre’s attempt at a hookshot in the lane.

The Suns made a little run in the second half, punishing hte Raptors – and Kyle Lowry in particular who had six turnovers – for their continued carelessness. And when Serge Ibaka suddenly picked up his fifth foul, it seemed the Suns were set to make it a dogfight to the end. After entering the fourth quarter with a 15 point advantage, suddenly the mark had been chipped all the way down to mere two possesion game, 6 points.

It was not to be however, as the Raptors proved once again that when the going gets tight few teams can withstand the defensive pressure they’re capable of exerting when going all out. Serge knocked in (or rather, banked in) a timely 3 and Pascal got out on the break and pretty soon the game was well in hand once more.

The Raptors win leaves them at 41-15. With a Pacers squad that has looked unusually shaky since the return of Victor Oladipo on Sunday, could this be the beginning of another streak?

An All-Star For the Ages

Well, that was unexpected. Sure, you might have mixed feelings about All-Star Weekend, I know a lot of “serious basketball minds” can’t stand the semi-farcical nature of the whole thing – but to me, All-Star has a median range of outcomes including the very fun and amusing to just okay. This weekend blew expectations out of the water, and if you flipped over during the 4th quarter of Sunday’s marquee, you were in for the treat of a lifetime.

But let’s not start the show with a show-stopper. The weekend officially kicked off with the much-maligned Rising Stars game, a showcase for the best rookie and sophomore players in the NBA. 

The teams were divided into Team USA and Team World, with Team World boasting 4 Canadian players in  RJ Barrett, Brandon Clarke, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. RJ lead all teams in scoring as Clarke did so in rebounding, the Canadians handled themselves well all four even sharing the court together briefly during the second half alongside Doncic. Had Team World won, RJ surely would have captured MVP honours.

Zion threw down a dunk so vicious that it bent the rim on its hinges, much to the delight of the broadcast team.

That crop includes not one but two All-Star Starters in Luka Doncic and Trae Young, who despite constantly being tied to each other, compared to each other, have clearly developed a mutual friendship and admiration perhaps *due* to those very comparisons (and no doubt, their shared extraordinary skill). It led to undoubtedly the highlight of the game, where at halftime Luka dribbled to halfcourt and banked in a 3-point shot with Trae guarding him. 

The look of joy on their faces were omens for what turned out to be one the best All-Star weekends of all time.

The Skills challenge featured the first Raptor of the weekend’s festivities – Pascal Siakam. Siakam faced off against Chicago local and notorious defensive pest Patrick Beverley in the first round, easily handling the diminutive guard and advancing to the second round where lost to eventual champion and fellow first-time All-STar Bam Adebayo.

The 3-point contest was decided on the very last shot, as Buddy Hield knocked out previous champion Devin Booker.

The Dunk Contest was one of the best this Millenium, perhaps only bested bt the 2016 duel between Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine.

The standouts were Derrick Jones Jr. and another outstanding performance by Aaron Gordon. Both threw down multiple dunks never seen before in a dunk contest, much to the delight of the United Center crowd.

After a tie through the first 4 dunks, the pair entered a sudden death dunk off. The last dunk came down to Aaron Gordon who only needed a 48 to finally capture the Dunk Contest trophy that had eluded him for since 2016. In a genuine spontaneous decision, he called out to Tacko Fall, a 7 5 player, sitting in the audience – Gordon then proceeded to clear him and dunk, and the crowd exploded – expecting, rightfully, a score of 50. But 47 flashed and the crowd reacted with anger and shock. Aaron Gordon had once again been robbed of a deserving dunk contest victory.

But all of those events, as entertaining as they were, were merely appetizers on the road to one of the best All-Star Sundays ever – certainly, the best of my life (and if you’re anywhere close to me in age, yours as well).

The new format is more difficult to explain than it was to understand in action, but in essence, the All-Star Game used a modified version of the Elam Ending. The Elam Ending is designed to reduce intentional fouling at the end of games, and instead of playing out the clock, the last period of play stops once a “target score” is reached. In honour of the late Kobe Bryant, the score was 24.  And each quarter prior to that was played in isolation, with the winning team winning $100,000 for their charity of choice.

The ends of each quarter became competitive for a few moments, with Nick Nurse even calling timeout and drawing up a play to try and win at the end of the second quarter.

But it was the fourth quarter where things truly came together. The second string stars played for a few minutes, but then the heavy hitters took the stage. In the end, it was Giannis, Lowry, Siakam, Embiid, and Kemba Walker squaring off with LeBron, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, James Harden, and Kawhi. These kinds of lineups are usually only possible in an Olympic setting and even then, never so evenly matched. This was the old guard in the NBA, while the basketball world is more endeared to the rising sun of Luka Doncic and Trae Young, the stars that were trusted to carry the day were Lowry and CP3.

Siakam looked right at home among the leagues best. And Kyle Lowry brought a defensive tenacity never seen before in an All-Star Game. Lowry was taking charges and hounding Harden and CP3. Team LeBron ultimately captured the victory, with Kawhi Leonard notching Kobe Bryan MVP honours.

And though the game ended on a free throw, the Elam Ending must be considered an unmitigated success. But whether this new level of competition was merely the format, or perhaps the result of a desire to honour Kobe Bryant’s memory, will remain a mystery until next year.

 

The State of the Atlantic Division

The Raptors have outdone all expectations this year and look set on yet another deep playoff run. But the rest of the Atlantic Divison are not resting on their laurels, and many see their path as leading right through Toronto on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. So, let’s check in with the state of the Atlantic Division, who’s trending up and down and who the Raptors need to worry about this season and in the future.

 

The Boston Celtics are currently the biggest threat to the Raptors, Jayson Tatum is blossoming into a superstar, the addition of Kemba Walker has left Kyrie a distant memory, and a controversial decision to let Al Horford walk in the offseason is working out well.

In sum, the Celtics are in a good place. A team that was a terrible disappointment last season became widely written off going into this year, now boasts a top-five offense, a top-five defense and a top-five margin of victory. While the Celtics might not scream contender to you, those three factors certainly do. Another point in their favour, the Celtics building blocks for success include multiple star-level wings. Wings that can handle the ball, score, make plays and switch like-size defensive assignments are the Rare Earth Minerals of the NBA. Most teams are desperate for one, while the Celtics have three in Tatum, Brown, and Hayward. 

And for a team this good, they’re relatively young, no core piece of their team is anywhere close to eclipsing their prime, indeed Tatum is just dipping a toe into his. 

Kemba Walker, who has been doing admirable work for a mostly bad Hornets team his entire career, looks completely at home in the green and gold. After years of being the only dynamic offensive threat – and dealing with the resulting defensive pressure – Kemba has been freed to do less, which has lead to a career year in efficiency.

They also made the difficult decision to part with Horford, something I was worried would hurt their defense and spacing – but haven’t skipped a beat. Meanwhile, the Sixers just demoted Horford to the bench, after signing him to four year 109 million dollar deal. Speaking of which…

 

The Philadelphia 76ers Woe be to Sixers fans. Expectations are the enemy of happiness in sports. I like many others thought that the Sixers were destined to compete for a top-two seed this season, and yet if the playoffs began today they wouldn’t even have homecourt advantage in the first round. This in spite of the fact that they were perhaps the most talented team in the division, and outside Giannis Antetokounmpo might an argument for the best top-end talent in the entire Eastern Conference. But as everyone knows, the pairing of their stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons has often been an awkward fit. The name of the game in the modern NBA in spacing and Simmons and Embiid would in an ideal world take a lot of their shots from similar parts of the court. Embiid likes to post up and overpower opponents, Ben is best served in a high pace offense where he can dominate in transition and fling eagle-eyed passes to sharpshooters surrounding the 3-point arc.

But it’s not like they’re an unusually bad fit. We have been conditioned by the success of the Warriors to think of superstar pairings as defined by the seamless ways they fit together, Steph and Durant could thrive together in almost any environment – but more often than not teams bet on talent and tailor the surrounding roster accordingly. You needn’t look far to see examples, Houston has just embarked on a radical experiment to play without a traditional center in order to maximize the fit between James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Westbrooks’s complete lack of outside shot means he essentially fills the role of an attacking, playmaking center on offense now, and the lane is open because PJ Tucker is forcing the opposing center to defend the threat of a perimeter shot.

So the Sixers shouldn’t be this bad, really. The kind of players that would work well next to Ben would also work well next to Joel, namely guards and wings that can shoot and defend. But the Sixers have allocated the majority of their resources to forwards in Al Horford and Tobias Harris that they have a lot of skill redundancy with. They don’t need volume shot creation, they need efficient spot-up guys that know where to be and don’t crowd the offense.

And the Sixers have nobody to blame but themselves. Sam Hinkie and The Process was an unmitigated success, landing not one but two true superstar players, and a collection of draft assets to boot. But that once had impressive warchest has been replaced with bare cupboards, and it’s unclear how the Sixers pivot from here. Maybe they get hot at the right time and ride the momentum to the Finals and all of this looks silly in 2 months, but right now the Sixers don’t fit. The Raptors haven’t skipped a beat with Kawhi’s departure, but you get the feeling that many in the Sixers organization think about the road not traveled when it came to letting Jimmy Butler walk.

 

The Brooklyn Nets – As recently as last year, you would have considered the Net’s a radical come-from-behind success story. After the previous administration mortgaged their future draft picks in an ill-considered gambit to win-now with a core of Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and the husks of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. GM Sean Marks was handed the job with bare cupboards and the impetus to quite literally make something from nothing. And so he did. On the margins, he made great strides in acquiring talent, taking calculated risks and improving their position. While he made mistakes as well, his strategy saw the Nets return to the playoffs much sooner than expected. That competence attracted Kyrie and Durant – with the expectation that Kyrie would hold them over as Durant rehabbed from his ruptured Achilles. But the Kyrie addition has not gone smoothly. To put it bluntly, for all his talent and offensive excellence, it’s not totally clear that the Nets are better with Kyrie in the fold (in 20 games this season they are 8-12). And that uncertainty can’t feel good given the organizational-cultural cost that comes with having Kyrie on the roster. While I’m inclined to think that the universal blame shifted on Kyrie for Boston’s failures last year is overstated, the evidence is mounting that he has a negative impact on team morale at the very least. Irvings most recent remarks about “needing more pieces” that implied that some of his current teammates would be traded, was received about as well in the Nets locker room as it was in the public eye.

The Nets have also tied up 4 years and $40 million in aging center DeAndre Jordan, seemingly to induce Durant and Kyrie to sign. While that might be a fine calculation, it remains in an objective on-court basketball sense a poor allocation of resources.

The Nets are basically in a gap year, now that Irving is out for the season and any faint hope of a late Durant return has evaporated. The Raptors would handle them easily in a first-round series, but next season things could be quite different. In addition to Durant’s return, the Nets still have the potential to pull off an aggressive trade for a third star. And if they do, they might eclipse Toronto for second in the conference.

 

New York Knicks – Teams rise and fall in the NBA year over year, one minute you’re watching the Cavaliers in the Finals, the next they’re in the lottery. Such cycles mean that certain teams are competitive at different times, in essence rarely competing at all. Rebuilding teams and ones aiming to contend have different needs and are more likely to cooperate in the pursuit of their desired resources rather than spar with one another. The New York Knicks are on such a contrasting cycle to the Raptors. Despite many years of being non-competitive, they remain at the very start of a rebuild and are unlikely to feature in the strategic planning for this version of the Raptors.

The State of the Democratic Primary Race

If you, like me, are something of a political junkie, you probably watched the Democratic Primary Debate hosted by MSNBC Wednesday night. If so you were front and center to the spiciest and most candid debate of the entire election cycle to date. Things tipped off with Elizabeth Warren taking dead aim at first time Democratic debate entrant and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hammering him for his history of sexism. But things did not slow down there, and the debate, in general, was indicative of the state of the Democratic race right at this critical juncture before Super Tuesday – it is not quite anyone’s race to win, but it is certainly anyone’s to lose.

To understand the current state of the Democratic Primary there are a number of important trends and factors to make note of. Chief among those, you must consider the rise of Bloomberg and his billionaire status and how he is impacting the race. After sitting out the first two contests entirely, Bloomberg has spent his way to a significant rise in national polling, in many cases rising as high as second behind Bernie Sanders. This is the result of a combination of paid and earned media – Bloomberg has spent more than $450 million dollars of ads alone, not including the hosts of campaign workers, volunteers and other infrastructure which he is also spending lavishly on. This, for the record, doesn’t even account for the interest that Bloomberg earns on his obscene networth – rival Democratic nominee and fellow Billionaire Tom Steyer’s entire fortune amounts to less than what Bloomberg earns in a single year purely on interest. The expected revenue from advertising for Fox, CNN, and MSNBC totals less than 3 billion annually – Bloomberg is approaching spending levels that threaten to warp journalistic integrity simply due to how much he impacts their bottom line. And all of this paid media has generated an immense amount of free media coverage on top of it, as (in the most charitable interpretation) journalists and insiders come increasingly interested in his chances at actually pulling off the win.

But money can’t buy everything, and Michael could not find his footing at any stage of the debate. Bloomberg is a living embodiment of the corroding effect the super-wealthy have on the political process and a lifetime of deference from subordinates and people with less power than him left him ill-prepared for Wednesday night’s action. He appeared arrogant, aloof and flustered – he came across as a petulant child surrounded by much more worldly and measured communicators. While Warren struck the opening blow, Sanders, Biden and even Pete Buttiegeg took aim at Bloomberg in an effort to advance their own positions.

Bloomberg is only one story of the debate though, as many in the race are beginning to see that it is Bernie Sanders’ to lose. Rather than consolidate behind one moderate candidate to defeat the most left-wing politician in modern American history, Biden, Buttiegeg, Klobuchar, and now Bloomberg each see themselves as a possible unity candidate to defeat Sanders – which ironically has led to their persistent division. They were clearly aware of their strategic needs, as rather than focus their attacks on Bernie, whose base they can never hope to attract, they mostly squared off with their ideological compatriots. In particular, Pete and Amy resumed their growing enmity in a series of exchanges that left neither looking good. Amy had to defend her inability to recall the President of Mexico’s name (and importantly, related policies) despite her involvement in committees that have significant dealings with Mexico. As Pete hammered her for this point, Amy literally turned to him at one point and responded: “Do you think I’m dumb?” It is the kind of thing you never hear a politician say, and for good reason.

Amy seemed to wilt under Pete’s attacks, and while Pete risked coming off looking like a bully, he mostly kept his cool and deflected responding points. Pete has escaped any questions at the debates or in public forums about his Douglas plan and his repeated false claims of Black voter support. Their campaigns would need extremely outsider results to succeed in Nevada, their lack of minority support is why Pete despite doing very well in the first two races has not broken out in national polls.

Sanders comported himself quite well, particularly in the second half of the debate. Despite being accused of not releasing his medical records (something he has, in fact, done) he managed to stay on message and carried his points persuasively. And when Pete and others accused him of vagueness with regards to funding Medicare for All, Sanders retorted as he always does (and to great effect I might add) if Canada and the rest of the industrialized West is capable of providing healthcare to their people, why can’t the richest and most powerful country in the world?

Warren came out swinging and did not stop. Clearly her advisors had thought her too passive in the previous debate and she tried to chip away at every opponent but Biden, if anyone were to benefit in an outsize way from the debate, it would be her.

But the debate “bump” may be moot, early voting, a first for Nevada this year, has already resulted in 80% of last year’s totals being cast. Caucuses are by nature fairly undemocratic systems, not only are they public and subject to public pressures that secret ballot are not, they require significant amounts of time and only happen between certain hours – they exclude workers, the disabled, people that struggle with English among many others. Early voting, which works as a ranked-choice ballot, does much to ameliorate the problems. It also means that the diehards have already made their choice – and Sanders might win Nevada in a runaway.

Bernie is the unquestionably the frontrunner, but that doesn’t mean he is anywhere close to the presumptive nominee. Even a dominant win in Nevada isn’t likely to change that calculus much. The polling and politics website Fivethirtyeight has “nobody” as the most likely outcome when it comes to achieving a majority of pledged delegates. That means that Chuck Todd’s final question at the MSNC debate was quite telling. 

All candidates were asked if the person with most delegates from the primary process should be supported as the nominee – all but Bernie said no. They all see the potential for Bernie to win a clear plurality of delegates but the inability to win outright – and they’re positioning themselves to united against Sanders at a contested convention. Whatever your feelings about Sanders, the Democratic Party must realize this is political suicide. Sanders has built a real interracial, intergenerational, working-class movement many who have never participated in the political process before – stiffing them at the last possible moment would stop dead in its tracks the most effective Democratic organization since Obama.

And with the contest against Trump looming, that’s not an organization that the Democrats can afford to lose.

Five Take-Aways from the Raptors Winning Streak

You’d be forgiven for thinking that was a fever-dream. Or a title induced hangover fantasy of some sort. But the Raptors really won 15 straight games.

And while the end of the streak was a little disappointing, the run itself was nothing but remarkable. Apart from taking pleasure in excellence, what should Raptors fans take away from the winning-streak-that-was?

Firstly the Raptors pulled this off by the committee. 

Basketball is a team sport, obviously, but it is famously less of a team sport than something like soccer. In soccer, even the best players don’t impact the game as much as they do in basketball.  A soccer team is only as good as its weakest link, wherein basketball the opposite is true. Lionel Messi isn’t typically taking the ball out of the net and dribbling from one end to the other to score a goal. But the top players in the NBA –  your LeBron, Giannis, and Harden types – do so regularly.

But this streak showed that a distributed attack still has a place in the NBA. So while the Raptors will play against teams with more top-level talent, they’ve proven that a united effort can still carry the day.

Over the course of the win streak, six different players led a game in scoring and five players averaged 17 or more points per game.

Some might spin this as a negative, as in the playoffs when the ball gets sticky, it often falls to one guy to make a play. Luckily the Raptors already have that guy in Siakam, they just have the luxury of falling back on one of the better-distributed attacks in the NBA as he develops as an isolation player.

Secondly, for the Raptors defense is still their calling card. The team forced over 22.5 turnovers per game over the streak. Which is more than 8 turnovers above the league average. That’s a lot of possessions where an opponent doesn’t get a shot that (particularly in the case of live-ball turnovers) results in a quality look for Toronto. In the same way that the Houston Rockets start every game up 5 because of their 3-point heavy shot profile, the Raptors win a lot of games just on math by defending as well as they do.

And their defense keeps chugging along despite high-end defenders like Gasol, Lowry, and Ibaka all missing time.

Third, after being famous for winning the championship despite not having a single player drafted top five in their respective draft, the Raptors scouting and player development staff continues to demonstrate why its best in the NBA. Though snubbed from the Rising Stars Game, Terence Davis is shooting 54.8% from 2 and 42% from 3. He has been asked to step into regular rotation role and has performed beyond any possible expectations for an undrafted player. Advanced stats are similarly glowing, Davis sports a 1.24 PIPM (Player Impact Plus Minus) which puts him 3rd among all rookies this year (and only narrowly behind Zion Williamson, perhaps the greatest rookie prospect since LeBron). But it hasn’t just been Davis who has stepped up, sharpshooter Matt Thomas has also shined in limited minutes.

Fourth, The key Raptors have been playing too many minutes. While it’s foolhardy to ascribe the origin of this or that particular injury to a lack of rest, the distribution at the top for the Raptors has been concerning. Of particular concern is Lowry’s minutes.

Kyle Lowry currently sit at 36 and a half minutes per game, it’s the most he’s played in three years and among the highest minutes of his career. Lowry is obviously essential to the Raptors, which is why he needs to rest. While the winning streak was fun, there are no trophies for winning 15. Nor for 73 as the Warriors found out. The goal, as preposterous as it may have sounded to some when Kawhi left, is to win a championship. Now that it’s apparent this goal is not out of reach, the Raptors must manage their minutes better.

For a team that only just last season made “load management” a world-famous buzzphrase, the Raptors ought to look in the mirror over the All-Star Break and lower the minutes for Kyle, Serge, and Marc whenever he returns to the lineup. One of the advantages of the bad injury luck has been that numerous bench players have performed well and had a chance to earn  Nick Nurse’s trust. Now it is time to return that trust and keep those players in the rotation even as the Raptors are made whole again. Save Lowry for the playoffs, this team will need him.

Fifth, Nurse’s bold nature as a coach continues to pay dividends. The selective use of the full-court press has completely discombobulated teams unprepared for it. Conventional wisdom would say that this gimmick defense that is usually limited to the lower levels of basketball and won’t find utility in a second-round playoff series – but then the same would have been said about Nick Nurse breaking out a box-and-one against Steph Curry in the NBA Finals.

This coaching staff has proven that there are no absolutes when it comes to traditional thinking, and one should expect that the Raptors are using the press not only to win games in the short-term but also to gain practical experience for the postseason.

The streak was fun, but the best part about it? It’s a harbinger of things to come.

Raptors-Nets Post Game Recap

It was just one of those nights.

After a listless first half, the Raptors began the third quarter with consecutive (and uncharacteristic turnovers). First Pascal dribbled lackadaisically into three defenders and was stripped, leading to a Nets fastbreak. The next trip down Fred VanVleet threw a wild pass to the right wing intended for OG, but even his Stretch Armstrong length was not enough to corral it.

Even the Raptors faithful could feel it coming now. At last, the longest winning streak in Canadian professional sports would be ending. And so it did. Final score 101-91 Nets over Raptors in Brooklyn. The word of the night was fatigue. A Kyrie-Irvingless Nets team handed the Raptors a sound defeat. 

Toronto only managed 40 first-half points and trailed by a dozen going into the third. 

Every shot was short and flat, telltale signs of a team run ragged. In a way, the Raptors were victims of their own success. Maintaining a winning streak is tiring. Refusing to pack it in on any given night takes a special toll on the body, particularly as the injuries continue to pile up. As it is often said about a bad day on a golf course, the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.

Jack Armstrong noted on the call repeatedly that the Raptors simply didn’t have their legs. It showed in every aspect of the game. The Raptors bench, one of the reasons the streak had survived to this point was outscored 27-9.

The main performers for the Raptors were Lowry, Siakam, and Ibaka. But only Serge managed to have an unqualified good game.

Returning from whiplash the game prior, it wasn’t clear until close to tip-off that Kyle would even play. He struggled from the field, but got to the free-throw line enough and played a floor game that was good enough to push the Raptors to a win – had anyone else on the team been able to make a shot. He also had 5 fouls, including a failed effort to draw his patented charge at half court. Still, he finished with a 12/11/12 triple-double, but it wasn’t enough.

Siakam did his best to generate offense when guarded in single coverage by Taurian Prince or Wilson Chandler and was able to take Prince off the dribble in isolation, sealing him in deep post position and scoring or getting fouled repeatedly. But Siakam simply couldn’t get cash in on his jump shot, going 1/6 from 3 and just 6/17 overall.

Serge Ibaka was lights out, going 10/17 for 28 points to go with 9 rebounds. Ibaka continues to build upon a career-best (40% from 3) shooting year and without him, this would have been an ugly blow out and an even more ignoble end.

There have been games in this streak where the Raptors have sputtered on offense like this one, but the defense has been good enough that they’ve ground those out. Against the Nets on Wednesday however, the rotations were just slow enough that they couldn’t survive their ineptitude on the other end of the court. The Raptors normally thrive in transition, but only managed to force 12 turnovers.

The Raptors once more broke out the box-and-one in and attempt to turn the tide late in the third, with Davis marking Caris LeVert. DeAndre Jordan took advantage, driving into the paint with too much force for late rotating defenders to stop. Rondae was guarding him as a small-ball 5, but was no match. And without providing the benefits of small ball – namely shooting.

And speaking of Jordan, he turned back the clock some in this game. While Jarrett Allen is inarguably the superior player, in certain matchups, on particular nights, Jordan can still demonstrate what made him a top-tier NBA center for so many years. And just like the previous game against the Nets on Saturday – when matched up against Chris Boucher, he simply had too much size and strength.

The Nets play a strict orthodox drop coverage in the pick and roll. It’s a scheme that is intended to wall off the rim, preventing the best shots on the court, while simultaneously baiting an opponent into taking pull up 2’s out of the pick and roll – difficult shots even when lightly contested, and one of the least efficient shots in the NBA. It’’s a scheme that maximizes Jordan’s strengths – he takes up a lot of space in the paint – while minimizing his weaknesses – his inability to stay with opposing players on the perimeter he’s too slow to hedge or blitz effectively.

The game finished with a significant free throw disparity (25-13 in favour of the Nets) but it was not the result of Brooklyn home cooking, rather the Nets were outcompeting the Raptors from the opening tip. They had particular success throwing lobs to Jordan and Allen, who were frequently fouled leading to 3 point plays.

In the end it was all too much. And the Raptors couldn’t pull off yet another 4th quarter miracle.

But man, it was fun while it lasted.

Theorizing a Raptors Playoff Rotation

The All-Star Break is upon us, which means that the post-season – the real season is just two short months away. And, as has been the case for seven straight years now, Toronto will be a factor. While this year began as a victory lap of sorts after their Cinderella run to the title with Kawhi last year, the Raptors have made an impressive case that they are not to be underestimated as a threat to repeat. The story this year has been beating the expectations, yes, but in large part that’s because despite a string of critical injuries – the Raptors secondary (and even tertiary) players have stepped up in a big way.

So the Raptors have performers up and down the bench, but realistically not all will play significant minutes in the playoffs. Raptors fans will remember with Casey coaches teams of the past that the bench was so dominant in the regular season, he went into the playoffs intending to play the same rotations – and those same fans will remember that those plans were a disaster. The level of the competition in the playoffs is simply too much for some players that are quality contributors for the first 82.

It may be early, but let’s glean what we can from the year so far to theorize what a playoff-rotation for this Toronto squad could look like:

Kyle Lowry – It goes without saying that the greatest Raptor of all time will be a major contributor. He’s played a concerning amount of minutes to date this year, at 36.5 per game. It’s asking a lot of a 33-year-old point guard to turn this up even further, but he’ll have to at least get to last year’s mark of 37.5 – if not higher – if the Raps are going to make a run.

Pascal Siakam – Kyle Lowry is the leader but Pascal is unquestionably the best player and the future of the team. Destined for an All-NBA team for the first time in his career. Siakam is sitting at 35 minutes a game, a good sustainable number that will likely creep to 38 or higher come April.

Serge Ibaka –  Ibaka is no spring chicken and his playing-time will be heavily matchup dependent. But he is also experiencing an outstanding shooting year from distance. The Raptors will be hoping he manages over 20 minutes per outing.

Fred VanVleet – Now that VanVleet is part of a two point-guard starting lineup along Lowry, expect his minutes to jump significantly over last year (24.7) to the mid to high 30’s. Fred has played like a starting guard on both ends and after shooting the Raptors to a chip last year, he’s going to play an even bigger role in the 2020 postseason.

OG Anounoby – An emergency appendectomy left him on the sidelines the entire 2018-19 run, though cleared to play in the Finals OG never saw action. And fair enough, the most important minutes of a franchise’s life against one of the best teams of all time is not the time to try and catch a rhythm after missing serious time. That the Raptors could afford *not* to play him speaks to the level of depth they had. This year OG will be asked to play a major role, his defensive versatility and switchability against large wing players will be particularly valuable should the Raptors face the Celtics or Bucks. OG will play 30 minutes or more a night, particularly if a Tatum or a Middleton starts to get hot.

Marc Gasol – Marc’s most memorable work last season came against Joel Embiid, where he proved the value of the Valanciunas trade finally and definitively. If they catch the super-sized Sixers again he’ll be asked to do more of the same. While a matchup with the Lakers in the Finals would be similarly demanding, his ability to stretch the floor will limit Dwight Howard’s effectiveness – something that might have seemed flippant before his breakout comeback this year. Marc is nursing a worrying left hamstring injury, an injury that is notoriously easy to aggravate. As the Raptors are rolling at the moment they should be extra cautious with Marc’s timetable and limit his action until the playoffs where they will need him to approach 30 minutes a game once more.

Norman Powell – Powell is having a breakout season. His efficiency in the restricted area and from deep makes him an ideal sixth-man. Powell has had a big moment in every Raptors playoff run – often at the Bucks expense – and his improvement guarantees an increased role.

Terence Davis –  It is a no brainer that Davis will feature heavily in a playoff rotation. It is shocking to say about an undrafted rookie, but Davis has shown time and time again that he has the goods to play during winning-time. If his shooting splits hold into April, he should absolutely play 10 or more minutes per game in the playoffs.

Matt Thomas – Thomas has a JJ Reddick like shot diversity with the ability to really knock it in off screens and handoffs, very useful to second units that have trouble with spacing. And he cuts well, which gels perfectly with Gasol’s desire to facilitate in the high-post. In limited time so far he’s hitting an absurd 48% from behind the arc, which could be crucial in some of the spacing starved bench lineups the Raptors may be forced to play if one of Serge or Marc misses time. The question will be if he can he defend well enough to stay on the court.

Chris Boucher – Boucher struggles against size and his outside shot hasn’t been there. He’ll get a look only if there is an injury to Gasol or Ibaka, and even then sparingly unless his 3-point percentage turns around in a hurry.

Patrick Mccaw  – Mccaw has become the bane of a certain segment of the Raptors fanbase, who feel that Nick Nurse gives him an unusually long leash. Nurse has been rewarded with a few standout performances, but Mccaw – despite his growing ring collection – hasn’t demonstrated the kind of consistency to make him a net positive contributor. But all signs point to Mccaw continuing to get minutes, even into the playoffs.

Rondae Hollis Jefferson – “Hustle’ Jefferson. He’s getting a fair amount of run in the regular season, but opposing teams are already giving him the Rondo treatment. It’s not clear that his defensive value is such that he’ll get minutes in the playoffs, he simply hurts spacing too much. A break in case of emergency player.

Stanley Johnson – Acquiring Johnson was a Steph Curry level heat check on the part of Raptors player development. Sadly, even they couldn’t turn Johnson into a reliable contributor. He shouldn’t play. If he does, something has gone terribly wrong.

It probably goes without saying but two-way contract guys like Brissett and Paul Watson will not see time. The same goes for Dewan Hernandez. These guys need a lot of reps before they see a minute of the playoffs, if they ever get there, it certainly won’t be this year.

Just How Good are the Raptors Really?

The Toronto Raptors are, by any measure, one of the best teams in basketball. Entering the All-Star break at 40-15, they sit at the two seed in the East behind the runaway Milwaukee Bucks (46-8) and third overall behind the Los Angeles Lakers (41-12). While Raptors fans are busy collecting receipts of the various talking heads that scorned the team’s prospects entering their title defense season, if pressed, even most diehards would say that this team has exceeded all expectations.

So the questions are now worth asking. How exactly are the Raptors doing this? And just how far can they go? Principally three things are responsible for their success this season: internal development, coaching, and shot selection.

Internal Development

The Raptors cannot be considered a “young team” but they are receiving contributions and seeing growth from their core young prospects. The Raptors are seeing outsized contributions from up and down the roster, from Norm Powell having a career year to getting outstanding performances from undrafted rookie Terence Davis.

But newly-minted All-Star and soon to be All-NBA player Pascal Siakam’s development is what has raised this teams ceiling. Siakam’s leap last year to Most Improved Player was a stunning development, going from a 27th pick G-League player to the 3rd best player on a championship team. So you would be forgiven for thinking that another such leap was out of the question, even a slight regression would not have undone the monumental progress he has made. And yet Siakam has gone to yet another level, earning early MVP consideration (or, if we’re being honest, the conversation about who places second after Giannis Antetoukounmpowins via unanimous selection). 

Siakam has taken a gigantic step as a shot-creator, seamlessly stepping into the chasm in that category left by Kawhi Leonard’s departure. For just one example of Siakam’s growth, take a look at his 3-point attempts. Last year during his breakout campaign, Siakam’s 3-point field goal makes were almost all off of assists (97.5%). This year, he’s taking charge of the offense and shooting significantly more off the dribble and in isolation situations, bringing that number all the way down to 65.6%. And he’s doing this without a drop in efficiency, his numbers are essentially the same as last year while providing dramatically more on-court value.

Coaching

Though the ballots won’t be cast until April, Nick Nurse has already just about wrapped up his Coach of the Year candidacy. Nurse, now in his second year, has rightfully earned a reputation as an innovator and something of a coaching iconoclast. When presented with a basketball problem, he is willing to explore possible solutions that many at the NBA level would dismiss out of hand. While most coaches would prefer to play the same lineups and rotations every game, Nurse deliberately experiments – every game is an opportunity to acquire more information that will be useful down the road.

The players themselves, of course, make this possible and deserve more credit than they receive. The night-to-night adjustments that have made Nurse famous would not be possible without a team that is as smart and committed to playing together as this Raptors team is. The Raptors are the new Spurs, where each player brought into the system becomes imprinted by the best values of the team’s leaders, developing their own abilities that together are greater than the sum of their individual talents. But not every coach could maximize a roster this smart and multi-talented the way Nurse and his team has. This coaching staff deserves all the credit in the world.

Shot Selection

There were perceived conflicts last year with how the team played when Kawhi was in the game as opposed to when he sat. When he was in the game, he naturally dominated possessions somewhat, playing (extremely effective) hero ball. When Leonard was out the Raptors became a team in the style of the 2014 Spurs. Cutting, ball-movement, and emphasis on passing out of the mid-post by Marc Gasol. They played true team ball and hunted high-value shots.

So without Kawhi, the Raptors have fully committed to the latter system to generate their offense. In part this is simply the reality when a team loses a superstar player like Kawhi Leonard, there are more shots to go around. But also Kawhi is unusual in that he is one of the few players that can build an efficient offense taking midrange shots. Rather than making Siakam, their new star, take the shots Kawhi once was – they have integrated his newfound shot creation seamlessly into their team-oriented style.

For example this year the Raptors rank 3rd in shot attempts in the restricted area (previously 20th) 7th in 3 point attempts (previously 11th ) and shoot the 9th fewest attempts from midrange (previously 17th). They’ve also decreased the number of plays finished via isolation. 

Do they Raptors have a path to the Finals?

So do the Raptors have a chance to repeat as champions? Fivethirtyeight’s projection last year at the All-Star Break had Raptors as a 42% chance of making the Finals and 13% of winning the title. This season the model is much, much lower on the Raptors with an 8% chance at a Finals and a 2% chance of a successful title defense.

That’s striking because the model has them with lower odds than not just the Bucks and Lakers who are ahead of them in the standings, but also the Clippers, Sixers, Celtics, Nuggets, and Rockets who are not.

Obviously Toronto beat the odds last year but this outlook is not particularly promising.  ESPN’s Basketball Power Index odds see them not dramatically more likely to repeat at 4%.

Still, there is reason for optimism.

As a general rule title contenders in the NBA have to be in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Currently, the Raptors sport the number two defense in the NBA, narrowly ahead of division rival Boston Celtics.

In 2018-19 they finished 5th in defense. But that undersells how much better they are so far this year. The leaguewide offense is up, as it has been trending the last several years. But the Raptors are not only higher in the relative defensive standings, their defensive rating this year is 105.1 compared to last years 106.8.

On offense, they’re just outside the top 10 at 12th (111.4). But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The difference between the 13th and 8th is less than .6. Factor in the significant injuries the Raptors have suffered to key contributors. Gasol has missed 20 games, Powell 17, Lowry 12, Ibaka 11, Siakam 11, and VanVleet 10.

If the Raptors can get healthy – and admittedly it’s a big if the way this year has gone, there’s a great argument to believe that Toronto will outperform these projections and make a run at another title.

And if you thought last year’s Raptors run was an unbelievable story. Imagine that.

With Federal Election Looming Climate Strike Comes to Vancouver

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Thousands of cheering people flooded Vancouver City Hall for the Global Climate Strike Friday. Protesters joined millions around the globe in demanding urgent action to avert the climate crisis.

Hailed as the largest protests since the Iraq War, millions joined the call to take action to prevent climate disaster. Looming over the strike however is the upcoming Federal election, which is only a few short weeks away. Whichever party forms the government which will be entrusted with crafting Canada’s climate policy at a critical time. Vancouver-Kingsway Member of Parliament Don Davies believes the NDP are best suited to the task:

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“I think that the climate emergency is the defining issue of our time. I think we have to take urgent and effective action now I mean we all know what the consequences are if we don’t keep under 1.5 degrees and we’ve got 11 years so the NDP has made that an absolute core part of our program to transition to the sustainable economy that will save our planet and is our environmental and economic future.”

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Whether voters agree is another matter. The NDP have been flagging in the polls as the Conservatives are ascendant. And while younger voters typically rank climate change higher on their list of priorities the youth block is notoriously fickle when it comes to elections. But if the the urgency and energy found at Wednesdays protest is any indication, properly mobilized young people represent a potent force for the change needed to avoid ecological disaster.

Surrey Residents Protest Maxime Bernier

Residents are protesting Maxime Bernier’s inclusion at a town hall held by the Surrey Board of Trade Wednesday morning. Anti-Police Power Surrey, the group organizing the protest, believe that the People’s Party of Canada is promoting ideas that are dangerous to Surrey locals and harmful to Canada’s marginalized communities.

Isabel Krupp, one of the organizers of the protest, said that it is important to confront Bernier and the PPC:

“We say that wherever these kinds of toxic, racist, anti-immigrant politics sprout out we need to stamp them down. We need to show that racism and other violent politics that Bernier represents including homophobia, transphobia, climate change denial, these politics are not welcome in our communities.”

And to those who raise the cry of censorship? Isabel was not moved, noting that historically grassroots fascist movements have used free speech as a shield to propagate their harmful ideology. And further that “by organizing a counter rally, a counter presence, saying this kind of hate speech isn’t welcome in Surrey, it’s not welcome in Vancouver, it’s not welcome in Canada we’re not calling on Canada or the police to censor Bernier. We’re building our own grassroots power to push back on the kind of violence they’re promoting.”

The rally begins at 9:00 am Wednesday morning at the Sheraton Hotel in Guildford.

Vancouver Hotel Workers Fight for Safety

Workers at some of Vancouver’s swankiest downtown hotels are on strike. Unionized employees at the Westin Bayshore, Pinnacle Hotel, Hyatt Regency, and Hotel Georgia are all striking after failing to find common ground with their respective managements at the bargaining table.

The hotel workers of United Here Local 40 are fighting for things like fair wages and consistent hours but that is not all. Naden Abenes, who has been a room attendant at the Hyatt Regency for the last 11 years says that for herself and her colleagues, it is the unreasonable and unsafe workload that is of primary concern.

“A lot of us are fighting for lower workload. I injured myself 3 times already and the workload is getting so high and they keep cutting staff so more demand on us and it’s not safe and we need a safer job and less injuries.”

Naden says that the union took to the streets because negotiations with management were going nowhere, but for all that Naden says she’s feeling optimistic about the union’s chances to win further safety measures for her fellow workers.

The Federal Election and the Overton Window

The Canadian Federal Election campaign is upon us, not with a bang but a whimper. The first leaders’ debate kicked off the official action on September 12th, yet the ripple was barely felt in my social circles. Indeed, online and anecdotally, just as many Canadians of my age group and younger were watching the American Democratic Primary debate, inopportunely scheduled to overlap one another. It has only been the aftermath of Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal that most Canadians seem to start paying attention.

That’s a dire state of affairs but one that shouldn’t be all that surprising. I’m guilty myself of following and knowing more about American political goings-on than Canadian ones. Some of this can rightly be attributed to the cultural and political hegemony that American media has here.

But there is obviously something more appealing about the pure theatre of the American campaign. Joe Biden is out here recounting highly questionable tales about stands offs with a gang leader called Corn Pop in-between having his dentures fall out of his mouth mid-sentence.

But that’s only a part of the story, there are policy positions given meaningful discussion in the American primary debates that are not even a wink in eye of any of the Canadian candidates.

Policies like Bernie Sanders proposals for free universal post-secondary tuition and student-debt forgiveness. I can guarantee that if any of the Canadian parties made this a plank of their program, more of my friends would be tuning in to what was an all-together stilted and awkward affair (Elizabeth May mock shaking hands with the absent Justin Trudeau is what the kids call “posting cringe” IRL) .

The whole affair had the vibe of a debate taking place in a hospital hallway. Sanitized. Neutered. If the stakes with the economy and the environment truly are as high as everyone claims to be, why can’t any of the candidates seem to meet the moment with the appropriate amount of personal conviction and passion?

And things only stand to get worse as Maxime Bernier of the Peoples Party of Canada is allowed to participate in the next debate. Bernier doesn’t look like he can win anything, perhaps not even his own seat, but his inclusion remains a troubling one.

source: ipolitics.ca

Why? Well to answer that question, it’s necessary to introduce a concept called the Overton Window. The basic idea of the Overton Window is that in civil society there are certain policies and positions that by some kind of tacit social consensus agree are appropriate to debate in the public forum and that there are some that are not. But this window is not finite, nor is it fixed. the Overton Window can and does shift, based on the efforts – conscious or unconscious – of participants in public life. Indeed the explicit goal of many more extreme political movements is to shift this window.

An instructive historical example would be the movement for Abolitionism, there was no room in the public discourse of the United States for the idea that the slaves were due the same inalienable rights as every other citizen because many of their most powerful political actors relied heavily on slavery for their income. This fact was seemingly so self-evident that the Founding Fathers themselves didn’t catch a whiff of irony in beginning the Declaration of Independence with “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” – indeed the apocryphal story is that a slave held the candle for Thomas Jefferson as he drafted those very words.

It would takes years of work by free Blacks and white abolitionist allies to convince lawmakers in the North of the evils of slavery, that all men truly are created equal and that the denial of said rights via slavery is abhorrent. And that struggle for equality continues to this day.

The Overton Window on this topic has, thankfully (and hopefully), irrevocably shifted. The enslavement of another human being is not up for public debate. But the violation of the rights and dignity of people of colour, Muslims, refugees, transgender people and the mentally ill among many others are very much up for debate even if the language used is coded to not provoke alarm. Those groups and many others stand to lose if the Conservatives win or even if they lose but the Peoples Party of Canada is allowed to broaden the range of acceptable positions. And with the Prime Minister now thoroughly on the defensive because of his own racist actions it seems more than likely that the Overton Window will be pulled rightwards.

On the other end of the spectrum, a Canadian style Medicare for All system in the United States would have been laughed out of the room even 5 years ago – now most Democratic candidates save Joe Biden at least in name are trying to capitalize off just such a proposal from Senator Sanders and it has wide support among the electorate.

source: commondreams.org

But in Canada the window is trending in a troubling direction. The Left in Canada, despite having a party that is nominally democratic-socialist (or social democratic) has been inept in their attempts to shift the public discourse on any number of critical issues. Even though Canadians treasure our public health care system, If M4A actually passes in the US, it would be far more advanced than in Canada as it includes things like comprehensive dental care.

Bernie Sanders has pulled the frontier of the American Left further than any figure in recent memory. Occupy Wall Street gave language to a generation of Americans and Canadians to understand that the ruling classes of their respective countries are reaping the benefits of a system specifically designed to perpetuate and grow inequality. And yet Canada has not found their Sanders. This election should have been a golden opportunity for a truly Left NDP to seize their place as the official opposition or – dare I say – form a government at the Federal level for the first time in their history.

source: CBC

And yet this simply isn’t happening. There aren’t fresh inspiring policies by the NDP, or if there are they have done a horrible job connecting with those who they need to mobilize. Singh acquitted himself admirably during the debate, but has spent the better part of 2 years watching NDP support bleed away from its previous high watermark. The Left in Canada, such as it is, is set to face major setbacks during this election whether the Liberals win or not.

These are the stakes then, even in an election where the candidates themselves might be less than appealing. Equally important to the actual outcome is not allowing a party like the PPC to wriggle their way into the mainstream, to allow them to push the Overton Window in a regressive and dangerous direction. And perhaps some day in the not too distant future a political party in Canada can begin pushing back in the other direction. Hard.