The NBA will on Tuesday become the first North American pro league to both finish and begin a season after the COVID-19 outbreak. On Wednesday, the Toronto Raptors will open their regular season in Tampa against the New Orleans Pelicans and begin life without Giannis Antetokounmpo even before it began.
Sure feels that way, doesn’t it? Sure feels as if Antetokounmpo’s decision to sign a max extension with the Milwaukee Bucks stung like Kawhi Leonard’s departure to the Los Angeles Clippers.
And that’s OK: it’s a mark of how much confidence Raptors fans have in their front office and coaching staff and the culture that’s been established, a confidence that is frankly refreshing given the sports history of this particular jurisdiction. It’s not entitlement, exactly. But it is a bullish belief that all is possible. Or, at least, was possible …
But now we move on. From a mile up, the notion that a transformational player would choose Milwaukee over Miami or Los Angeles or New York should offer some degree of satisfaction. Giannis won’t be a Raptor; but could there be another European or African player waiting to be discovered who is the next Giannis and has a similar set of expectations? Could he be a Raptor?
And while it is true that salary cap space can sometimes be “fools gold,” as it was recently described on Writers Bloc by former Brooklyn Nets assistant general manager and current ESPN analyst Bobby Marks, there is a power offered by flexibility going into next off-season even if the free-agent pool won’t be as attractive as was originally anticipated.
Here’s one thing Raptors fans shouldn’t do: they shouldn’t fall victim to some of the hindsight we’ve seen and heard and second-guessing the decision to not go harder after Serge Ibaka. I can’t disagree with the assertion that having Ibaka on the Raptors this season makes them a better team in the last year of Kyle Lowry’s deal, but let’s get real: Ibaka’s presence wouldn’t have been enough to carry them any farther than they went in the bubble. Not in this much stronger and deeper Eastern Conference.
I get it: we all loved Ibaka because of the way he embraced us and allowed us to embrace him in return. Play on a championship team in this town and you have the Key to the City for life. But frankly I’d rather not have a diminishing Ibaka’s salary hanging around next season, and let’s be blunt: it’s possible we’re not going to be seeing the 2020-21 Raptors in-person, anyhow.
This season is about three things for me and those would exist even if Giannis hadn’t re-signed: the development of OG Anunoby to the point where an extension is a must; a reset from Pascal Siakam; and, yes, settling once and for all the contractual status of president Masai Ujiri.
Beyond that? Let’s have some faith. The Raptors won a title not because they crushed it in free agency but because their front office made the ballsiest trade in the city’s history and found a great deal of joy in the tail end of the draft. That must be the plan going forward, since the only way this team will be in the lottery in the next few years is to trade its way into it.
Giannis won’t be here, but that cap space allows for the acquisition of multiple assets in the analytical age. And since this is the NBA, chances are really good that one of those big, star player deals in effect isn't worth the paper it's written on. Who knows who next year's James Harden is? Who knows if Karl-Anthony Towns wakes up one day and asks what the hell he’s doing in the Twin Cities? Maybe one of those ends up having a Canadian birth certificate. I mean … honestly. Even without the economic ravages of Covid, the NBA is going to NBA.
I’m looking forward to 2020-2021 as much as I was before Giannis re-upped with the Bucks and – frankly – I’m even more interested in what 2021-2022 brings. The dream has died; reality has set in and you know what? Reality’s been OK for the Raptors in recent seasons.
• Saturday: Manchester City at Southampton: The hosts are a surprising third-place side and have lost just once in their last 11 Premier League matches while Manchester City is four points back of them and have been pedestrian for much of the season. Much of the focus has been on their lack of finish up top, but I’m beginning to think the loss of David Silva in mid-field needs to be re-examined for its significance. I still think they’ll take a run at the top spot, but far too often they look like an unambitious group on the pitch …
• Saturday: FC Bayern Munich at Bayer 04 Leverkusen: The last match before the Bundesliga takes a two-week break and, my goodness, what a storyline it would be if Bayern loses and RB Leipzig beats FC Koln, leaving Bayern in third place behind Leverkusen and Leipzig. Bayern has won eight consecutive Bundesliga titles and has the newly-minted FIFpro Player of the Year in Robert Lewandowski and, of course, Canada’s Alphonso Davies.
Two other young players to watch: Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz, who won’t turn 18 until May and has four assists in his first full season and whose first goal in Matchday 11 pushed his team above Bayern in the standings, and England Under-21 Jamal Musiala of Bayern, who has three goals and turns 18 in February. The Bundesliga, man … Sportsnet, 12:30 p.m. ET
• Sunday: San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys: OK, I’ll ‘fess up: there’s not a chance in hell I’d watch this dumpster fire of a game even if I really liked the NFL or didn’t detest the Cowboys and everything they represent. I just think the Cowboys being flexed out of a prime time spot for the first time since 2006 – when flexing was added as a scheduling option – looks good on Jerry Jones. Bonus: it’s the Cleveland Browns (!) and New York Giants that get the promotion. The Browns!!! It makes me strangely content in a year without much of that commodity. (If you’re wondering, it’s the first time since 2018 that the 49ers have been flexed into 1 p.m. oblivion and the fifth time overall.)
• Sunday: Kansas City Chiefs at New Orleans Saints: The best matchup of the weekend features the 12-1 Chiefs and the 10-3 Saints. I don’t think Patrick Mahomes is a clear favourite for Most Valuable Player anymore, not with what Aaron Rodgers is doing in Green Bay. But one thing is for certain: if the Saints, who are expected to have Drew Brees under centre, pull this one off and clinch their fourth consecutive division title, then Sean Payton has to jump over Mike Tomlin and into the lead for Coach of the Year.
FAIR OR FOUL
• Fair: Wondering whether agent Scott Boras really is playing three-dimensional chess while the rest of us are watching The Queen’s Gambit. This occurred to me as I was taking in the contents of Boras’s virtual news conference, in which he held forth on a variety of teams and topics and players in this pandemic off-season reaching heretofore unheard of oratorial heights.
Then I started thinking about how Boras has somehow managed to find himself in a position where he has few — if any — free agents of consequence in this god-awful Covid market (Jackie Bradley, Jr. and James Paxton are the headliners) one winter after Boras clients signed over $1 billion in free-agent contracts in a three-week span and a year before clients such as Kris Bryant, Corey Seager and Max Scherzer join a hefty free-agent pool.
Now, I’m not saying that Boras woke up one morning last winter and thought to himself: ‘Damn, what if there’s a pandemic next year?” and it’s true that next off-season could be overshadowed by labour uncertainty going into the final year of the current collective bargaining agreement. But I bet Boras has that figured out, too.
• Foul: At the time I thought there was something unsavoury about the stuff that went on surrounding Kawhi Leonard’s free-agent departure from the Raptors to the Clippers, not so much that he left but rather that there seemed to be some sort of backroom gymnastics going on. I cringed every time I heard the name ‘Uncle Dennis’ mentioned and it seemed as if Masai Ujiri didn’t go out of his way to kill the notion that he was negotiating on multiple fronts.
Now, thanks to enterprising reporting by The Athletic’s Sam Amick, we know the NBA is investigating allegations that Clippers executive board member Jerry West agreed to pay a ‘friend’ of Leonard’s (and, by extension, ‘Uncle Dennis’ Robertson) $2.5 million to help court Leonard. The friend, Johnny Wilkes, is suing West.
Leonard says it had nothing to do with him coming to L.A., and he deserves to be taken at his word. But it will be interesting in getting a sense of the timetable here, and seeing how much contact was made while Leonard was still with the Raptors. Owner Steve Ballmer and president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank sure seemed cavalier in their pursuit of Leonard for much of that season. Wonder if we’ll ever know just how hard that title was to win.
It was back on Nov. 18 when B.C. Premier John Horgan wondered whether inter-provincial travel restrictions ought to be imposed as a result of COVID-19 and in retrospect we all should have been paying more attention to the underlying message. Had that been the case, Chris Johnston’s scoop that the NHL is considering re-locating Canadian franchises to the U.S. at least to start the season might not have registered the degree of surprise we’ve seen.
I plead guilty here: I just assumed that the delay in announcing firm dates for the start of NHL training camps and the regular season was the result solely of both owners and players getting stuck in the weeds over labour matters; that everything needs to be viewed through the lens of financial give and take. And while I’m sure that’s the case, I have to think that Canadians – myself included – have taken too much smug comfort in comparing our response to Covid to that of the U.S., assuming that better numbers and a more measured debate equal some kind of superiority.
That is not true: many of our jurisdictions have messed up the response to the coronavirus and the numbers aren’t stabilizing. So while the notion of an all-Canadian division is hard to resist after the year sports fans have lived through – exacerbated by social media postings in this city of Maple Leafs players beginning to gather for workouts, by approval for training facilities in places such as Winnipeg and by the realization that the World Juniors are going to give it a go in the throes of a second wave – the thorny issue of transporting pro athletes from place to place in a time of lockdown is a circle that needs to be squared.
In this regard, there has been consistency in this country: the Blue Jays were allowed to train in Toronto while in a bubble; they had to play elsewhere when it became obvious that teams travelling from the U.S. couldn’t bubble. The NHL? The only reason the Stanley Cup Playoffs were given the go-ahead was because of the twin bubble concept. The Canadian Premier League? Bubble. The WJHC? Bubble. The NHL seems to have a clear choice: start as soon as possible in the U.S., or rag the puck in the hopes of a better, more workable – more attractive – picture. Because the current picture’s been in front of us all along, even if we didn’t notice.
Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan and co-hosts Canada’s only national radio soccer show, A Kick In The Grass with Dan Riccio on Monday nights across the Sportsnet Radio Network.