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When one basketball season ends, another begins
The Chicago Sky won their first title in franchise history on Sunday, capping a surprising, heart-warming and dominant WNBA playoff run. The Sky, who went 16-16 in the regular season, found a new gear when it mattered most and took down the top-seeded Connecticut Sun in the semifinals before crushing Diana Taurasi’s Phoenix Mercury in the Finals.
It was a storybook ending for future Hall of Famer Candace Parker, who returned home to Chicago after 13 seasons in Los Angeles and immediately delivered a championship. And it was a night that married couple and Sky guards Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley will tell their future grandchildren about one day.
Luckily for basketball fans, there’s now just one day without pro hoops. Here’s everything you should know before the NBA season gets going on Tuesday:
The championship may not be so warm and fuzzy. The Brooklyn Nets are favoured to win the title, which could leave you feeling as grey as their awful court. There’s Kevin Durant, the uber-talented and ever-online star forward. There’s James Harden, who dogged it in Houston last season to force a trade. And then there’s Kyrie Irving. As of now, Irving isn’t part of the team — due to a local mandate, the unvaccinated guard is ineligible to play home games and the Nets said they’d rather him be away entirely than participate as a part-time player. Irving reportedly wants to use his platform as a “voice for the voiceless,” sticking up for those who choose not to get inoculated against a deadly pandemic. As ESPN’s Pablo Torre put it, that essentially makes Irving an anti-anti-anti-vaxxer. All this from the man who’s dabbled in flat-earth conspiracies and questioned the depiction of dinosaurs.
Nets coach Steve Nash may be the highest-profile Canadian this season. This fake honour might have gone to Nuggets lynchpin Jamal Murray, but he’s recovering from surgery on a torn ACL with no timetable for return. Emerging Canadian star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and defensive force Luguentz Dort are stuck toiling away in Oklahoma City. Andrew Wiggins got vaccinated in time to fill his role as a high-end role player in Golden State. If RJ Barrett’s shooting improvement from last season sticks, he could pop in his third season with the Knicks. Veterans Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles joined forces in Detroit. Rookie Josh Primo is looking to prove the Spurs right after they surprisingly took him 12th overall in the 2021 draft. The Raptors boast three Canadians of their own in Chris Boucher (born in St. Lucia), Khem Birch and Dalano Banton, a rookie who was the first Canadian ever drafted by the team.
The Lakers loaded up — with old guys. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan and Rajon Rondo would have made an awesome team in 2016. Los Angeles’ bet is that remains true into 2022 — and it’s a decent gamble. Sportsbooks have the Lakers just behind the Nets in championship odds, and James and Davis earned rings together just two seasons — and because of the rejigged pandemic schedule, one year — ago. Meanwhile, the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks return a virtually identical team led by Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Golden State Warriors expect Klay Thompson to soon make his first appearance since the 2019 Finals to reunite a title-level triumvirate alongside Steph Curry and Draymond Green. The Raptors’ opposing star from that series, Kawhi Leonard, underwent knee surgery in June and it’s unclear when, or if, he’ll return to the Clippers.
The limits of player empowerment are being tested. Since LeBron’s 2010 ‘Decision,’ players have increasingly exerted power over their own careers, moving more often in free agency or forcing trades a year or two prior à la Davis and Leonard. Now a pair of stars in Damian Lillard and Ben Simmons are attempting the gambit with four years left on their contracts. It’s not going so well. Lillard made noise at the beginning of the off-season, but appears at least temporarily satisfied with a new coach and some fresh depth in Portland. Simmons’ situation is a lot spicier. The 76ers flamed out of the playoffs last season, after which coach Doc Rivers and co-star Joel Embiid had choice public words for Simmons. Simmons then requested a trade and held out most of training camp, only for a large portion of his salary to be withheld by the organization, which hopes to at least make things work on the court long enough to increase his trade value. Simmons made an apparently cordial return to practice today, but Philly fans probably won’t be so nice when he steps onto the court for a game. The powder keg can only simmer for so much longer.
The Raptors are in no-man’s land. Which is to say anything is possible for a team that is home at long last. The Raptors missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013 last season while stuck in Tampa — a year that might just be summed up by the time-tested phrase of “stuff” happens. Now back in Toronto amid relative normalcy, there won’t be any excuses. The big-picture questions for the season: how far can a Siakam-VanVleet-Anunoby core take a team, and how high is the ceiling of fourth-overall pick Scottie Barnes? The answers will go a long way to determining the team’s immediate success and long-term outlook. Read a more in-depth Raptors preview here.
Auston Matthews makes his season debut tonight. The Maple Leafs went 2-1 without the reigning NHL goals leader, but failed to score more than three times in any of those games. Matthews’ return from a wrist injury will certainly help in that department as the Leafs face the Rangers, their first American opponent in two seasons. Elsewhere, Connor McDavid already owns a hat trick as part of the Oilers’ 2-0 start, while Calgary, Winnipeg (whose captain Blake Wheeler entered COVID protocols today) and Stanley Cup finalist Montreal are all still seeking their first wins of the young season.
And in case you missed it…
Christine Sinclair can’t stop winning. Her Portland Thorns clinched the NWSL Shield, awarded to the league’s top regular-season team, with a 1-0 win over the Houston Dash on Sunday. Portland also won the pre-season Challenge Cup tournament and appears poised to threaten for the championship in November, too. But first, Sinclair will rejoin her national teammates for their Olympic gold-medal Celebration tour, which begins on Saturday in Ottawa with a friendly against New Zealand.
Alphonso Davies’ return to Bayern Munich didn’t go as planned. The man who drew comparisons to the legendary Sinclair with his performance in Canada’s latest World Cup qualifying window left in the first half of his first game back in Germany with “light pain” in his left hamstring. Lower-body injuries are of particular concern to a speed merchant like Davies, but his coach was hopeful he’d be better by Wednesday. Canada’s next qualifying games are in Edmonton in mid-November.
You’re up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.