Posts Tagged ‘Toronto’

Bryan Colangelo is taking a lot of slack from the Raptors fan base for selecting 7-foot Lithuanian centre Jonas Valanciunas with the 5th overall selection the 2011 NBA Draft.  Frankly, most of the arguments I have heard as to why the pick might have been subpar are well, subpar.  I applaud the pick of Valanciunas at the number five spot and think Colangelo did well to think of the next 4-5 years of the Raptors franchise and not just make a pick that would have appeased the masses.

I hear Brandon Knight’s name a lot as a guy we just had to take and while I see some definite strong points to his offensive arsenal I really do not see the playmaking point guard the Raptors desperately need.  Seven other teams had the opportunity to take him and they all passed and his draft stock dropped like a rock on draft night leading me to believe that the people who get paid to know things we never will know something we don’t.

For Bryan Colangelo this draft was a no-win situation so I think he made the best of it for the franchise’s future.  He was chastised for not taking a player who could instantly step in and make an impact but last I checked this draft was relatively weak outside the top two in terms of NBA-ready talent and Lebron James wasn’t available at the Raptors pick. A lot of analysts have said that Valanciunas could be the best player of the draft when all is said and done.

Point guard is one of the hardest positions to come into and make a huge impact in your rookie season.  This is the floor general, the quarter back, the leader and face of the team in some respects if you lack a point forward.  If we look at last year’s NBA draft and first overall selection PG John Wall was very highly touted and thought to be an instant impact at the NBA level.

Wall, while solid was not overwhelmingly successful as was expected of him as he averaged a respectable 16 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds and 4 turnovers.  He shot a reasonable but unspectacular 40% from the field and 29% from 3-point land. 

Raptors point guard Jerryd Bayless as a starter (in 14 games) averaged 18 points, 7 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 3 turnovers.  Bayless shot 46% from the field and 33% from 3-point land.  Are Raptors fans saying that Bayless was an “impact” player?  He essentially posted identical numbers to John Wall albeit in a smaller sample size as a starter but I think you see my point.

I think the Raptors are still in good hands and no I am not drinking the Bryan Colangelo kool-aid but I like the moves he has made recently.  Dwayne Casey was the best candidate for head coach on paper and we got him.  Chris Bosh could have walked to Miami for nothing but BC was able to get our own first rounder back in the sign and trade and he took the highest rated C and European in the draft at #5 overall.

All of the reports on Valanciunas that I have read are very positive and it sounds like he has a high motor, very strong rebounding instincts (some say best in the NBA draft), solid work ethic and some toughness.  If you take a longer view of this selection you can’t deny that this is probably what is best for the team going forward.

The Raptors are going nowhere next season and the upcoming NBA draft in 2012 is supposed to be one of the best drafts in recent years so one more year in the lottery wouldn’t hurt anyone.  It sure beats trading for Stephen Jackson, blowing our money on Samuel Dalembert and bringing back Allen Iverson as most short sighted fans sometimes suggest.  Believe in the rebuild and believe that the man who deftly scooped Demar DeRozan and Ed Davis still knows what he is doing.

I know it’s not cool to say these days but I still believe in Bryan Colangelo and I am still excited about the direction of the Raptors.

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Perhaps I am a bit of a contrarian but I am not as high as most experts are on the overall strength of the Toronto Blue Jays current batch of prospects.  The system is probably in the best shape it has been in quite some time and Alex Anthopoulos has done a masterful job of restocking a cupboard of prospects that was once considered a laughing stock.

But I am just not that convinced that it will ultimately produce any potential star players and there isn’t one guy that I feel is a must have, outside of Brett Lawrie.  The list is deep, which is good and I hope if a potential young cost controlled player becomes available (like a Justin Upton) the Jays wouldn’t hesitate in cleaning out the system a bit to fetch a nice asset.

But depth doesn’t excite me, and after the top two (Brett Lawrie and Kyle Drabek) the list really goes downhill in my opinion.  Even the top two names that have far and away the most potential of the group can leave bit of a sour taste in your mouth.  It’s not to say that any prospect out there is a sure thing, but there are a lot of other teams who have a more exciting basket of potential impact players.

The Yankees have Jesus Montero knocking on the team’s door, and further down their list have extremely promising arms like Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos and Andrew Brackman.  Not to mention a young catcher named Gary Sanchez who would likely rank 2nd or 3rd on the Jays list.  I just don’t see a Jeremy Hellickson, Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Santana, Mike Stanton, Starlin Castro or Domonic Brown type in this group.

Top Blue Jays Prospects 2011:

#1 INF Brett Lawrie

Brett Lawrie is a naturally gifted athlete who just happens to play baseball, and play it well.  The kid has moxie and tools that rate off the charts with his hit tool rating the best.  Currently a line drive gap power hitting machine a lot of those doubles should eventually turn into long flies and Lawrie could be a high 20s HRs type of player.

Drafted as a catcher by the Milwaukee Brewers, he was quickly switched to second base at his request and the biggest question mark surrounding Lawrie isn’t if he can hit enough it is where is he going to play on the diamond?  Most feel a corner outfield spot will be his eventual landing spot and the kid does come with a few warts.

 Lawrie while highly touted has shown immaturity and is on his second organization before reaching the ‘AA’ level.  He refused an assignment to the Arizona Fall League this year and decided he would prefer to be a second basemen as opposed to attempting to play catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers.  The reviews are mixed if Lawrie can handle a middle infield role and he has already been shifted to third base to ensure a speedy road to the major league level.

The kid is young, only just turning 21 in January/2011 and judging any of his behaviour without thinking of how I acted at the same age would be short-sighted so I am willing to let bygones be just that.  However, playing a corner infield spot means his bat is going to have to be that much more impactful and power is the hardest skill to project and normally last attribute to arrive.  He is cocky, confident and seemingly brash and I like that, posting a .361 wOBA as a 20-year old in AA might do that for you. 

Brett Lawrie won’t be an average ballplayer if he makes it I think he makes it big and if he doesn’t I don’t see him even in baseball in five years.  I am expecting an impactful, solid offensive career for the kid and I think he is the Toronto Blue Jays best hitting prospect to come along in years.  He is our top prospect as a potential top or middle of the order hitter who can play every day, hopefully at a premium position like the keystone corner.

#2 SP Kyle Drabek

Second on the list is Kyle Drabek who for me is one of the most underwhelming “top” pitching prospects in baseball.  Don’t get me wrong I think he could still develop into a solid #2/3 starter but the talk of a potential ace is a bit of a reach based on the numbers he has been putting up in the minor leagues.  In particular the mediocre to poor minor league strikeout numbers are disturbing.

Of course not everybody can be Stephen Strasburg or Clayton Kershaw coming through the system in terms of strikeout numbers but it is a great way to gauge the pitcher’s overall stuff and how they project in terms of future major league success.  I hope for the Jays sake Drabek proves me wrong but he is certainly not taking a typical path to stardom.  Besides 61.2 IPs in ‘High A’ ball (as a 22 year old in 2009) where his K/9 was 10.8 the overall minor league resume is lacking.

Kyle Drabek Age Level IP K/9 BB/9 FIP
2009 22 AA 96.1 7.1 2.9 3.83
2010 23 AA 162.0 7.4 3.9 3.87

 

I am sure some pitchers have gone on to solid careers with mediocre minor league strikeout numbers but the probability isn’t great and the number of examples isn’t plentiful.  For a right handed starter to succeed without high strikeout numbers he would need to have extreme groundball tendencies and play in front of a solid defence.  Drabek has improved in this regard as his groundball ratios have improved over the past two seasons. 

A must inclusion for Toronto in the Roy Halladay trade, Drabek is being counted on to develop into a big time inning eating starting pitcher.  I was holding out hope that the Philadelphia Phillies would have panicked and offered their top prospect in toolsy outfielder Domonic Brown and it is a bit worriesome that Drabek’s name was being thrown around more than a few times for such a highly touted prospect. 

If Drabek were a lefty  I’d be more optimistic but at this point I see a solid #3 starter who will give us innings, a 6 K/9, 2.5 K/BB and a FIP in the low to mid 4.00s – very solid but not ‘ace’ like.  Alex Anthopoulos did well to ensure Drabek was included in the deal that sent the best pitcher in baseball out of Toronto and the future is still very bright for the son of Doug Drabek. 

Kyle Drabek possesses a very solid fastball and can hit the mid 90s on a regular basis so there is room for improvement going forward if the secondary stuff can improve and help him miss more bats.  This is a guy who could end up making me and this scouting report look very foolish with only a few tweaks and subtle improvements.  After all, he already went through TJ surgery so we should cut him a bit of slack I suppose.

Well, those are the two best in the system and after that I feel it drops off dramatically.  Here is the best of the rest as we rank 3-10.

#3 SP Deck McGuire

Drafted out of Georgia Tech in the recent 2010 MLB Amateur draft the consensus around the world of scouting is that McGuire was an excellent selection who possesses a crafty 4-pitch arsenal that projects to be a workhorse type mid-rotation guy.  I think the ceiling here is a poor man’s Matt Garza.  A solid, exciting name but a guy who has never even thrown one professional inning yet he ranks near the top of almost all of the most respected Blue Jays prospect rankings.

#4 C Carlos Perez

The Jays currently have a plethora of solid young catching prospects and I feel the 20-year old Venezuelan Perez has the most upside of all of them.  A potential 10-12 HR guy who can play strong defence and is a strong athlete.  Has shown solid patience in his young career at the plate and he could profile as a solid mid to bottom of the order hitter with a bit of pop.

#5 SP Zach Stewart

Acquired in the Scott Rolen trade from the Cincinnati Reds Zach Stewart’s stock dropped a bit in 2010 as his K/9 plummeted to only 7.0 in 136 ‘AA’ innings as he posted the worst FIP of his career at 4.18.  Stewart will turn 25 years old this summer and the time for him to arrive is now, another guy who likely wouldn’t crack many teams’ top ten lists.  There has been talk he is best suited for a late inning relief role also but I think the Jays will exhaust all possibilities of becoming a starter before that happens.

#6 CF Anthony Gose

I am higher on Anthony Gose than probably any other evaluator so far this offseason but I don’t understand the trepidations with Gose who at worst will provide gold glove calibre defence at a premium position and steal a few bases.  However if the bat develops into even slightly below league average we are talking about a potential 5.0 WAR player who is still only 21-years old who just posted a .363 wOBA in 113 PAs for the Jays ‘AA’ team.

Gose athleticism ranks off the charts and the only question mark with him is the plate discipline and overall bat tool.  Acquired for 1B Brett Wallace I’m rolling with him and I like this type of talent, very toolsy.

#7 C Travis D’Arnaud

Probably the most complete all-around game of the Jays catching prospects, D’Arnaud has the potential to develop into a plus defender who would only need an average bat to provide decent value to his club.  I think he should develop into a useful hitter but a guy who will always bat near the bottom of the lineup but he is still only 22-years old and has time to continue his development.

#8 C J.P. Arencibia

This guy ranks all over the place on various lists, as high as #3 on Marc Hulet’s Fangraphs ranking while down to 8th on Baseball America’s.  I feel the general consensus regarding Arencibia is ‘meh’ and I feel the same way.  Already turned 25 years old Arencibia had virtually fallen off the prospect map after a horrible 2009 where he posted a 236/284/444 slash line in 500 ‘AAA’ PAs.

When the team moved to the little league park in Las Vegas his numbers subsequently jumped with them.  I am not buying it and I don’t think he ever hits enough to justify the worst facet of his game, and that is game calling and defensive skills.  Terrible plate discipline, bad defense and one park/league infused season justifies ranking him so low.

There are others to be at least mindful of but they are either still too young or just drafted to give them a meaningful scouting report or ranking.  Among them are:

 OF Jake Marisnick – toolsy, big ceiling, big risk.

SP Asher Wojciechowski – between him and scrabble the Jays are doing their best to empty ink cartridges.  Strong upside from the College right hander.

SP Aaron Sanchez – strong high school righty, just drafted in 2010.

SS Adeiny Hechavarria – suspect bat tool but legit glove.

OF Eric Thames – the bat is exciting.

SP Chad Jenkins – stock fell a bit with pedestrian K-rate in advanced ‘A’ ball.

SP Adonis Cardona – top 16-year old Venezuelan signing in 2010, years away.

The Jays system has depth again and the Alex Anthopoulos plan and era are in the early stages so I fully expect given him competency that the Blue Jays farm system and draft excellence will continue to be at the very forefront of the plan.  Even in 2-3 years a lot of the names will start to look more exciting as they reach higher minor league levels and the system starts to hopefully do its job and churn out big league regulars.

Right now though I feel the system is solid but a tad on the overrated side.

Admit it, when you saw the NHL had rejected the Ilya Kovalchuk 17 year/103 million dollar contract there was a part of you that still hoped, still believed Brian Burke and company would pull the ultimate coup in the history of sports.  In fact, you might have even felt a press conference was imminent, where Brian Burke smugly reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs had signed Ilya Kovalchuk. 

When you realized what the cap hit was going to potentially be (6 million!) you felt instantly ill.  Stop living in denial and just come to the dark side already.  There are a bunch of valid reasons as to why Brian Burke would not pull the trigger on signing Ilya Kovalchuk, here are a few:

1)      Contract – Kovalchuk clearly covets being a one-hundred million dollar man, whether it is over 12-15 years it does not make much of a difference to him, he obviously wants that figure. 

2)      Salary Cap – Having 15-20% of your designated funds allocated to one player on a roster of 19-20 players is not cost feasible.

3)      Style – He definitely does not fit the prototypical Brian Burke type of player and he might not go to the areas of the ice that Burke wants his wingers to be able to go, he is not overly physical.

4)      Attitude – Concerns about the makeup of this player have been discussed before, does he fit in with the new attitude the Leafs are trying to instil under the Dion Phaneuf regime?

5)      Culture – Finally, the country club atmosphere that has supposedly haunted the Leafs during the “Muskoka Five” era.  Kovalchuk has the reputation of being a selfish player without much of a rapport with his teammates.  This could be doubly dangerous in a young and impressionable Maple Leafs dressing room.

There have been other arguments brought to the table, but I’d say this is a fairly good compilation of the main deterrents. 

Let me play Devil’s advocate – no pun intended:

1)      Contract – Honestly, a deal over 10 years to any pro athlete is just begging for a terrible ending, there have not been many cases where a lengthy term has worked out well for the employer.  However Kovalchuk is probably the best Free Agent the NHL has ever had, period.  The guy is 27 years old and has already posted in chronological order the following goal totals: 29, 38, 41, 52, 42, 52, 43, and 41 respectively. 

 Current Blue Jays GM said recently the team will be employing a higher risk/reward draft strategy and will be searching for high potential, high ceiling players.  The reasoning is simple yet prudent as these types of players are not available annually (or easily) on the free agent market.

  Back to hockey, Ilya Kovalchuk is that type of player – in his prime.

 2)      Salary Cap – Again, I will never argue that in a sport like hockey where depth plays a huge role in fielding a competitive team it absolutely makes little sense to commit a huge portion of your cap to one player.  However, under the current CBA (as we are learning) there are small loopholes that a team would be foolish not to at least attempt.  Signing Kovalchuk to the type of deal he is looking for would make the cap hit anywhere from 6-7 million, basically the same cap hit as a Mike Komisarek, Dion Phaneuf or JS Giguere.  Did I get your attention yet?

 3)      Style – This one I am more ambiguous on as in one regard I agree we might not need another skill oriented European.  However, this isn’t Rickard Wallin we are talking about, this one of the most skilled Russian born players the game has ever seen.  Over the years I have watched Ilya Kovalchuk play a slightly more abrasive style than the media and fans will credit.  Have we not witnessed him and Ian White do battle on countless occasions, while White may not have big size he has the heart of a lion and Kovalchuk more than held his own in that battle. 

I do not want to add another soft European, trust me, but if he comes with the skill set of an Ilya Kovalchuk, count me in as we can pare the roster of other non-performing ones – ahem Grabovski, to meet the Burke quota. 

Please note Kovalchuk is 6’2” and 230 pounds, not exactly a dwarf.

 4)      Attitude – For this I cannot argue as I do not know Kovalchuk personally, nor do I have inside access to any of his former dressing rooms, coaches or teammates.  I guess a certain leeway would be expected for a 40 goal scorer though, unfortunately.

 5)      Culture – We do not want to see the team revert back to the Pat Quinn era where players were not accountable and basically come and went as they pleased.  Does anybody remember the Leafs during the Quinn coached days?  We were a fairly talented group with solid goaltending but our team lacked any form of discipline and if there was a night that the whole bench wasn’t arguing senselessly with the referees all game I must have been sleeping.

 For better or worse Dion Phaneuf is our new leader and face of the franchise and thinking of him and Ilya in the same dressing room would make any GM nervous.  Again, I do not pretend to know what type of man or teammate Ilya Kovalchuk is, but I do know the he is basically a bigger and more skilled version of Phil Kessel, that can’t be a negative?

Kovalchuk would instantly become the most talented player to ever don the blue & white.  He makes our power-play extremely deadly.  He takes the immense scoring pressure off the small shoulders of Phil Kessel.  The guy is a threat each and every time he steps out onto the ice, defensemen fear for their jockstraps when he flies over the blue-line looking to create a scoring chance.  Imagine the possibilities?

For all the rationale, hyperbole and bluster it really comes down to a few things.  If I could add a player like this for the next 10-12 years at a cap hit within a million of Dion Phaneuf I would certainly be intrigued.  If I didn’t have to trade two first round picks (plus a second) or a single roster player to acquire him, I would bend over backwards to get it done.

BallHype: hype it up!

Why did I have trouble getting to sleep, was this really worth of all the fuss and attention, did I just get caught up in all of the hype created by ESPN?  Whatever it was, it had the whole world captivated during a horribly produced, lacklustre and at times boring/awkward one hour special called simply “The Decision”.

As a fairly serious and relatively experienced poker player I wanted to try and read Lebron James body language.   Upon hearing the mumbled words “Miami Heat” I looked at James reaction, his facial expression and overall demeanour.  My first thought was it appeared that he regretted his decision almost immediately, his eyes instantly peered downward and he looked deflated and maybe even slightly defeated, he certainly didn’t come across as a man fully confident with his choice. 

Lebron James choosing the Miami Heat, with superstars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh firmly in-toe was James admitting that he was not capable of being “the guy”, that he needed help in his quest for greatness, for a championship.  I often get annoyed when all great young ballplayers have the inevitable comparison to the greatest champion and player of all time – Michael Jordan.  But as “The Decision” was being rammed down the collective throats of sports fans worldwide I could not help but think “what was Mike thinking”.

Michael Jordan is the biggest icon and marketing machine nearly of all time, his brand and his name has never ‘lost it’, his style and swagger have persevered through a few rough patches – an awful minor league baseball career, stories of gambling and adultery, “Floor Jordan” in Washington and the controversial Hall of Fame acceptance speech that left more than a few people empty and a bit sour.  However, in his prime playing days, would Michael Jordan have put the city of Chicago through what Lebron put Cleveland fans through?

Imagine for a minute that back in the 1980s Michael Jordan after being defeated in a playoff series after clearly not playing his best basketball hold a news conference and state to the world, “I cannot beat them, so I am going to be joining the Pistons.”  Michael Jordan at one point was defeated while playing some of the best basketball in his illustrious career.  He was defeated for the first seven years of his career, just like Lebron James.  Admitting he wasn’t capable or talented enough to lead a team on his own was not part of Jordan’s DNA code and Jordan’s response to his adversity was simply to work harder, practise longer, sacrifice, battle and endure.

Lebron James for all the talk of winning championships (multiple according to him) took the easy way out as he is about to join a super-team, a team that will be soundly booed league wide, and a team that will have three superstars used to the bright lights and spotlight shining firmly on them, and only them.  James was on a path to immense greatness and the personal stats (nearly an average of a triple-double) he put up in his first seven years are on par with legends past.  Simply put, he was starting to be in the conversation of the greatest ballplayer of all time, I feel that conversation is over.

One championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers would have been worth three or four titles in Miami, the city of Cleveland is starving for a champion, for a glimmer of a champion, for a glimmer of hope.  Lebron James built that organization into something of a marvel, Cleveland basketball was relevant and even influential.  James isn’t leaving some sad-sack team that just couldn’t compete with the big boys, they were the big boys – the Cleveland Cavaliers had the top record in the NBA in 2009/2010!

The Miami Heat will be a force to be reckoned with, this point I cannot dispute without being a fraud.  They might not win in their first season together, but if/when the pieces start to fit together and if the ego’s can be firmly checked at the beach the Heat could be something extraordinary.  But the plain truth is that the individual legacy for Lebron James will be forever tarnished. 

After he made his choice to go to South Beach I had to turn on NBA TV to see what the pundits and experts were saying.  “The heir to Michael Jordan now dies with Kobe Bryant” Chris Webber stated.  “I think we can safely take Lebron James out of that equation.”  Most of the reaction was similar, that he was admitting defeat, that he was a front-runner, he couldn’t be the man the way Michael Jordan was the man.

James numbers are going to surely decline as there is no way around sharing the ball and touches with Dwayne Wade (who absolutely dominates the ball when he is on his game).  James has been a scoring champion, and MVP twice and basically the league’s pre-eminent player since his rookie season.  The NBA is a numbers oriented game and its players are judged by their stats accordingly.  If his numbers slip from 29/8/7 to 20/6/5 in my mind unless they reel off five or six championships in six or seven seasons his legacy will be forever lessened. 

MJ not only led the league in scoring and took his game to heights not yet seen, he also led his team to the Promised Land on six occasions, sure he had Scottie Pippen to ride shotgun, but mostly the teams assembled in Chicago were built entirely around Michael’s skills and talents, almost perfectly I might add. 

The Heat undoubtedly owns the best 2-3-4 combo in the league, but they are not without some lingering doubts:

*Are Wade and James going to be in sync, able to defer and play off each other as opposed to dominating the ball for long stretches of games?

*Who takes the final shot?  What animosity or jealousy will build due to this?

*Will Chris Bosh (oh yeah, he is on the team too?) live with being the forgotten man?  When we talk drop in numbers, could Bosh’s PPG be cut in half – Bosh averaged 24 per game last season?

*Injuries – Have you seen the size of Bosh’s knee brace, is a Jermaine O’Neal style decline not out of the question for the slightly built Bosh? 

Dwayne Wade has not exactly been the model of perfect health himself and the reckless abandon his style of play produces isn’t exactly a pre-cursor for future health – think Allen Iverson.

*Salary cap – The Heat still need to fill out a roster and will have 70-80% of their payroll tied up in three players, albeit three great players, this is still a legitimate concern.

*Chemistry – Some say this is overrated, but it can be a tricky thing for a basketball team, especially one under the microscope this one will be under.  Reporters will be searching for angles, stories, dissension in the ranks and any chinks in the armour.  How long until the first story breaks that one of Wade or James are unhappy with the current situation – even if it is not founded? 

So how does the story end?  Well, the players are signed for five or six seasons – depending on player options.  There will be a honeymoon phase, a transition period, a championship season and a moment of clarity.  We are clearly in the honeymoon phase, where nothing can possibly go wrong, and it’s all smiles, hugs, twitters and parties (in Miami). 

The transition period will start after training camp this October when it becomes real, when reality hits that suddenly they are the only player on the team that matters, that the ball does not necessarily run solely through James/Wade/Bosh.  This is clearly the most important period, when the ego’s must be checked, when the players must look in the mirror and backup their rhetoric about winning being the only thing that matters.

I would have to think the Heat will win at least one NBA Championship, they will straighten out any roster or salary cap issues for at least one season and get the ring that James and Bosh both covet.  But the NBA will adjust, teams will find a way and other big moves will be made – there is already talk of a New York trio of Chris Paul, Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, could this be the new trend for team building? 

The moment of clarity could come at any point, and it could come to one of the “Big three” at any moment in time.  The realization will come that their talents are rare, and they are being stifled and wasted, that they should be leading a team and taking their games to new heights as opposed to passively deferring.  Therein lies the danger of such an unprecedented move for an NBA franchise, never before has this been done so we do not have a barometer for success or failure or a model to judge it against.  With all due respect to the Celtics trio of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce I do not think anybody would argue that all three were in the early stages of their prime years.

All I know is as much as I try to pretend not to care about the NBA anymore; the truth is I couldn’t be more intrigued to see what the future holds.   I lost about half a night worth of sleep, I wonder if Lebron James will lose more when he suddenly realizes that “The decision” was the wrong one if he wanted to ever truly be considered the greatest basketball player to ever live. 

This loyal Raptor fan says “GO Lakers!”