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The Toronto Raptors introduce new head coach Darko Rajakovic in Maple Leaf Square

Five Thoughts: Synergy-gate Knicks Lawsuit Reaction

The Toronto Raptors just can’t shake off the bad vibes, and this time, they find themselves amid a lawsuit that could potentially add to another tumultuous season coming up.

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The signs were probably there over the past couple of years, but with this recent news of the New York Knicks’ court case against the team, it looks like the Toronto Raptors have now entered the poverty franchise territory.

Literally.

The Knicks are suing their former employee Ike Azotam (whom the Raptors hired recently), new Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic, and Noah Lewis, who’s a player development coach and was recently with the Raptors 905 as one of Eric Khoury’s assistant coaches, and ten other unnamed defendants — If I have to speculate, probably the other assistant coaches and video coordinators.

The Knicks claim that Azotam abused his access as a Knicks employee, illegally procuring and disclosing proprietary information to several members of the Raptors, including Rajakovic.

At the centre of these allegations is the Synergy Sports Tech service. According to their Wikipedia page, it’s a web-based, on-demand, video-supported basketball analytics for scouting, development, and entertainment. With further information on the legal documents, this tool also gives advanced functionality to teams or organizations that would like to do their scouting and analytics even deeper - at an expensive price — a price that it looks like the Toronto Raptors cannot afford.

The 21-page legal document with at least 130 points relating to the suit is full of strong allegations that should be taken seriously, but it’s full of details ripe for a stand-up comedy material or an SNL skit.

That said, I will copy our friend Josh Kern’s good ol’ column of “Five Thoughts” (in this case, “Six Thoughts”) as I go through the legal documents and react to some of them.

1. Was Azotam brought in to help overhaul the system?

There was no press release nor any leak that Azotam was jumping ship from the Knicks. His post-playing career profile includes a stint as a Video Intern for the Detroit Pistons during former Raptors coach Dwane Casey’s tenure and as an Assistant Video Coordinator for the Knicks, starting the 20-21 season.

According to the legal document (#25-29), Azotam was responsible for “planning, editing, and producing video packaging used by the Knicks coaching staff for scouting, recruiting, and game preparation.” He was promoted within a year to Director of Video/Analytics/Player Development Assistant the following year, where he oversaw the assistant video coordinators and “was responsible for planning, organizing, and distributing all video scouting responsibilities for the Knicks coaching staff.”

Essentially, Azotam is a rising talent when it comes to the “game tapes,” and he was good enough to be the “team lead” of the Knicks’ group of video coordinators. From some of the data categories that Azotam apparently fed the Raptors, it looks like he is to fulfill, at the very least, a similar role, if not higher than John Corbacio. A few months ago, I wrote about the need for an Organizational Reset and suggested overhauling everything. The Raptors may be looking to do this, but the execution is sketchy.

2. The Knicks Paint Darko Rajakovic as the Villan of the Story

Under the “Facts” section of the legal document, section “B” is labelled as “The Raptors Conspire with Azotam to Acquire Knicks Proprietary Information.” They then proceeded to character-assassinate coach Rajakovic, starting with stating that he’s got no prior experience as a head coach in the NBA, emphasizing his novice status several times, and because of his non-traditional path, he went with an underhanded means to accomplish his job.

Whoa. The Knicks’ allegations that Rajakovic is a key defendant here have to stick, or they can get sued for defamation. I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer, but that’s slander if I see one.

However, what’s on the legal document about Rajakovic’s participation is a pure accusation with minimal basis. Really, if they have any solid evidence that Rajakovic compelled or coerced Azotam to do these alleged illegal deeds in exchange for a job, like an email giving such instructions, it would be all over the legal document. Points #38-39 mention a wild story of what Rajakovic might have done without offering any proof.

3. Azotam is Not Tech-savvy

Azotam could be great regarding video editing and research, but the claims on this legal document make him naive or not the smartest person regarding technology. But before we do that, let’s not do what Azotam allegedly didn’t do — read all the confidentiality and contract clauses he signed (as outlined in points #98-104). It looks like he did the classic “next, next, next, I agree” installation wizard and looked for the part where his signature should go without reading what he’s getting himself into.

Going into what Azotam allegedly did — points #9-11 claim that he used his Knicks email. KNICKS EMAIL!!! To send information to his PERSONAL email address. Good lord, there are so many ways to go on about this, and I bet lesser tech-savvy people might have done a better way of doing things more covertly.

The icing on the cake: Azotam allegedly used his Knicks email to send confidential data to his RAPTORS email account AND to another Raptors email account. O.M.G. Do I even want to speculate on this one? A simple message trace on the Microsoft Exchange server can easily verify this claim. These alleged transactions make it hard to claim that Azotam does not intend to share the information (that he sent to his personal email address from the previous paragraph) with the Raptors.

I don’t know what’s going on in Azotam’s head while he was doing this — how can he think there’s nothing wrong with forwarding emails to potentially problematic recipients, let alone using a subject line that could potentially raise some red flags?

What he allegedly did is wrong, but just the pure comedy of how amateurish this is something that you would see Mr. Bean would do.

4. The Raptors Are Being Cautious About Spending??

According to points #12-13, Azotam transferred over 3000 files and the Raptors defendants. This claim screams of the Raptors not having a Synergy subscription. The Knicks essentially claimed on points #48-50 what feels like a company getting upset at their employee for lending their company-sponsored ETR transponders (of course, the severity is much more than that). Point #54 claims that the “Raptors Defendants” made Azotam use his Knicks Synergy credentials to access exclusive information.

Points #65-66 threw some dollar values, and perhaps Synergy costs $5,000.00 for teams. I guess the Raptors are in real poverty mode to piggyback off another team’s access. Do they even have a subscription to The Athletic? Or do they ask someone with a subscription to send them a copy?

5. Mind-boggling intel

Some of the specific details that Azotam allegedly exported are mind-boggling:

Indiana Pacers’ Game 82 - I’ve got a lot of questions here. Why the Pacers, and why the last game of the season? I went back to skim through the Knicks/Pacers’ last game of the regular season, and it’s a glorified pickup run. It’s a high-scoring affair with Ben Mathurin, Andrew Nembhard, and Aaron Neesmith showing out for the Pacers, while Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley shined for the Knicks.

Denver Advance Scout Report - Is this about bragging? If any Knicks highlights of the season are worth putting up a banner at MSG, it’s the fact that they are the only team to sweep the defending champs, the Denver Nuggets.

The Nuggets and Pacers data appears to be Synergy-based data, and unless the Knicks have their own spin on these data, they are common scouting intel that all 30 teams should know about everybody.

Then there’s a claim that there’s also the Raptors data involved. First, don’t we already have that? Secondly, whatever data we had last year should be deleted and emptied from the recycle bin for good. I bet the folder with the least content is labelled “Raptors Ball Movement.”

Lastly, why do we need the Knicks’ data? Do we want their defensive scheme? We had our own version of Thibs at home before. Do we want their offensive scheme? We had ISO ball at home as well.

Bonus: The Knicks Need to Overhaul their Cybersecurity and Information Security Policies

While no hacking happened, the Knicks’ Cybersecurity and IT team has to overhaul their cybersecurity and information security policies.

  • It looks like what Azotam did almost flew under the radar, despite how blatantly he apparently violated their company’s confidentiality agreement.
  • While using a company’s SharePoint environment to facilitate file sharing is not the ideal way to share files externally, it needs to be configured better to avoid what Azotam did. Most companies that want to protect their sensitive information would use a much more secure filesharing tool or at least allow sharing with “registered external users.”
  • Perhaps what Azotam and the Raptors theoretically should’ve done is for Azotam to just share his credentials directly, but then, as you can read above, it doesn’t look like he’s the smartest when it comes to technology.
  • I bet most teams are reviewing their Cybersecurity and Information Security policies to ensure this incident doesn’t happen to them. Maybe it’s already happened, and it just so happened that the actors were much more sophisticated than Azotam.

Final Thoughts

As mentioned above, these are serious allegations from the Knicks, and while it looks like the offended party’s got several “receipts” to prove some of their claims, we’ll have to let this play out in the court of law. The Raptors released a statement denying the Knicks’ allegations. However, it’s not a good look for the Raptors’ organization, who’s been filling up their BINGO cards with every misstep that they can possibly make over the last two years. It’s also not a great look for coach Darko Rajakovic, who hasn’t even coached a pre-season game yet.

I’m not sure whether the Raptors are really behind these shady dealings, as the alleged transactions are one-way, all outgoing from Azotam or at least based on the legal document. I don’t blame the Knicks for dragging the Raptors into this mess, but they have to, especially if they have legit grounds to do so based on their investigations. It’s just not clear what’s the Knicks end-game for this lawsuit — Perhaps they want to make sure that the Raptors are penalized if they are really behind his (crazy theory - conditional “task” in favour of employment?), or maybe to ensure that Azotam is acting on his own. But then, if certain coaching staff members received this illegal information, they should have escalated this internally, at the very least.

This incident screams of the front office’s negligence at the minimum and perhaps incompetence for hiring the wrong people if the allegations are true. On a lighter note, I wonder what will happen if the Raptors win any of their four matchups this season. Do they take the Ls for those games if they were found guilty? Or we’ll have to belly up and “pay the tax” and get swept for this season or two.

I made fun of how cheap the Raptors are by not getting their own Synergy subscription on one of the points above, but I have to question why this coaching staff had to go to this extent to gather intel. Were they pushed to such lengths because they now have a smaller team and don’t have the manpower to put on this scouting effort? Up to now, we don’t know how much Rajakovic is getting paid to coach the Raptors, and it’s public that he’s running a much smaller staff compared to former coach Nick Nurse. Could this be the byproduct of the team not wanting to spend too much on “overhead” costs?

“Whatever it takes” is a common mantra used in sports, most recently used by the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ post-season run, but potentially doing illegal things like this ain’t “it.”

Good luck to the Knicks trying to sue the MLSE.

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