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Why New York Knicks’ Lawsuit Against the Toronto Raptors Might Not Be A Big Deal

In the NBA, it’s rare for anyone to have entirely original basketball strategies that remain hidden from their rivals for an extended period, if at all. Even if someone does introduce innovative approaches — like former Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s aggressive defensive style and unconventional methods like using the “box-and-one” defense against the Golden State Warriors — these strategies quickly become recognized, absorbed, and either become widely adopted or surpassed.

As the common saying goes, the basketball world tends to imitate successful strategies. Yet, there exists a distinction between drawing inspiration from a rival’s methods — involving the study of tactics, insights from past players or coaches, and analyzing videos — and engaging in real-time theft.

The New York Knicks find themselves alleging the latter involving one of their former coaches who transitioned to a role with the Toronto Raptors. In an extraordinary move, the Knicks lodged a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Monday.

They claim that Ikechukwu Azotam, a former staff member, transmitted thousands of confidential digital files to the Raptors while being courted to join their ranks under new head coach Darko Rajakovic.

The most serious accusation is that Azotam conducted this corporate espionage at the behest of Rajakovic and player development coach Noah Lewis. The Knicks contend that their confidential data was accessed nearly 2,000 times by up to 10 unnamed Raptors staff members.

The timeline of events raises suspicion. Rajakovic’s hiring in Toronto took place in early June, while Azotam supposedly began transferring Knicks’ information to his personal Gmail account in July, which he then shared with the Raptors.

The lawsuit also asserts that during this period, Rajakovic and Lewis instructed Azotam to utilize the Knicks’ subscription to Synergy Sports for transferring film data to Toronto. The data breach was uncovered on August 15, a day after Azotam left the Knicks to join the Raptors.

There are two main issues at play here. Firstly, there’s the question of whether the situation is of significant importance. Secondly, connected to the first issue, is the potential outcome for Azotam, Rajakovic, and the Raptors if the allegations by the Knicks are proven accurate. Given the apparent digital trail that allowed the Knicks to uncover the actions, establishing the truth doesn’t seem overly difficult.

Regarding the significance of this matter, opinions vary depending on who you ask. Conversations with executives from other NBA teams indicate that the Knicks’ lawsuit hasn’t triggered a widespread panic among the 28 other franchises, leading them to scour their computer systems for potential cybercrimes.

While acknowledging that the allegations made by the Knicks aren’t trivial, they ponder whether the information Azotam shared with the Raptors was genuinely exclusive to the Knicks and held substantial value.

A league executive remarked, “The accusations against him sound pretty serious. They might be a bit exaggerated, but they do seem extensive. If he was forwarding information to another team while working for the Knicks, that’s concerning.

While it’s true that most teams possess similar data, the reason coaches like Tom Thibodeau earn $8 million a year is because their insights are valuable. In a league where many games come down to the last possession, tendencies matter.

This becomes even more crucial in the playoffs. While everyone might possess this knowledge, depending on the depth of research and the person conducting it, these details do carry weight.”   

The context surrounding this situation holds importance. If it’s revealed that Azotam’s actions on behalf of his potential new employer were primarily about showcasing his skills, honed during his tenure with the Knicks, as part of an extended job interview, then perhaps the gravity of the situation diminishes.

This sentiment is echoed by an unnamed league source who notes that individuals often bring their expertise when seeking new employment. The source adds that while such actions aren’t ideal, the key is not to get caught in the process.

Another executive weighs in, emphasizing that while proprietary data is usually part of an individual’s own work, taking information during job transitions is common. The executive suggests that without knowing the specifics of what was taken and how sensitive it was, the situation might not warrant excessive concern.

Timing plays a role too; if the information taken was related to the previous season rather than the current or upcoming one, it might not be as troublesome.

Concerning the volume of files allegedly taken — stated as 3,358 video files — it’s essential to consider context. In a league where games are meticulously recorded from multiple angles and at high frames per second, creating numerous files is routine. For instance, a single game edit can encompass thousands of files.

In comparison to previous cases, like the MLB’s 2016 incident of corporate espionage, where the FBI uncovered significant hacking by an individual into another team’s database, the Knicks-Raptors situation seems less severe.

This prompts questions about whether the Knicks’ lawsuit is proportionate. Most experts concur that it could have been managed internally within the league. The quick escalation, with the Knicks filing the lawsuit shortly after informing Raptors ownership, suggests some internal tensions.

As for the way forward, the league’s response is awaited, though it’s not clear if the situation warrants a lawsuit. Employment law experts believe that if an employee funnels sensitive documents to a competitor, termination and damages recovery would follow. Proving the information’s significance to the Knicks’ success, as well as the extent of damages and what the Raptors gained, will be a challenge for the Knicks.

While the chances of the case going to trial are slim, and the Knicks’ prospects of winning are questionable, a swift resolution by the league could be likely.

A six-figure fine and perhaps a future draft pick might be proposed, bringing the focus back to the league’s regular business dynamics, where borrowing ideas is part of the norm as long as it’s not done through official channels and isn’t discovered.

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