Raptors, comfortable and confident, taking advantage of roster cohesion

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BOSTON – Patrick Patterson – sent to Toronto in last year’s midseason Rudy Gay trade – joined a team searching for an identity. The Raptors had missed the playoffs five straight seasons and were on track to make it a sixth. At that point, just two players had been on the roster longer than a season and a quarter.

There wasn’t necessarily tension, but as Patterson tells it, all these new teammates needed a feeling-out period before becoming comfortable with each other.

As the Raptors won on the court – they went 41-22 after the midseason shakeup and won the Atlantic Division – they became closer off it.

This year, with nearly every key player back, Patterson said locker-room banter comes more naturally. Everyone knows where the lines are, which jokes are in bounds and which aren’t. Players kid each about everyday situations, how people act…

“The shape of someone’s head,” Patterson said.

Wait. Whose head?

“Can’t get into all that,” Patterson said.

That’s OK. These Raptors are candid enough about the significance of returning nearly their entire roster.

“Nothing has changed,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “Our schemes are the same. Our philosophy is the same. Our personnel is the same.”

And their success is the same.

The Raptors, 4-1, sit atop the Eastern Conference, tied with the Bulls and Wizards.

Toronto assuredly won’t keep winning at this clip, but with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas starting again – and Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Tyler Hansbrough, Chuck Hayes and Landry Fields back in reserve – the Raptors have an early season chemistry few teams can match.

John Salmons, Steve Novak and Nando De Colo are the only Raptors to appear in last year’s playoffs who aren’t back this year, and they ranked eighth, 12th and 13th on the team in postseason playing time. In all, Toronto returns 94 percent of its playoff minutes – second only to the NBA-champion Spurs, whose only departure (Damion James) never never saw the court in the postseason.

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Of course, the Raptors’ goal is not only to get a head start on clicking during the regular season. They want to go deeper in the playoffs than last season, when they fell in the first round.

Again, their familiarity should help.

In the previous five years, four teams returned five players who started at least 60 games from a team that lost in the first round. All four – the 2011-12 Spurs, 2011-12 76ers, 2010-11 Thunder and 2009-10 Spurs – advanced in the playoffs.

Obviously, there’s a selection bias. Only teams that believe in their starters bring them all back. But that’s the point. Toronto has a good general manager in Masai Ujiri, and he chose to keep this team intact.

Maybe Lowry deserves the most credit. A free agent this summer, he received interest from the Heat and Rockets before re-signing with the Raptors. But after taking care of his team’s top player, Ujiri re-signed Patterson and Vasquez on player-friendly contracts in order to keep the core together.

Ujiri also added outside help by trading for Lou Williams in June. Shortly, after the deal, Williams was contacted about offseason training, a call he figured was coming from the coaching staff.

Instead, it was Toronto’s players reaching out.

Soon, Williams joined a group that included Lowry, DeRozan, Hansbrough, Johnson and Ross in Las Vegas.

“Everybody was just hanging out there, kicking it, getting ready for the season,” Williams said. “So, it really surprised me, the closeness of this group.”

That closeness is paying immediate dividends, though it also comes with pitfalls.

No stat is more telling of the Raptors’ cohesion than their-league best turnover percentage. They cough up the ball on just 9.5 percent of their possessions, a mark TWICE as good as five other teams. Even if that turnover percentage regresses to the mean as the season progresses, Toronto has shown impressive early ball control after ranking 10th in the category last season.

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But there’s a downside. Confident in what they can accomplish, the Raptors have dug themselves some early holes. In their last three games, the Raptors have fallen behind the Heat by 10, Thunder by 9 and Celtics by 16 in the first quarter. Still, Toronto rallied to two of those three.

“A lot of our toughness is self-inflicted,” Casey said.

In the end, their familiarity and the confidence it generates have helped more than its harmed.

That was literally true last night in Boston. With the score tied in the final minute against the Celtics, Lowry stole the ball and raced up court. With only a brief glance in his direction, Lowry passed back to DeRozan, who completed an incredible dunk.

 

“That’s our thing,” DeRozan said. “Whenever we’re on a fastbreak, he knows I’m trailing.”

“I know DeMar is always going to trail me,” Lowry said. “So, I just was hoping he was hurrying up.”

Lowry downplayed of his team’s continuity, saying it’s a new team each season, but his partner on that pivotal play went the other direction.

“It’s everything,” DeRozan said, “because sometimes, that chemistry can beat out a more talented team.”

Barring injury, a lineup change or trade, Toronto will have the same starters in consecutive seasons for just the second time in franchise history.* Everyone expects this is the group Ujiri and Casey will roll with.

Jose Calderon, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani led Toronto in starts in 2007-08 and 2008-09.

The Raptors’ chemistry has led to early success, but the real test comes later. For now, a strong start is enough to make them believe.

“Last year, we had some changes during the season, so we tried to put all the pieces together. Now, we have all the pieces together, and we had some players experience – a lot of guys without it – playoff experience,” Valanciunas said. “So, no we can go. We’re ready.”

Nets reportedly extend Caris LeVert on 3-year, $52.5 million deal

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The Brooklyn Nets have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, and that’s going to be important for the next half-decade or so. Those two players will shoulder the bulk of Brooklyn’s championship hopes over that time frame.

But so too is it important for the Nets to keep a strong team around its superstars. Too many teams seem to end up top heavy as they try to chase championships year after year.

To that end, Brooklyn has reportedly signed their own budding star Caris LeVert to an extension that takes him through 2023.

Via ESPN and Twitter:

LeVert’s extension starts at $16.2 million in 2020-21 and escalates to $17.5 million and $18.8 million in the next two years, ESPN’s Bobby Marks reported.

The deal gives LeVert security and a chance to return to free agency or negotiate an extension before his 28th birthday.

LeVert’s extension is worth a reported $52.5 million, which makes him reasonably paid within the team context and should give him a chance to cash out yet again before he hits age 30.

This season will be an interesting look into how LeVert and Irving work together on the floor without Durant. They can get into some kind of rhythm and find an understanding between them, which is going to be vital for when Durant eventually returns in 2020.

Team USA sees betting odds in World Cup skew downward

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Team USA is 12 man roster is now set, and they are prepared to take on the rest of the world in the 2019 FIBA World Cup In China with summer.

The United States finally lost a game for the first time in 13 years on Saturday, falling to Patty Mills and Australia, 98-94.

But despite that loss, the United States is still the odds-on favorite to win the World Cup this year. Then again, their odds have started to slip since the start of the summer.

According to Westgate, the United States is favored at 4/7 to take home the gold. Team USA originally opened at 1/5. Now some other teams have moved up in oddsmakers’ minds.

Via Westgate and Action Network:

  • United States: 4/7
  • Serbia: 2-1
  • Greece: 10-1
  • Spain: 20-1
  • France: 25-1
  • Australia: 30-1
  • Lithuania: 60-1
  • Canada: 100-1

Serbia seems like a pretty good shot to usurp the throne for the United States. Nikola Jokic has said that he wants his team to medal, but no doubt he and his squad will be looking for a gold medal.

The United States is suffering from a lack of continuity and star power. That might not matter given that Gregg Popovich is still the head coach and USA Basketball far out matches other countries in terms of raw talent.

But as we saw in 2004, talent doesn’t trump all when it comes to Team USA. The door is open for other countries to grab the top spot for the time being, and oddsmakers think so as well.

Rui Hachimura pumped when friend Sumo wrestler Hakuho drains free throw

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Rui Hachimura, the Gonzaga star drafted ninth by the Washington Wizards, is having a blast this summer playing for his native Japan as their national team gears up for the World Cup in China starting in one week.

However, he may never have been more pumped than when his friend, legendary sumo wrestler Hakuho, came out in his robes and drained a free throw.

The Wizards have to get Hakuho to a game this season, let him take a few shots during a timeout. We all need to see this.

And Hakuho was nothing, another sumo wrestler walked out in robes and drained a straight-on three.

I need to see a sumo wrestler pickup game now more than I need anything else in my life. I want to see the battle for post position.

Hachimura has played well for Japan, he dropped 31 points on Germany in the final tuneup game for the World Cup, showing off a comfort level from the midrange that is impressive. He hit shots off the dribble and on the catch.

Hachimura and Japan are in the same group as Team USA in the World Cup, and the two teams face off Sept. 3 in Shanghai.

Enes Kanter says he might add ‘American’ name once he’s a U.S. citizen (VIDEO)

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Enes Kanter has been dealing with being a man without a country for some time. The Turkish-born Boston Celtics center has openly criticized Turkish president Recep Erdoğan, And as such he is no longer welcome back in his home country.

In fact, Kanter didn’t have a valid Turkish passport this past spring, so the question of whether he might be able to re-enter the United States if he went to Canada was raised by several Portland Trail Blazers fans, including Senator Ron Wyden.

Kanter has been in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen for some time, and he appears close to that goal. As such, Kanter mentioned this week that he might add an “American” name onto his name when that happens.

Speaking to TMZ, Kanter said that, “I’m actually becoming a U.S. citizen in two years: I’m actually thinking about adding an American name. I’m still thinking about it. I don’t know yet.”

One of the newest Celtics, Kanter appears to have a diplomatic way about him and the ability to network with folks higher up. Given amount of time, resources, and potential political power behind him as an NBA player, there is hope that he will become an U.S. citizen.

Whether Kanter really wants to add an ”American” name — whatever that’s supposed to mean — is anyone’s guess. One of the founding principles of this country is the concept of the melting pot, and so a great American name for Enes Kanter would be… Enes Kanter.