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.”

Paul George: I wanted Pacers to trade me to Spurs over Lakers

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When Paul George told the Pacers in 2017 he’d opt out the following year, the widespread assumption – fueled by George himself – was he wanted to join the Lakers.

Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN:

George had another team on top of his wish list.

“I wanted to be traded to San Antonio,” George says. “We wanted to go to San Antonio first, and we didn’t make that happen.”

A league source confirmed that the Pacers and Spurs talked, but San Antonio lacked the assets to pair George with Leonard.

Despite Kawhi Leonard trying to persuade the Spurs to deal for George, Indiana traded George to the Thunder. George spent a couple years in Oklahoma City and appeared mostly happy. But he requested and received a trade to join Leonard on the Clippers last summer, finally uniting the star forwards.

At the time of George’s Pacers trade saga, there was a theory he was using a veneer of Lakers interest to help his new team maintain assets. The threat of George leaving in 2018 free agency for Los Angeles reduced the quality of offers to Indiana. The Thunder’s package certainly looked meager (though Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis blossomed with the Pacers). Then, George re-signed with Oklahoma City without even meeting with the Lakers. This revelation only further supports that theory.

Is it true, though? George now plays with Leonard on L.A.’s rival team. He might want to show his affinity for Leonard and distance himself from the Lakers. This story accomplishes both.

I’ll definitely give George this: Whatever his motivations, he said on the record the Spurs were his first choice in 2017. He didn’t hide behind the cloak of anonymity. So, I’m inclined to believe him.

Bulls unveil blue uniforms (photo)

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Michael Jordan famously wore a pair of North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform.

Now, Chicago will bring baby blue to the surface.

Bulls:

These are a major-departure from the Bulls’ red-and-black color scheme. Even the logo is altered.

Such deviations are becoming normalized. The Magic will wear orange. Expect other teams to get more radical.

These jerseys will certainly sell. The short-term revenue boost of all these alternate uniforms is the entire idea.

But I wonder whether there’s a cost to teams diluting their identities. These don’t look like Chicago uniforms. It could become increasingly difficult to value the prestige of NBA jerseys if they’re so loosely associated with a team.

Bucks to wear ‘Cream City’ jerseys (photos)

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The Bucks making cream one of their colors? Great! It was distinctive and local, celebrating the cream-colored bricks throughout Milwaukee.

These uniforms?

Bucks:

Not so great. Everything about the uniforms is fine except the words on the front of the jersey.

I’m sure nobody will crack immature jokes about those.

Reporter: Charles Barkley told me, ‘I don’t hit women, but if I did, I would hit you’

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Charles Barkley has a history of sexist comments.

The crudest publicly came in 1990. Los Angeles Times:

Barkley, who said the remarks were meant as a joke, was quoted as saying after a tough Nov. 3 win over the underdog New Jersey Nets that “this is a game that if you lose, you go home and beat your wife and kids. Did you see my wife jumping up and down at the end of the game? That’s because she knew I wasn’t going to beat her.”

But since becoming beloved for his outspokenness as a commentator, there have been others – calling the Warriors’ style “little-girly basketball,” mocking the weight of female Spurs fans.

Now, Barkley has again run his mouth in this direction.

Alexi McCammond of Axios:

Turner Sports:

This was obviously inappropriate for Barkley to say. I’m not sure how else to characterize it. It doesn’t sound like a threat. It’s not related to domestic violence. It’s just not the way to speak to someone working professionally.

I’m glad he apologized, and I hope he learned from this. But history suggests he’ll continue to make off-color jokes. In fact, he’s rewarded for repeatedly pushing the line.

That might eventually get him into serious trouble. I don’t think these remarks should be the ones to spark mass outrage.