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.”

Report: Dell Demps bypassed Rob Pelinka for Magic Johnson in Anthony Davis trade talks

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It appears that Anthony Davis is headed to the Los Angeles Lakers. The trade was announced this weekend between L.A. and the New Orleans Pelicans, but won’t be completed until July 6. Earlier this season, it was thought this trade could never happen. Tensions between the two teams were high, and negotiations had broken down.

That was perhaps due in some part to the odd back-and-forth between the teams’ front offices. According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, one peculiarity was that former Pelicans GM Dell Demps wouldn’t deal with Lakers GM Rob Pelinka. Demps would only discuss things with Magic Johnson.

Via ESPN:

Now, calling those discussions in February “negotiations” is a bit of a stretch. The Pelicans were never serious about dealing with the Lakers then. They didn’t like being forced into this position by Davis and his representative, Rich Paul. And they probably weren’t going to let former general manager Dell Demps make this big of a decision anyway.

So the Lakers — really just Johnson, because Demps wouldn’t talk to Pelinka — would call and Demps would write names on the board without giving them any feedback. Those names would leak publicly and do damage to the Lakers’ team chemistry. But eventually, Johnson and the Lakers got the hint and stopped banging up against what had become an incredibly self-destructive wall.

It’s possible that Demps wanted to deal with Magic simply because he thought he had ultimate authority. That, or maybe Demps thought Johnson would be easier to manipulate?

There’s also the idea that Demps could have had a poor relationship with Pelinka from when he was an agent. For example, Pelinka client Eric Gordon had a restricted free agent saga wherein he tried to leave New Orleans for the Phoenix Suns in 2012. The Pelicans matched, and the shooting guard never played more than 65 games in a season. This is conjecture of course, but it’s not as though Demps hadn’t dealt with Pelinka in the past. There’s been reports that Pelinka is unliked by some GMs around the league from his days as an agent.

I think we’re going to keep seeing information about the inner workings of the Lakers and former Pelicans front office like this over the next several months. This one is pretty odd, but it’s not entirely surprising.

Magic Johnson congratulates Lakers, Rob Pelinka, on Anthony Davis trade

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Magic Johnson left the Los Angeles Lakers under inauspicious terms. Turn the last game of the season, the Lakers great announced that he would be resigning his position effective immediately. In an extended hallway interview, Johnson said that he hadn’t even informed close friend and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss.

Now Magic is back to his old tricks, flashing his pearly white smile on television and tweeting banal observations about the NBA.

Johnson was supposed to be part of the team that got New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis to Staples Center. He couldn’t get the deal done, and things reportedly got testy between the two organizations during the regular season.

The Lakers were able to finally trade for Davis in an agreed-upon deal on Saturday. The trade reportedly won’t be completed until July 6th, but all indications are that Davis will be a Laker.

To that end, Johnson is apparently quite happy. He took to social media to congratulate Buss and the organization on Saturday. Eventually — surprisingly — he even gave props to Rob Pelinka.

Via Twitter:

The Pelicans got a great haul for Davis, and the Lakers got what they wanted in another star to pair with LeBron James.

It’s unclear if Los Angeles will be able to build a roster around their two stars enough to contend deep into the Western Conference playoffs. That’s still up for debate, and health will be a serious question as they try to rely on an aging James and a shaky Davis.

Still, the Lakers are headed in the direction they would like and with the West now more in question than ever. We don’t know what’s happening with the Golden State Warriors, and the Houston Rockets could be in full teardown mode as they look to ditch Chris Paul.

We’re headed into the summer and there’s a bit of daylight for fans in L.A.

Report: Celtics wouldn’t include Jayson Tatum in Anthony Davis trade talks

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Anthony Davis is headed to the Los Angeles Lakers. The New Orleans Pelicans got a significant haul in exchange for their beleaguered star, and LeBron James is openly happy his team finally got the player they wanted all along.

Other favorites to land Anthony Davis this offseason were the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks. Danny Ainge had to wait until after July 1 to make a trade for Davis thanks to some special CBA rules regarding Kyrie Irving‘s contract.

But that no longer appears to be on the table, in part because Boston decided not to offer Jayson Tatum in any deal for Davis. Thought to be the crown jewel of any potential Celtics-Pelicans trade, there was also concern by Ainge that Davis would not re-sign in Beantown.

Via Twitter:

This runs contrary to everything we’ve heard about Boston going after Davis. Ainge has always been one to leverage his assets in a way that’s less conservative than other team execs. Plus, the reports have been that the Celtics were not concerned about Davis re-signing. Perhaps Davis gave them a little extra information, telling them directly that he would not re-sign? Davis’ agent Rich Paul said as much publicly, but what’s posturing and what’s negotiating isn’t one in the same.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Pelicans and Lakers will complete the deal on July 6. There’s a lot of time before we hit that date, and Pelicans leader David Griffin won’t back out of his deal with L.A. But the fact there’s still time on the table and the Celtics didn’t change their tune on Tatum tells us all the information we need to know.

Rumor: LeBron James hoping Kyrie Irving might join Lakers despite Nets talk

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The Anthony Davis trade saga is finally over. The deal between the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers hasn’t been completed yet, and is expected to be done on July 6.

For now, L.A. can move its attention elsewhere to look for another star. The Lakers will have significant cap space — $23.7 million, according to Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks — and they’ll need another star.

Talk recently has been that former LeBron James running mate Kyrie Irving is headed to the Brooklyn Nets. But no deal is officially in place, and free agency hasn’t started. According to Sam Amick of The Athletic, there are folks in LeBron’s camp who are hopeful that Irving could still join L.A.

Via The Athletic:

Just days before the Davis deal was done, a source close to James indicated some optimism that – Nets noise be darned – Irving was still in play for the Lakers.

Remember, Irving and James had a heart-to-heart talk earlier in the season. They hashed out what happened in Cleveland, with Irving apologizing to James for how he acted as a younger man.

That sparked speculation that Irving could be looking to join LeBron with the Lakers this summer when he had the ability to opt out of his contract with the Boston Celtics.

We haven’t even reached the 2019 NBA draft yet, and already free agency is ramping up and getting crazy. This July is going to be wild, and until the music stops and the butts are in the seats, don’t count anyone as being a sure thing for any team just yet.