Damion James

Raptors, comfortable and confident, taking advantage of roster cohesion


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.


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.


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.”

Aron Baynes re-signs with Spurs for one year

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When Eric Bledsoe re-signed with the Suns, Aron Baynes became the last free agent with an outstanding qualifying offer.

The Spurs waited as Baynes explored overseas options. They considered signing Gustavo Ayon as a replacement. They discussed a sign-and-trade.

And finally, they got a deal done.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Shams Charania of RealGM:

Baynes gives the Spurs 14 of 15 players back from last year’s championship team, the only difference being rookie Kyle Anderson replacing Damion James, who signed with the Wizards.

In addition to those 15 players with guaranteed contracts, San Antonio also has JaMychal Green ($60,000 guaranteed), Bryce Cotton ($50,000 guaranteed) and Josh Davis ($20,000 guaranteed).

At one point, I thought there was a chance the Spurs would waive Baynes if he accepted the qualifying offer in order to keep one of those three. But considering they offered him more than his qualifying offer ($1,115,243), there are strong indications they want to keep him.

The Spurs even exceeded the max they could pay Baynes through early bird rights ($1,380,526), meaning they dipped into the mid-level or bi-annual exception. The bi-annual exception is worth $2,077,000, so – if Stein is rounding – it’s possible Baynes took that. However, that would prevent San Antonio from using it next summer. Considering they probably have no use for the mid-level exception at this point, the Spurs probably paid Baynes through that.

Report: Aron Baynes near deal to return to Spurs for next season

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The Spurs are getting the band back together.

Which makes sense — that band won the NBA title and played the most beautiful brand of basketball we have seen in the NBA in years. Why break that up?

The final piece from last year was Aron Baynes, the reserve big man from Australia who had recently explored getting more money in China and other options, but is now ready to return to the fold, reports Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express News.

This will be his third NBA season. Baynes played a limited role for the Spurs last season, getting in just 53 games and averaging 9.3 minutes when he did. He’s a decent rebounder and can score right around the rim but has not shown much range. He’s been a development project that the Spurs can afford to take on with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter up front, plus guys like Matt Bonner there as reserves.

Baynes showed some of that development leading Australia at the World Cup this summer with 16.8 points and 7 rebounds a game. The Aussies made it to the round of 16 where they lost by one point to Turkey.

With the signing of Baynes the Spurs will be at the full 15 guaranteed roster spots. Of those, 14 were members of the title team from last season, the only change is that Damion James is out (now with the Wizards) replaced by rookie Kyle Anderson.

Wizards signing John Wall’s former Kentucky teammate, Daniel Orton


Kentucky set a record with five first-round picks in 2010 – John Wall (No. 1), DeMarcus Cousins (No. 5), Patrick Patterson (No. 14), Eric Bledsoe (No. 18) and Daniel Orton (No. 29).

Most of that group has found success in the NBA. Wall and Cousins received max extensions, and Bledsoe could be nearing a huge payday as well. Patterson isn’t doing too bad for himself, either.

But Orton is out of work, trying to stick in the NBA after three seasons.

J. Michael of CSN Washington:

The Wizards are about to sign Daniel Orton, who played for them at Las Vegas summer league, for training camp, CSNwashington.com confirmed with two people with the knowledge of the situation Tuesday. A training camp contract is expected to be finalized in the next few days.

Orton worked out for the Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Lakers but canceled a workout with the Los Angeles Clippers after they signed Ekpe Udoh to a roster spot.

David Stockton could be an addition, too, after Garrett Temple injured his hamstring. Stockton will work out for the team this week and is en route to D.C.

Orton missed his first year due to injury, and he’s since spent a season each with the Magic, Thunder and 76ers. He really hasn’t engendered much confidence.

The Wizards are primarily looking for a shooting guard, but it’s possible they take a big man instead. Orton will be competing with Damion James (if his contract isn’t already guaranteed) to be first in line if Washington keeps a big.

Stockton – who worked out for the Jazz and Thunder – is probably trying out only to help Washington through training camp. Even if he gets a contract and that role, it’s nearly impossible to see him snagging the final regular-season roster spot. With Wall, Andre Miller and Temple on guaranteed contracts, the Wizards are set at point guard.

Wizards sign Rasual Butler, Damion James

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The Wizards could use another shooting guard behind Bradley Beal.

So far, the candidates are:

The Wizards are trying to drum up competition in training camp and maybe find another shooting guard that way. That means adding Rasual Butler.

Shams Charania of RealGM:

Although shooting guard seems to be Washington’s priority, the Wizards also signed big man Damion James. Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders reports James’ contract is fully guaranteed, but I have yet to confirm that.

James’ level of guarantee would have a large effect on Butler’s (and Silas’) chances of making the team. If Butler is fully guaranteed, Washington would have 14 players with guaranteed contracts plus Rice, whose deal is $400,000 guaranteed.

If Butler or Silas impress, the Wizards could eat Rice’s guaranteed salary and keep an unguaranteed shooting guard instead. However, that would leave Washington just $85,202 below the luxury-tax line, and it’s possible Nene could meet incentives – the exact conditions are unknown – that push the Wizards into the tax.

But Butler has been here before. In a similar situation in 2012, he went to the Bucks’ training camp and didn’t make the team. Last season, he stuck with the Pacers after signing a non-guaranteed contract.

I actually like Butler’s chances in Washington – as long as James isn’t standing in his way. The 11-year-vet provides experience the win-now Wizards desire, and he’s been a relatively steady scorer.

It’s just a matter of knowing James’ contract status and whether there’s really an open competition for a roster spot.