NBA

Lewenberg: A Toronto rebirth for the Raptors' ex-King quartet

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Josh Lewenberg
2/5/2014 12:30:49 AM
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SACRAMENTO - Some say that living well is the best revenge.

At least four players on the Raptors' roster subscribe to that philosophy.

When Toronto's Patrick Patterson, John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez and Chuck Hayes return to Sacramento's Sleep Train Arena Wednesday, they'll be feeling a lot better about themselves than when they were last in the building, when they called it home.

It's been nearly two full months since that fateful night in Los Angeles when a seven-player trade shook the foundation of the Raptors franchise.

As reports began to circulate hours before tip-off, the timing of the deal caught everyone off guard. In exchange for the bloated contract and modest production of Rudy Gay - along with Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray - Toronto took back four veteran wild cards.

Each of the four had experienced some level of individual success in the league. Vasquez and Patterson - the youngest of the four - were both coming off career seasons, one in New Orleans, the other in Houston. Hayes - a nine-year vet - had been a starter with the Rockets and Salmons, now in his 12th season, was a key contributor to playoff teams in Chicago and Milwaukee. At 34 and 30 respectfully, Salmons and Hayes immediately became the elder statesmen on a young Raptors squad.

Each of them had started in at least one of Sacramento's first 18 games. They were rotation players for a team that was 5-13 at the time of the trade.

"Coming from here in Sacramento, things weren't that great," Salmons said, candidly reflecting back on the trade after wrapping up practice in the Kings gym Tuesday. "So when we got the opportunity to come here we just wanted to take advantage of it. Losing's not fun and this team had a chance to make a run at the playoffs."

Without Gay, who was shooting 39 per cent and hoisting just under 19 shots per game, most anticipated there would be at least some addition by subtraction but no one - even internally - knew what to expect from the incoming Kings players. Likewise, they didn't know what to expect from a Raptors team that had a 6-12 record prior to that game in LA on Dec. 8.

"I mean you hear stuff about other teams, but the only thing you really know is their record," Salmons added. "You know their record, you know their roster but you don't know the whole story. So coming in all we saw was the record, we didn't know that the locker room was full of good guys."

Toronto has gone 19-10 since the trade was made official, 19-9 since the acquired players made their Raptor debuts, good for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference over that stretch.

Not only did the trade improve the Raptors' bench, it made their bench. On most nights, Dwane Casey has settled into a strict nine-man rotation, using the four ex-Kings as his primary reserves. Toronto's bench combined for 35 points on 52 per cent shooting in Monday's win over the Jazz. They have scored 30 or more in three of the last five contests and are averaging 26.6 points since the trade.

Casey has entrusted them to be on the floor in key situations. Quite frankly, they've earned it.

"I feel like we got four veteran, solid players that really helped us in a lot of different ways and gave us some toughness off the bench," the Raptors' coach said.

"Right now, obviously [Toronto is] playing at a very high level," said Kings coach Mike Malone. "I think all four of our guys are helping them at different points."

The newcomers have each put their stamp on the team's run. Often the first player off the bench, Patterson is logging fewer minutes than he was in Sacramento, yet averaging three more points per game, contributing nearly 10 as a Raptor. Hayes has carved out a niche as a reliable, savvy and hardworking stopper and rebounder. Salmons, a two-way player, has become Toronto's third ball handler. Of the four, Vasquez is the only one who has seen his scoring average dip since coming to the Raptors. Still, he's not complaining.

"I'm in a different situation right now and I'm pretty happy," said Vasquez, who has stepped in as a reliable backup to Kyle Lowry, something the team was desperately searching for early in the season. "I think winning really makes everything so much better. I'd rather be in a winning program right now than going through a tough time [in Sacramento]."

You would have to be naive to think that Wednesday's return to Sacramento is just another game for those four. The Kings are 11-19 since sending them to Toronto and the statement they're hoping to make has more to do with their collective success than individual performances.

"You always look forward to playing the team that traded you," said Vasquez, averaging seven points and four assists with the Raptors. "More than that it's about winning. At the end of the day, whether I play well, whether I don't play well, I just want to go back to Sacramento with a win."

Vasquez was only with the Kings for a couple months to begin the season. For Salmons, his connection with the Sacramento franchise goes back seven years. In 2006, the Philadelphia-native pulled out of a deal with the Raptors to sign in Sacramento. After being moved to the Bulls, then to the Bucks, Salmons eventually found his way back to the Kings but became expendable when new ownership decided to take the team in a different direction.

The trade to Toronto was Salmons' fifth since being drafted out of Miami in 2002 but he took this one more personally than the others. He felt slighted by an organization that he had spent most of his career playing for.

"When I got traded I had mixed feelings, strong mixed feelings," he admitted. "I'm not going to say I was totally mad at the [Kings] organization it was just, I don't know, it was just a little tougher this time."

Now, as he and his teammates get set to make their much-anticipated return, that animosity is water under the bridge, more or less. Salmons, like the other three, is sincerely happy to be a Raptor. Winning is the best medicine.

"Guys enjoy winning," said Salmons. "There's the old saying, winning cures everything so the more we win the more people want to sacrifice to continue winning."

Patrick Patterson  (Photo: Ned Dishman/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Ned Dishman/Getty Images)
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