LeBron James, the Eastern Conference boogeyman, the Toronto Raptors’ top tormentor and annual Finals blockade had finally moved on the opposite coast. But after watching a Raptors Summer League game at the Thomas & Mack Center earlier this month, DeMar DeRozan was relatively blasé about the man responsible for kicking him out of the postseason in each of the past three seasons taking his talents to the Los Angeles Lakers.
To DeRozan, James’s departure wasn’t enough to make the Raptors the favorite in the East, even coming off a year in which he had led them to the top seed in the conference for the first time in franchise history. Boston is still here. Philadelphia is still coming. He knew it. When told that the Raptors finally had an opening to make the Finals, DeRozan shrugged, looked around and said, “But we’re still the same.” DeRozan didn’t believe the Raptors had enough as they were constructed and added, “We’re missing something. I just don’t know what it is.”
DeRozan wanted help, not an escape. The Raptors gave him the latter in a rare trade that involves an actual swap of All-Star talents, with DeRozan heading to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for disgruntled swingman Kawhi Leonard. The trade — which includes Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick going to San Antonio for Danny Green — is also unusual because the primary players involved are both furious with the move.
Leonard forced his way out of one of the most stable and successful franchises of the past decade following a bizarre season in which a mysterious leg injury limited him to just nine games. The Spurs couldn’t concern themselves too much with Leonard’s happiness when he disrupted a well-run machine that has as many championships (five) as Toronto has playoff series wins. And not receiving a desired trade to Los Angeles doesn’t quite scale on the sympathy meter as feeling betrayed by an organization to which you repeatedly committed your loyalty.
DeRozan is understandably hurt. He was reportedly told during a meeting with the Raptors in Las Vegas that he wouldn’t be traded and expressed his frustrations in a late-night (early-morning) Instagram story prior to the trade that read, “Be told one thing & the outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing.”
Before DeRozan made the Raptors cool enough for Drake to hop on the bandwagon, Toronto had a long history of players abandoning the franchise for hopes of something better on the other side. Tracy McGrady bolted for his own thing in Orlando, just as the Raptors were on the verge of something special with Vince Carter. Carter made basketball relevant in Canada as he hurdled 7-footers and swung on rims like jungle gyms but forced his way into Jason Kidd lob passes in New Jersey. And after bemoaning the lack of good cable television options, Chris Bosh shaved his dreads and chased rings in Miami. McGrady is in the Hall of Fame. Carter and Bosh will likely follow suit, but Bosh is the only star to abandon the Raptors and seek what he was looking for elsewhere — even if it came with harsher criticism and third-wheel status.
DeRozan saw what those other talents did and chose to stay. He once told Yahoo Sports, “If I see a hundred people walking left, that don’t necessarily mean I’m going to walk left. I may see this clear path and want to stay right.”
When he became an unrestricted free agent for the first time in 2016, DeRozan didn’t even test the market. The Lakers were wooing, with the prospect of filling the shoes of his idol, Kobe Bryant, but DeRozan didn’t have a meeting with any other teams, agreeing to a five-year, $139 million deal. And therein lies the complications with loyalty. Once one side surrenders leverage, there is always the possibility that the pact could end prematurely — especially when a no-trade clause isn’t included (and with contracts so large these days, it’s easy to see why players choose the financial security over the written kind).
Blake Griffin learned a hard lesson in January, when the Los Angeles Clippers shipped him to Detroit only months after he was shown a fake jersey retirement and sold on the prospect of being a Clipper for life. LeBron James during his time in Cleveland and now Kevin Durant with the Golden State Warriors are the only players who have maintained control of their careers by signing shorter one-plus-one deals that hold their teams accountable. Most players don’t have lucrative endorsement backing to take similar approaches, which means teams can move on from players however they see fit. Stephen Curry is now the only player from the 2009 NBA draft still with his original team.
Once he gets beyond the emotions of an unwanted breakup, DeRozan might come to see that going to San Antonio and learning under a future Hall of Fame coach in Gregg Popovich might be exactly what his career needs to continue its steady progression. But while the anger and pain are still raw, DeRozan will have to grapple with the fact that the only organization he’s known — the one he’d hoped to play for until he retired with every possible franchise record in tow — felt that it had plateaued with him as its best player. And that’s the cold, harsh reality of what occurred.
Raptors fans who developed a soft spot for DeRozan because he loved Toronto when no other star would, former Raptors players who know how hard DeRozan worked to become a four-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA player, will lament about how he was wronged — “snake,” as Lou Williams wrote on Twitter. Others might harp on loyalty.
Toronto president Masai Ujiri, however, had to view the deal through the prism of a franchise that was perhaps overdue for a dramatic change. Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas are the only two players remaining from when Ujiri began running the franchise in 2013. DeRozan had been there before all of them.
After James swept the Raptors out of the second round in 2017, an angry Ujiri threatened that a “culture reset” was in order. Instead of a quick-fix blowup, Ujiri decided to change the team from within, which resulted in a different offensive philosophy, a more efficient DeRozan and a 59-win season … that ended in the exact fashion. Gambling on Leonard is scary given his health concerns and reported desires to play closer to home in Southern California. But if engaged, motivated and at full strength, Leonard is the best player in the East with James gone.
The latest sweep against James was a clear signal to Ujiri that status quo wouldn’t cut it, not when Cleveland’s other playoff foes all snagged at least three wins off them. DeRozan played poorly in that series and was ejected in the fourth game, which made him expendable no matter how badly he wanted to stay in Toronto. The performance was particularly disappointing because DeRozan once famously said two postseasons ago, “If we had LeBron on our team, too, we would’ve won.” Asked about that comment in late December, DeRozan made it clear to Yahoo Sports that he wasn’t ducking James: “You want to face every single challenge it is out there and you look forward to that as a competitor. You don’t want anything to be easy. That’s what makes the game fun and exciting. To be in the moments and be able to compete with whoever the best is.”
Well, after two weeks in which LeBron James was no longer a concern, DeRozan is in the much-tougher Western Conference, unable to escape the man responsible for much of his career misery.
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