OAKLAND, Calif. — Dennis Robertson, referred predominantly in NBA circles as “Uncle Dennis,” is the uncle of Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard.
Robertson is Leonard’s primary career and business strategist who generally avoids speaking publicly, similar to the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
With Leonard leading the Raptors to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history to face the defending champion Golden State Warriors, it appears that last year’s messy divorce from the San Antonio Spurs worked out favorably for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP.
“We’re a humble family and we’re just enjoying the moment,” Robertson told Yahoo Sports on Sunday afternoon via phone interview. “Most people would say it’s vindication, but I’m not sure about that. But it was nice that we kept our mouths shut and just let everything play out. And for Kawhi, to take all the negative press he received and to focus on taking the East and to taking each series game by game, it’s a big deal. Making it to the Finals is a big deal. This is a team that has never been to the Finals and we’re happy about that. It feels good with what we went through last year. We have to be happy. He said it best with all the work he's put into his craft: He’s ready for this moment. What he accomplished was amazing. That’s what stars do. How he’s handled everything on and off the court is well deserved. It was nice to see him fight through all the adversity and he’s earned every minute of this.”
From his dominant defense to hitting the biggest shot in Raptors history, Leonard has piled up heroic moments in his one postseason with the club.
The 6-foot-7 forward has been the difference-maker the Raptors desperately needed, but the joy the organization is experiencing is because of the joy that was lost last season.
Leonard and Robertson have never openly addressed why the three-time All-Star requested a trade from the Spurs last offseason. For much of the 2017-18 season, Leonard battled a right quad injury and it limited him to just nine games.
Over time, the Spurs’ medical staff cleared him to play. Leonard sought a second opinion from an outside source and it was recommended that he continued rehabbing. The organization’s position caused teammates to question if Leonard had ulterior motives. That — along with constant leaks to the media detailing how frustrated the Spurs were with the ordeal — was the beginning of the end of a relationship that had otherwise been relatively healthy for six years.
Robertson revealed why it was time for Leonard to go elsewhere.
“I think it just became a lack of trust,” Robertson told Yahoo Sports. “They didn’t believe Kawhi couldn’t play and that caused a lack of trust in us and then us not believing in them. Any time a player says he’s not capable of playing, you should believe him. Why would Kawhi just stop playing all of a sudden? He’s a competitor. Sometimes you get these team doctors telling you what you can and cannot do, and Kawhi was just in too much pain to get out there. This was a serious issue. They didn’t believe him, and after that, the relationship couldn’t recover and we decided we had to move on.”
The trade request was made in June 2018 and playing near home in Los Angeles was Leonard’s main preference.
But about a month later, Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ president of basketball operations, made a bold move, trading star guard DeMar DeRozan — the most accomplished player in the franchise’s history — in exchange for Leonard in a three-player deal.
It was a risky maneuver, swapping a star who adored Toronto for a star who isn’t a fan of cold weather.
As reported at the time, Leonard originally wasn’t keen on relocating to Toronto, but Robertson explained Leonard’s thought process at the time.
“When you are initially traded somewhere you didn’t asked to be, you don’t want to accept it,” Robertson told Yahoo Sports. “But once you get through that period, the focus then turns to giving your all and performing at a high level. It never had anything to do with the city of Toronto. It wasn’t. Toronto is a beautiful city. Kawhi has often spoke highly of Toronto. It’s a beautiful place. That was just an initial reaction, which is normal. But we’re enjoying this run and looking forward to the Finals.”
Much of the NBA Finals chatter will be about what takes place after the series because the matchup features three of the top pending free agents in Leonard, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
“I can’t get into other free agents and other teams, but for Kawhi, he’s going to take it one day and one game at a time,” Robertson told Yahoo Sports. “We have a championship opportunity in front of us. We’re not thinking about free agency; it’s the Warriors [right now]. Once we get through the season, we’ll turn our attention to free agency. But we’re just having fun right now. This has been a great year.”
Leonard started favoring his right leg in the conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, with speculation that it could be the lingering quad issue that sidelined him for most of last year. Robertson wouldn’t divulge the nature of the injury, but acknowledged he’s dealing with something.
Toronto is four wins from shocking the world. Ujiri let it be known after the Raptors were crowned the Eastern Conference champions that hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy is the primary objective.
In that same speech, he also called Leonard the best player in the game. Considering the road Leonard took to get back on the court, that’s some strong praise.
“I think if there was anybody capable of doing this, I would have said he could do it,” Robertson told Yahoo Sports. “And If there were any doubts that he wasn’t 100 percent last series, even though you could clearly see he was in pain because it was national TV, you might have thought he couldn’t get through this. But his basketball IQ is above most and he figured out a way to get through it and we feel good about where we’re at.”
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