On one level, the Toronto Raptors ridding themselves of their most loyal employee, for one who has little interest in moving north, is the boldest bit of cross-border trade since Wayne Gretzky was shipped to California.
On another, deeper one, it is Shakespearean – complete with treachery and a sonnet.
Pro athletes like to remind you that sport is “a business.” They often use that as a defence when they’re about to do something mercenary. But this unique exchange highlights how cruel that same machinery can be when turned around.
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On Wednesday, the Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan and other assets to the San Antonio Spurs for their want-away star, Kawhi Leonard.
Assuming he reports – and that remains in some doubt – Leonard is already the best player to wear a Raptors jersey in his prime. Even better than Vince Carter back in the day.
He is the sort of two-way difference maker who can single-handedly turn a contending team into a championship-calibre one. His value on the court is indisputable.
Until last season, you’d also have said that Leonard, 27, was the NBA’s only working-class megastar. He is a notoriously private person who seemed to like everything about basketball except the “being famous” part.
Then he got injured, fell out with the team (reportedly going so far as to hide from the Spurs’ doctors when they visited), played in only a handful of games all year and demanded a trade.
For several weeks, guessing where Leonard would go became the league’s favourite episode of The Young and the Restless. He had made it clear he wanted to land in Los Angeles – his hometown – but the Lakers refused to part with the necessary treasure.
Complicating matters is the fact that Leonard is under contract for only one more season. After that, he can sign wherever he likes. The expectation is that he will then join LeBron James at Staples Center.
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The last place most people expected him to end up during his yearlong sabbatical was Canada. The price (DeRozan, centre Jakob Poeltl and a well-protected first-round draft pick for Leonard and guard Danny Green) is surprisingly reasonable.
However, according to multiple reports, Leonard is already telling people he doesn’t want to come. While you’d like to say a lengthy holdout is unlikely since it would cost Leonard many millions of dollars, he’s already proved unusually stump-like in his obstinance.
Regardless, the deal has been done and announced. Leonard is a Raptor. Now, the behind-the-scenes cajoling begins.
In making this trade, Raptors president Masai Ujiri has charted two courses. Either the Raptors win it all right now, this year; or the effort ends in total failure.
Whatever you think of the deal, that makes it the bravest move in memory. Ujiri, 48, has done something no sports executive of his stature does – put his entire personal stack into the middle and gamble his own future. Knowing him, that was probably the allure.
Playing out alongside the larger drama of empires rising and falling is a small, personal one. It’s the more compelling of the two.
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When DeRozan arrived nearly a decade ago, it was accepted wisdom that no American with options would ever choose to play for the Raptors. DeRozan broke that cycle.
He was always someone of uncommon grace, especially so by the standards of pro sport. Guys this talented and rich are supposed to be aloof. DeRozan was disarmingly engaged.
For all of his nine seasons in Toronto, he was the least “big-league” big-leaguer in the city.
As the years passed, his connection to Toronto became Joycean. He once went so far as to say, “I am Toronto.”
Because of that, he didn’t see the knife coming. When it got put in early on Wednesday, DeRozan reacted poetically on Instagram.
“Told one thing and the outcome another/
Can’t trust em/
Ain’t no loyalty in this game/
Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing”
Athletes often leave bitter, but it’s hard to recall one who has left so obviously hurt.
You don’t like to throw the word “betray” about in a sports context. Let’s remember that the hard-done-by party in this case makes as much in a month as the average Canadian will in his/her lifetime. But, clearly, that’s how DeRozan took it.
If the Raptors betrayed him, he must accept part of the blame is his own. He helped make it a necessary betrayal.
A sports team isn’t a family. It isn’t even a family business. It’s an incorporation of freelancers with rigid annual targets.
DeRozan was paid superstar money (US$139-million over five years) to win in the playoffs. Despite repeated tries, he couldn’t manage that. Something fundamental needed to change. So, the corporation changed it.
It is possible to simultaneously feel bad for DeRozan and recognize it had to be done.
Toronto basketball fans will likely tilt toward the former, even angrily so. The only way to heal that rift is for Leonard to agree to come and the Raptors to go at least as far as next year’s NBA final. So, a big ask.
But if the goal here was to jump-start the team and interest in it, trading for Leonard was a lightning bolt.
The closest national comparable in terms of impact and unexpectedness is the aforementioned 1988 trade of Gretzky to the L.A. Kings. That one was different in the sense that the Edmonton Oilers were a championship team when they did it (the move was made for financial reasons) and Gretzky wasn’t a visitor, but the country’s first citizen.
In purely competitive terms, the move was a short-term wash for the Oilers. They won a Stanley Cup two years later and remained a powerhouse for a couple more. But the public perception that they had needlessly turned on a beloved son scarred the franchise for decades.
Unlike the Oilers, the Raptors can’t be faulted for the “why” in cutting ties with DeRozan. But the “for what” remains very debatable.
Ten months from now, this trade will either have been a visionary masterstroke or an organizational disaster. There is no middle ground.
Who’s who in the trade
Kawhi Leonard, 27, spent seven years in San Antonio but appeared in only nine games last season because of a leg injury, described as right quadriceps tendinopathy. The Spurs officially said the all-star forward was out with “injury management.” He helped the Spurs win a championship in 2014 and was chosen NBA final MVP. He is a two-time NBA defensive player of the year.
DeMar DeRozan, 28, was selected by Toronto with the ninth overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft. He was a regular starter almost right away and soon became an anchor on the Raptors, who have made five straight playoff appearances but have never made it to the NBA final. The four-time all-star swingman is the Raptors’ all-time leader in points (13,296), field goals made (4,716), free throws made (3,539) and games played (675).
Danny Green, 31, started 60 games for the Spurs last year and is a three-point threat. The shooting guard averaged 8.6 points a game last season and has spent most of his nine-year NBA career in San Antonio.
Jacob Poeltl, 22, averaged 6.9 points and 4.8 rebounds as a key bench player for Toronto last season. The centre is entering his third NBA campaign.
The Canadian Press