Let me start out by saying this. I am an incurable Raptors optimist. Where others constantly bitch and moan and proclaim doom and gloom for the Toronto basketball team, I am, almost always, completely positive.
Zan Tabak? He could figure it out, he learned from Hakeem Olajuwon every day at practice back in 1994! Michael Bradley? Posted great numbers in Villanova — he just needs a chance. Fifty-nine wins but beaten like a drum by LeBron James for the third season in a row? Winning is hard, and most other NBA teams would kill to have the Raps’ balance of success and youth.
I also want to say that if the details of the deal, a protected first, the going-to-be-very-good Jakob Poetl and the heart-of-the-franchise DeMar DeRozan, for injury-risk and likely malcontent Kawhi Leonard, and maybe still professional sharp-shooter Danny Green are accurate, then I think — in terms of raw assets — the risk isn’t ridiculous.
But, in making this play Masai Ujiri has ignored the lessons of Paul George and the Oklahoma Thunder. He traded the one ace he had in his hand to help keep Kawhi in order to get him: DeRozan. The only thing that could keep Kawhi in Toronto is feeling like he had a teammate he just couldn’t leave.
The reason Paul George gave up his dream of playing in the Purple and Gold had nothing to do with money, or how much he loved OKC. It had everything to do with the magnetic pull of Russell Westbrook — a teammate who, for whatever his faults are, is pathologically dedicated to winning.
Stars want to play with stars, sure. But in today’s NBA, the serious stars want to play with guys they respect, and guys who the rest of the league does too.
Enter DeRozan. The aforementioned heart. The workout freak. The single-mindedly focused man on a mission. The guy who forged the best bro-mance in professional sports history with noted cranky-pants Kyle Lowry. The man who is respected by his peers for his unflinching dedication to his craft, and, just as importantly, his commitment to doing things his way.
Just like Russ.
We can never know if Kawhi and DeMar would have bonded, but we have 30+ players worth of evidence in the last four years that says they would have. It’s not hard to imagine Kawhi being as impressed with how DeMar goes about his business as everyone else in basketball.
Whatever caused the Spurs breakdown, Leonard was incubated in a culture of hard work, sacrifice for team, and honest communications. Maybe six months of time with DeMar would have reminded him that those still were his core values, and that Toronto was the right place to express them.
Those words, work, sacrifice, honesty, describe DeMar to a tee. When DeMar spoke out about mental health we saw how much the NBA thought of him. As DeMar #ProvedEm year after year, you saw how other players took notice, tipped their hats, put words of respect in their mouth for a man who grinds so hard every damn day.
Torontonians fell in love with DeMar as a result. Any NBA’er worth his salt would too.
When people started to wonder if Paul George wanted to stay in Oklahoma it was based on comments he made about Russ. He talked about the “brotherhood” the two created. How Russ was a “stand-up guy” who “always had his teammates back”.
It was clear that when it came down to glamour in L.A., or getting to go to work every day with someone who was going to pull just as hard as he was, glamour couldn’t win.
We tend to forget how cutthroat the world of sports necessarily is, and how, often teammates can hold back on themselves either for competitive, or just protective reasons. Think of Lowry admitting he never spoke to DeMar when he first came to Toronto because he figured he wouldn’t be around soon.
Players work so closely with each other for so long, for such an almost-impossible goal, that being blessed to have someone at your side who is not just talented, but genuine, likable and committed is unbelievably powerful.
The Raps one real play to keep Kwahi isn’t centered on winning — you want a star, you have to win. Nor was it the pull of a world-class city — because let’s face it, with the money and options these players have, pretty much every NBA city provides enough high-end opportunities to enchant. It is, or maybe, we should already say, was centred on making him feel that he couldn’t leave — that he had found a kindred spirit who would make it impossible for him to leave.
That could only be done by a man born, bloodied, and emotionally dedicated to the franchise.
That could only have been DeMar.