It was the evening of June 28, 2010 when a young man from Compton hit send on what would become the most famous tweet in Raptors history:
Don't worry, I got us...— DeMar DeRozan (@DeMar_DeRozan) June 29, 2010
It was the start of something that would turn out to be pretty damn special.
After Chris Bosh departed for the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010, he left the Raptors with a core of, um, Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani, and 20-year-old DeMar DeRozan. The fanbase was distraught after yet another star left us to go south, and DeRozan, perhaps with a bit of hubris he hadn’t yet earned, told us it was all gonna be all right.
Over the next eight years, he backed it up night after night.
But nothing lasts forever. DeRozan was traded to the San Antonio Spurs on July 18, closing his Raptors tenure after nine seasons, 675 games and 51 playoff games.
It’s a really hard thing to come to grips with. Whatever you thought of DeRozan’s play on the court, whether you thought he was a “true superstar” or “truly elite” or whatever the parlance of the day is, DeRozan did more for the Toronto Raptors than any other player. Even Vince Carter; Carter may have put the Raptors on the map, but DeRozan took that map and led the Raptors to places Carter never did, with a consistency and work ethic Carter never matched.
DeRozan showed loyalty to the city and the franchise, signing three contracts including his rookie deal, and taking no free agency meetings when he was due for a big payday in 2016, opting to sign with the Raptors right away.
No other player has ever done that; heck, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh didn’t even meet with the Raptors when they left in free agency. We were so used to great players leaving, and in DeRozan, we finally found one who wanted to be here.
He continually expressed his love and appreciation for the city, declared he wanted to be the best Raptor ever and wanted to build something special here in Canada, to do something no one else has.
And he did! DeRozan leaves as the franchise’s all-time scoring leader as well as its leader in games and minutes played. Along with Kyle Lowry and head coach Dwane Casey, he led the Raptors to franchise-records for wins in a season four times, made the playoffs a franchise-record five straight years, won four playoff series and made the Conference Finals for the first and only time in franchise history. He owns a franchise-record 10 Player of the Week awards, a franchise-record three Player of the Month awards, is tied with Vince Carter for All-NBA appearances (two) and made four All-Star games, tied with Lowry for third behind Carter and Bosh (five each).
Just this past season alone, he thrilled us with a franchise-record 52 points in an OT win against Milwaukee and with a thunderous, game-tying, coast-to-coast slam at the buzzer against Detroit (another game the Raptors would win in OT).
He has posterized Joakim Noah, Myles Turner, Tyrus Thomas, Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson, Andre Drummond (and Kyle Singler in the same dunk!), and, in perhaps his best dunk, Rudy Gobert:
And he worked, hard. DeRozan is well-known (and well-regarded) for both his work ethic, including early morning and late night gym sessions, and for working on his game to continually improve. Every summer he hit the gym and stayed in shape and got better, he was never injured, and even when you felt he was playing poorly, you rarely felt he wasn’t playing hard. He is clearly a better player now than he was even last year, let alone two or five years ago.
He showed up in summer league and at Raptors 905 games to support the team’s youngsters. He forged a genuine and memorable friendship with Lowry that proved the envy of others and launched dozens of memes and gifs. He spoke up about mental health and became an ambassador for the cause. He even proved to be an excellent host when Toronto held the NBA All-Star Game in 2016, the first time it had ever been held outside of the United States, and despite frigid temperatures the weekend was a huge success.
We can’t pretend things were perfect. DeRozan never developed on the defensive end; he would show flashes, but too often would allow himself to be taken out of plays on simple screens or drift too far away from shooters. His defensive rating last season was 105.4, which doesn’t even crack the top 60 for guards, and he particularly struggled to slow down wings that had even a little bit of weight on him.
On the other end, DeRozan was known as “King of the Midrange” in an era when the midrange was considered forbidden territory. He never developed a 3-point shot, and despite his claims that he could shoot them just fine but preferred not to take them, this past season didn’t back that up: He shot a career-high 3.6 attempts per game, but only hit 31% of them.
That his true shooting percentages remained high (.536 career, .550+ each of the last three seasons) is a testament to how good he was in that midrange, and how effective he was at getting to the line and hitting free throws. But that midrange preference made his game predictable and easy to slow down, and defenses took his spots away in the playoffs.
And that, really, is the main area where DeRozan’s legacy falls short: The postseason. That true shooting percentage drops to .497 in the playoffs, which is below average. His free throw rate drops from .406 to .363. There was Game 5 against Indiana three years ago, where DeRozan was benched as the Raptors closed out the game in the fourth. The same thing happened against Washington in Game 6 this past season. DeRozan was infamously 0-for-8 with 2 rebounds in Game 3 against Milwaukee two seasons ago, a blowout loss. And then there was the brutal performance against the Cavs this year, in which he scored only 16.8 points per game, shot only 11 free throws total in four games, was repeatedly abused on the defensive end, and got unceremoniously ejected after a lazy flagrant foul on Jordan Clarkson in the second half of Game 4.
Of those five playoff appearances, three ended in sweeps; the first, against Washington, nearly cost Casey his job and the last, against Cleveland, did.
And that leads us to the trade. Masai Ujiri felt the team had reached its ceiling and that it was time to break up the DeRozan-Lowry-Casey trio. When Casey was let go I felt the roster was going to come back intact, but Ujiri saw an opportunity to make the team better and he went for it. I can’t blame him for that, and I believe the trade was the right move at this time.
But just because it might be the right thing to do, doesn’t make it hurt less. Losing someone like DeMar DeRozan is tough. He really embodied the Raptors, not just in his desire to be here, but in the quiet way he went about his business, perhaps flew under the radar a bit, perhaps was underrated, perhaps in his need to “#proveem” every time some media outlet ranked him too low or counted the Raptors out. He was us.
It’s really, really hard to fathom this team without him. You can argue that Carter and Bosh were better overall players, and you can argue (as I do) that Lowry has actually been more important to this era of unprecedented success, in terms of play on the actual court.
But for everything he’s done off the court as well as on, for the way he repped the franchise, the way he worked, the way he conducted his business, I’ve got DeMar as the greatest Raptor of all time. Even with his less-than-stellar playoff resume, the fact this team was in the playoffs and competing every year was huge a step up from where they had been previously. This team was down, he lifted it and its fans to its greatest heights, and he never wanted to be anywhere else.
I hope that whatever rift has been created between him and the team is healed, and that he becomes the first Raptor to have his number retired. And I sure as hell hope that he receives the biggest damn ovation ever heard in the former Air Canada Centre when he returns with the Spurs this season.
I’ll be there, with my 2016 NBA All-Star jersey on, with DeRozan’s name sharing space with the proud Toronto skyline across the back, and I’ll be forever grateful for everything DeMar did for the team and the city.