“It’s another big day for the Raptors.”
That was how Raptors president Masai Ujiri opened his press conference in the wake of the biggest, most surprising, trade in franchise history. As has been breathlessly reported for the past two days, the Raptors have traded franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for 2014 Finals MVP winner Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs. There are still a lot of questions to ask and answer, still a lot to look forward to in Toronto, but today was the first step: Masai had to address the media post-trade.
And it’s telling that after Ujiri called today a big day, he had to quickly acknowledge — and apologize to — DeMar DeRozan, the player who has been through it all with the Raptors.
I’ll hand this over to Masai himself now, as today’s press conference went about as well as could be expected. Watch below.
Setting aside the (apparently ongoing) acrimony with DeRozan, Ujiri said all the right things about what he hopes to see with Kawhi. The two-time All-Star isn’t in Toronto yet, hasn’t undertaken his physical yet, and while it’s been reported he’s not interested in being in Canada, Ujiri says that nothing like that has been expressed to him. In other words, there’s a chance Masai and the Raptors organization can still sell Leonard on the idea of playing, and staying, in Toronto. (And for Kawhi, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to sit out another year without a legit medical reason — the fines the Raptors could levy alone would be costly.) Masai is betting on Toronto, the city and franchise, as enticement enough.
So, assuming Kawhi will play, and even assuming he’ll stay in Toronto after one year, what kind of player are the Raptors getting? Naturally, Masai was asked about that too — what is Leonard’s medical status? As noted, Kawhi hasn’t undertaken a physical with the Raptors yet, but the organization has looked into some of the available medical information. To his credit, Ujiri went on to admit that without all of this injury drama, Toronto would not have had a shot to get a player widely considered to be one of the top five in the league. “Zero. You have no chance,” said Ujiri. “[Kawhi] would be back in San Antonio, and we would not have a chance to get him. This is why we have a chance, and this is the risk that you’re taking.”
There are still a lot of questions left unanswered. Is Toronto done with its roster building? Masai begged off answering that one. Has anyone with the team spoken to Kyle Lowry yet? Apparently not, which could be something to keep an eye on. How does new head coach Nick Nurse fit into all of this? The Raptors expect to compete to win the East, but we don’t know how yet.
And of course, we have to return to the recent turn of the Raptors from a supposedly super loyal franchise to a suddenly cut-throat one. There’s an argument to be made that this is the kind of thing a team has to do to win. You have to jump on opportunities when they come — because you never know if they’ll ever come again. There are countless examples of this happening in the NBA, and elsewhere in the world of pro sports. It’s all about winning.
In different sense, as Masai said, he was extremely loyal to the concept of the team he inherited back in 2013. Sure, there was an idea drawn in the sand of a rebuild, but it didn’t happen that way. Instead, Ujiri kept head coach Dwane Casey around, kept the core together, and eventually re-signed DeRozan to the mega contract he’s in the process of playing out. In that sense, Ujiri invested as much as he could in making it work with the Raptors.
If nothing else, the Leonard trade represents the change we knew was inevitable — be it through a rebuild or an eventual all-in high risk trade. And while bad feelings are perhaps also inevitable, Masai said of DeRozan (and Casey): “I’m hoping they rode out of here on a high horse.”
Masai’s words and apologies likely won’t be enough to stop the chatter about how Toronto may have done DeRozan dirty — but it’s the first step in a new age with the Raptors. Ujiri was absolutely correct to say that today is a big day for Toronto. It’s one that could lead to a very big year. Perhaps the biggest in franchise history.
Now, let’s get ready for the Kawhi Leonard era.