Kawhi Leonard is a Raptor. DeMar DeRozan is not.
The 4:00 a.m. news on Wednesday morning was a lot to take in. The Raptors had just acquired one of the best players the NBA has ever seen, one that team president Masai Ujiri calls a “top 5 player in the league.”
We had also lost the heart of the team, the franchise, and the city. DeRozan, Toronto’s indispensable ambassador, will become a Spur.
DeRozan was Toronto’s All-Star. He was our All-star. He played the most games and minutes of any Raptor in franchise history. He beat out both Chris Bosh and Vince Carter for most points scored in franchise history by over three thousand total. For five straight years, he took the Raptors to the playoffs, and in 2016, the Conference Finals.
His impact off the court, and obvious love for the city was unparalleled. Regularly visiting Sick Kids Hospital was only one of the many ways DeRozan gave back to the city that had embraced him as one of their own for nearly a decade. His involvement with Lupus Canada inspired fans to raise both awareness and money for the debilitating disease. DeRozan’s own mother, Diane, has been suffering from the illness since before DeRozan was drafted, and it was one of the reasons he declared for the draft so early into his college career.
His All Star Reading Program provided over 3,000 books to low-income Toronto schools, and reminded students to always put their education first, by offering such incentives as tickets to Raptors games, autographs, and personal visits.
Last season, he started a league-wide dialogue about the importance of mental health and mental health initiatives. DeRozan’s openness to talk about his own battle with depression inspired current players Kevin Love and Kelly Oubre Jr., current coaches Tyronn Lue and Brad Stevens, and former players Keyon Dooling and Larry Sanders to be transparent about their own battles. One solitary admission allowed hundreds, thousands, and perhaps millions of people from every possible avenue to realize they are not alone. DeRozan saved more lives with one single tweet than he will ever be able to comprehend.
DeMar DeRozan took the Raptors as far as he could.
Kawhi Leonard’s accolades speak for themselves: a championship and Finals MVP trophy, back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, All-Rookie First Team, two-time All-NBA First Team, and three consecutive All-Defensive First Team selections. In 23 seasons there has yet to be a Raptor as decorated as Leonard.
Unlike DeRozan, Leonard does not allow fans or media even a glimpse into his private life. He is notoriously quiet, garnering him the epithet “Kawhiet Storm,” among others. It makes sense that Raptors fans who felt a personal attachment to DeRozan would be hesitant to subsume Leonard as one of The North. After all, no one really knows just who Leonard is. The excitement of obtaining a player with the credentials of Leonard, for many fans, is quickly overshadowed by the displeasure of having lost DeRozan. And that’s okay.
It’s okay to feel a sense of guilt alongside the excitement. On one hand, the Raptors have gained a player that can significantly improve their chances of an NBA Finals appearance. On the other hand, they lost a player who was the very definition of team loyalty, re-signing with the Raptors on July 1 at 12:01 a.m., the very minute he became a free agent.
It’s okay to be angry. DeRozan knew he wanted to spend his career in Toronto ever since he was drafted in 2009. He took pay cuts to help build a better team. He did not take a single meeting with any other team in free agency. He gave everything to the Raptors, and they sent him packing.
It’s okay to be nervous. Leonard only has this single season before he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. Can Ujiri and the rest of the front office convince him to stay? Will his quiet persona mesh well with the rest of the team?
It’s okay to be excited. Leonard is a generational talent. He is arguably the best player in the entire Eastern Conference, and my God, he plays for our Toronto Raptors. Watching the Raptors barely scrape the surface of the playoffs over the course of their 23 year history has grown tiresome for fans and the organization alike. Leonard brings so much to both ends of the floor that the Raptors have yet to experience. If the stars align, this could be the most exciting season in Toronto’s history.
It’s okay to feel conflicted. Did the Raptors cut off their hand to save the arm? Will Leonard’s skill set validate the departure of DeRozan? What if it doesn’t work — and it turns out that the organization gave up its heart and soul for nothing?
It’s okay to feel for DeRozan on a personal level. He invested everything into Toronto from the day he was drafted. No longer will he be playing beside his best friend. No longer will he have the relationships he’s built over the last nine years. We will all be wondering — after he gave us so many moments of humanity — how DeRozan is handling the transition of becoming a Spurs player.
On the bright side, a flight from San Antonio to Los Angeles is only three hours, whereas a flight from Toronto to Los Angeles is over five. With two young daughters, and two ailing parents, being closer to family will be a blessing for the entire DeRozan family.
Outside of the Toronto Raptors, there isn’t a team that values their players as much as the Spurs organization. Gregg Popovich has been the head coach of the Spurs for 22 years. Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and Manu Ginobili — still playing into his forties — spent their entire careers with the organization. These careers speak volumes about the culture that the Spurs have created.
No one knows what the upcoming season will bring, for the Raptors or for their one-time hero, DeRozan. No one knows if this trade was Toronto’s best move or its biggest blunder in franchise history. What is known, however, is that Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster took a risk. They gave up their greatest to get the best.
You don’t have to choose between the Raptors and DeRozan. Perhaps it will be relieving to cheer for DeMar on a team that you aren’t emotionally invested in. You can watch the Spurs and cheer unapologetically for DeRozan as a player and as a human. He’s earned it.
You can watch the Raptors and burst with excitement at the spectacle that is Kawhi Leonard. You can wear your DeMar DeRozan jerseys when the Raptors play the Spurs, and give him a standing ovation so loud it can be heard from the top of the CN Tower every time he touches the ball. There won’t be a person in the building who doesn’t understand.
The Toronto Raptors gained a talent this country has never seen. They also lost a great basketball player, but they lost an even better man.