There are a lot of rough things to say about DeMar DeRozan’s departure from the Raptors and how it all went down. For one, he was told he wasn’t going to be traded and then got traded anyway in what seemed like a farcical end to a great era. For two, there’s the thinking behind parting ways with perhaps the most loyal player Toronto has ever had. DeRozan gave nine years of solid service and said “I am Toronto” after re-signing. Many, including DeMar himself, felt that should count for something. But the NBA is a business, and DeRozan had deficiencies that were perhaps holding the Raptors back from their full potential. So, much to his anguish, he got traded to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and the rest is history.
For Masai Ujiri, the DeRozan transition wasn’t as smooth as he would have liked, even if it was something that had to be done. Time after time, it seemed like DeRozan’s failings became present in the post-season. His production was erratic, he couldn’t land a three-ball, and his defense was often missing. But to think of DeRozan only in this way, while discounting his career record and the team-first mantra he thrived on, would be short sighted. You would also be missing a large quantity of DeRozan’s narrative and what he amounted in Toronto.
We are constantly reminded of the Raptors’ playoff woes and how DeRozan failed to fire. But it’s useful to remember that most NBA teams can relate. Not every franchise has a title, but all have (or had) good players who failed during important contests — playoffs or otherwise. Most recently, we watched MVP James Harden self-combust in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors. He went 2-of-13 from three in that game, and his team collapsed (despite being up 3-2 at one point in the series). It would be easy to say Harden didn’t deliver when it mattered most, and that he goes missing in playoffs. But like the DeRozan dialogue, it would be a shallow reading of what happened and miss the full picture.
In the heat of those painful moments, it’s easy to overlook all the good a player did just to get his team there in the first place. DeRozan was no different. As a durable All-Star warrior, leading scorer, and arguably the greatest Raptor ever, DeMar gets misunderstood solely as someone who went missing in action on the court when it mattered most. We forget what he accomplished to make the wins happen, and dish out the blame for the losses.
This is not how we should be thinking about DeRozan. Instead, let’s cast our minds back to the golden DeRozan times, the dynamic, out-of-your-seat exciting, silky, and effortlessly energetic times. There’s the 2016-17 season where he averaged 27.3 points per game. The same year he scored 30 plus points in his first five games to start the year, almost eclipsing Michael Jordan’s run of six straight games scoring 30 plus points in the 1986-87 season. There’s his explosion against the Bucks on New Year’s Day 2018, in which DeRozan went off for a franchise-best 52 points. Or we could just list off his general accomplishments: he’s a four-time NBA All-Star, he’s been a top 10 scorer in the NBA for four seasons, and he was an instrumental leader during the Raptors’ most recent breakthrough season, the 48 win run in 2013-14.
There are other great things you may have stored away in your memories of DeRozan, or things only you consider worthy DeRozan moments, like some mesmerizing dunk, or some wild Euro step, or how he used to high-five his imaginary teammates at the charity stripe. Some might still recall his McDonald’s All-American days or the 2009 Pac-10 Tournament MVP feat. There are hundreds of these moments that tell you all you need to know about DeRozan’s self-made legacy.
For Raptors fans, when you start to think about DeRozan, this is where your mind should go. He took to filling a huge void in Toronto and produced a steady stream of regular season consistency and wins. During his nine years in Toronto, he gradually became hard to shut down most nights. He was with the Raptors when they were losing way more than winning, and worked to see them ascend all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference. In the process, DeRozan became the soul of the franchise and created a new Raptors standard. It’s why, despite his flaws, his departure had such an impact among fans.
The fact is though, Masai had to make the call — and it was a tough one to make. In five years, the Raptors were swept three times out of the post-season. It was a sign that things weren’t working with Masai’s current vision. But DeRozan felt every bump in the road like a human being. He took the losses hard, and his personal slumps even harder. We could sit here and conclude that DeRozan was not a good player because he simply went missing during the playoffs, that those low moments eclipsed the nine years of toil and good times. But that would be unfair because without his day-to-day production and stoic leadership, who’s to say the Raptors would have even made it as far as they did?
Tonight, DeRozan takes on the Raptors in San Antonio for the first time since they parted ways. Call it a revenge game, or a redemption match, or whatever else. Just know Raptors fans will be watching to see their former hero line up against his replacement Kawhi Leonard. The NBA is a business and sometimes things just don’t make sense — even if sometimes they do.
We can only wait to see what Kawhi delivers or doesn’t deliver in the post-season to analyze whether or not the trade was worth it. It will remain difficult to judge because DeRozan’s foibles never quite added up. He provided so much more than what we remember during the Raptors’ playoff failures, even more than all those games he helped Toronto win. In his struggle, DeRozan provided a new face for the franchise.
And let’s not forget, as he says, most of his shots were good shots. It’s how the Raptors got here in the first place. That’s how we should remember DeMar DeRozan.