The general consensus around last night’s performance by the Raptors in San Antonio is clear: it sucked. The Raps were beaten up, shook, rim-rocked, shell-shocked, and every other descriptor one would care to apply to the method in which the Spurs defeated them. We’d hoped it would be a different way, but, sadly, it was not.
That’s just the text of the game, however — a humdrum performance by one team, an excellent effort by another, a win, a loss, a January NBA game coming and going, on to the next one. It’s in the subtext — the glaring, loud, obvious subtext — that we care about this game between the Raptors and the Spurs at all. And in doing so, we come to the point in which the Raptors now find themselves, with the karmic balance around the team balancing back to something resembling level.
Before we reflect on Thursday night’s loss, let’s go back to the event that directly led to the whole situation: the trading of DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard, a swap of two face-of-the-franchise players that has dramatically altered both the Raptors and Spurs and inextricably linked them for the foreseeable future — or for all time.
(Note: Before we continue, we’re going to just talk of the trade as if it was a one-for-one swap. I know Danny Green, Jakob Poeltl, and a stack of cash were also involved, but the emotive and karmic forces we’re dealing with here care far less about them — even if, in the case of Green, his on-court production has become extremely important for Toronto and alters the overall equation.)
The truth is, while the Raptors most definitely won the trade of Kawhi for DeRozan, they had to spend a ton of karmic capital to do so. DeRozan was, of course, the most loyal Raptor of all time, and a player talented enough to have that distinction mean something. (There are a lot of other players who were also loyal to Toronto, but a dude like Jerome Williams doesn’t exactly move the needle forever.) By trading him the way they did, the Raptors signalled a level of ruthlessness they’d heretofore never had as a franchise. Led by Masai Ujiri, perhaps the shrewdest big-time operator out there, Toronto was no longer going to be on the bad end of deals, or watch superstar players walk away for nothing (or worse than nothing if we’re talking about Eric Williams, Aaron Williams, and the ghost of Alonzo Mourning). When these Raptors come calling, they are to be feared.
But in jettisoning DeRozan, the Raptors also upset the karmic balance around the team, that inexplicable force that somehow maintains order across the universe. (I’m not going to explain karma here, Wikipedia can do that.) After nine seasons of toil, by almost any metric, DeRozan had been good for Toronto, in both word and deed. He worked hard and created many positive memories we can enjoy to this day. Say what you will about the final outcome of all that effort, DeRozan will always remain a net positive for the Raptors. Which makes his exile all the more cruel. It follows then, from the principles of karmic reasoning, that bad things now have to happen to the Raptors — like, say, DeRozan going for his first career triple-double in a victory over his former team.
What’s more, the Raptors also fired long-time (and loyal) coach Dwane Casey this past summer. Now, we’ve picked apart Casey’s coaching abilities over the past few years, but, like DeRozan, he was generally a force for good in Toronto. He lent the franchise credibility, and instilled in it a sense of professionalism and pride that endures to this day. For the Raptors to lose to the Pistons, Casey’s new team, in the way they did — giving up a 19 point lead and losing on a last second shot — lends further credence to this spiritual conceit. To cast off a player such as DeRozan, to dismiss a coach like Casey, suggests a karmic bill coming due for Toronto — one they must repay. (To this we could even add the Raptors’ relative injury luck over the past season compared to this year.) Through this lens, it becomes easier to see how the Raptors could be dealt such humbling blows during a season in which they are supposed to be dominant.
For his part, Leonard fits quite neatly into the karma equation too. He burned bridges so thoroughly in San Antonio, salting the earth behind him with nary a word or glance back, that it’s impossible to imagine a scenario where he would not suffer some sort of humiliation. Last night against the Spurs, Kawhi was mostly quietly — he took only 13 shots, grabbed one board, missed another two 3s — and for the first time was given absolutely none of the respect he’d earned over the years as a lethally proficient basketball player. In short, the fans in San Antonio booed him mercilessly. Now, Spurs fans may still privately appreciate everything Leonard has done for the franchise, but in forcing his way out the way he did, Kawhi also earned their scorn. That’s just how karma works.
Fortunately, there is a corner to turn here for all parties involved. The Spurs will continue to enjoy good guy DeRozan, and have now won 11 of their last 14 games, signalling to all that they aren’t quite done yet. They’re a far cry from a championship, but they have at least given their fans something to cheer about. The Raptors, meanwhile, can eventually right their ship. The players currently injured will heal, the mood around DeRozan (and Casey, for that matter) will eventually brighten as they continue to move on, and Kawhi will likely rediscover his place in the universe. After all that, the Raptors will be made whole again both physically and spiritually.
Will all of this happen before the coming post-season, or before Leonard’s free agency decision in July? As always, only time will tell. But considering the Raptors’ long history of abject misery — year after year of losing basketball, terrible injuries, brutal trades, bone-headed draft pick selections, and everything else — maybe the karmic balance will work in Toronto’s favour after all.