“Ain’t no loyalty in this game.” – DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan is salty.
The Toronto Raptors dealt DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
The move comes after the Raptors won a franchise-best 59 games during the 2017-18 regular season. The team outpaced the Boston Celtics (55 wins), Philadelphia 76ers (52 wins) and Cleveland Cavaliers (50 wins) to become the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, a guy by the name of LeBron James came to town during the second round of the playoffs and swept Toronto back across the northern border. For the past few seasons, it seemed that the mere sight of James made Raptors players shake in their boots sneakers.
Even though “King” James abdicated his throne in Cleveland to head West, Toronto’s front office still wasn’t convinced it could compete for an NBA championship. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are expected to duel it out for Eastern Conference supremacy next season.
So despite winning the most games in franchise history, 2017-18 NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey was fired at the season’s end. Now the Raptors have traded DeRozan, a four-time All-Star and the face of the franchise.
The move represents a calculated risk for the Raptors. Yes, DeRozan is an All-Star, but Leonard is a superstar.
The six-foot-seven small forward may only have two All-Star appearances but he also has an NBA championship and NBA Finals MVP award attached to his name.
It’s no secret that Leonard was unhappy in San Antonio. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year played just nine games this past season due to a hamstring injury. According to ESPN, Leonard believed that the team misdiagnosed his injury, as well as a wrist injury in 2014.
The relationship soured after Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich and former player Tony Parker gave interviews insinuating that Leonard should have been healthy enough to return to the court.
Leonard eventually demanded a trade. His preferred destinations were the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers. The Spurs engaged in talks with the Lakers, but there was little traction after the Lakers refused to include Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball. The Spurs publicly stated that they would only be willing to move Leonard to an Eastern Conference team.
The Celtics and 76ers got into the mix, but were also unwilling to include talented young players in the deal. Leonard is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2018-19 season, so it never made sense for contending teams to deal away top, young assets for a guy who has made it clear that he wants to play in L.A.
So why did the Raptors decide to trade an All-Star in the prime of his career? Call it the Barack Obama strategy: hope and change.
Since the East is now ripe for the taking, the Raptors are hoping that Leonard can push them over the top. If healthy and engaged, Leonard is head and shoulders above DeRozan, especially on the defensive side. Theoretically, if the Raptors won 59 games with DeRozan, the team could turn into a 60-win team with Leonard, especially with James out of the way.
Though it’s evident that Leonard’s top preference is to play for the Lakers, the same was said about Paul George last summer. The Indiana Pacers traded George to the Oklahoma City Thunder after he made it clear that he would not re-sign in Indiana when he became a free agent. The Thunder acquired “PG-13” knowing full well that the organization would have just one year to win him over and convince him to stay with OKC to play alongside Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder’s gamble paid off. George surprised many by signing a four-year, $137 million extension to stay in Oklahoma City.
Toronto’s front office is hopeful for a similar scenario. Even if the idea of Leonard remaining a Raptor for more than a single-season is far-fetched, it’s doubtful that the organization will shed too many tears if he walks.
Remember, Raptors execs were convinced that the team had plateaued with DeRozan and Casey. Even if Leonard chucks deuces to Toronto next summer, his departure will free up a max contract slot for next season’s free agency class. That means the franchise could potentially chase Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, Kemba Walker or DeAndre Jordan.
Forget the wins. Forget the accolades. Forget the memories.
Owners and general managers have short memories when it comes to the prospect of improving a franchise. It’s why Boston dealt Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland. It’s why Memphis allowed Zach Randolph to land in Sacramento. It’s why Casey and DeRozan are gone after such a successful season.
The Spurs did well by bringing DeRozan on board. Along with LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Dejounte Murray, the Spurs should field a playoff team, somewhere between a No. 4 and No. 6 seed in the West. The team won’t contend for a title, but nobody will if the juggernaut Warriors stay healthy.
Speaking of DeRozan, the full quote referenced earlier, came from an Instagram post (since deleted) he made upon learning of the trade.
“Be told one thing & the outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing…[sic]”
Follow Ishmael and In the Clutch on Twitter @ishcreates.