Continuity has been an integral theme in the life of DeMar DeRozan.
His “entourage”, if you can call it that, barely extends outside his cousin and a close childhood friend, and it remains the same today, when the Toronto Raptors officially inked their star shooting guard to a five-year contract extension worth a reported $139 million, as when he entered the league seven years ago. Likewise, each off-season he trains with the same coach he’s worked with since the summer of his draft year in 2009, and has been with his fiancée, Kiara, a fixture at Raptors home games, since they met during his lone season at USC.
DeRozan didn’t meet with a single team other than Toronto during free-agency, staying true to character. Needless to say, it’s worked well for him to this point, as both his on-court success in the NBA and his upcoming bank statement will attest.
If this off-season is any indication, Masai Ujiri and the Raptors are hoping that continuity will pay off for them, too.
While most of the East has undergone fairly dramatic changes (whether it actually results in noticeably improved competition remains to be seen), the Raptors have largely stood pat this summer, save for the signing of power forward Jared Sullinger and their two draft picks, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam.
Whether by choice or necessity, the 2015-16 Raptors will look and function an awful lot like the team we saw last year. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise. For one thing, one of the first thing’s Ujiri said after the Raptors were bounced from the Eastern Conference Finals by the eventual champion Cavaliers was that his no.1 priority this off-season would be to bring back DeRozan.
Doing so, of course, would mean a serious financial commitment one that, given the extensions of Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross kicking in for the 2015-16 season as well as relatively sizeable contracts for DeMarre Carroll and Kyle Lowry still on the books meant that the Raptors would be fairly cash strapped, particularly given the record-setting free agent market this summer.
And make no mistake about it: The Raptors made the right move. Bringing back DeRozan was always the team’s best-case scenario. He’s the team’s go-to scorer (one of the top-ten in the NBA) continues to get better year after year (less than a month shy from his 27th birthday he still has a ways to go before reaching his apex as a player), and has always been vocal in his desire to remain a Raptor throughout his career— something fans haven’t heard from a star player in this market, well, ever.
What’s more, there was no real alternative for the Raptors. There were certainly no other realistic free agent targets who could replace DeRozan’s production, and the fact that the Raptors tried very hard to land Paul Milsap in a trade (I’ve heard from sources that they were incredibly close to making it happen) but ultimately didn’t have the assets to make it worthwhile for either team.
The Raptors would have almost surely taken a step back should DeRozan have opted to sign elsewhere. Fortunately for them, the thought never entered his mind. “I feel like we always got the short end of the stick,” DeRozan said of his early impressions on the Raptors today, perched in front of a large crowd, dressed in a finely-tailored navy suit worthy of a man who’s annual salary just increased by a cool $15 million between the time he fell asleep last night and woke up this morning. “And I took pride in wanting to change that.”
He says he knew he wanted to play out his career in a Raptors uniform from the day he was drafted, and many lean years where the franchise looked to be stuck in the mud in the post-Chris Bosh era did nothing to dissuade him. As he put it: “I don’t run when things get tough.”
DeRozan is the type of player and person worth rewarding, and the Raptors reward for doing so will be a continuation of winning basketball. In other words: A no-brainer on all levels. Hell, even his new salary, which was difficult for many to wrap their heads around, looks pretty good compared to other massive deals handed out this summer. DeRozan is expected to make $27 million next season, which is, well, a lot, but it’s only three million more than Nic Batum, Chandler Parsons, and Harrison Barnes will make. Everything in context.
The biggest change for the Raptors— in every sense of the word— comes in the form of Sullinger, who also met with the media on Thursday and joins the Raptors on favourable terms. For one, his contract is safe— one year at a minimal cap hold, the team’s $5.6 million exception.
But more importantly, Sullinger comes to the Raptors hungrier than ever having swung and missed on an opportunity to land the type of major-money contract many of his NBA counterparts signed this summer. It should only stand to benefit the Raptors, who are not only hoping that a commited Sullinger will work harder than ever to improve his conditioning— long the biggest knack against him— but also that he takes out his frustrations on the court.
This is another contract season for the former top big man prospect coming out of college, and while the Raps aren’t currently in a financial situation to lock him up on a big deal, they’ll find a ton of value this year from him trying to prove to the rest of the league that he’s worth a lot more money than he’s currently making.
It’s a good mix of incentives for a player that already projects to be a starter and should provide good spacing and another physical, active rebounder while helping to fill this team’s most glaring hole at power forward.
Sullinger aside, at present Toronto’s depth chart looks very familiar heading into next season. Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph will anchor the backcourt. DeRozan will command touches on the wing, while an improved Norman Powell and Terrence Ross are nice plug-and-play sparks off the bench. Carroll, who made nice strides in the playoffs, is looking to play the whole season this time around and prove why he was such a welcome addition this time last year.
In the frontcourt, the Raptors are hoping Valanciunas picks up from where he left off in the playoffs and continues to establish himself as a true force down low (always worth reminding: He’s just 24). Meanwhile, with Sullinger in the fold, Patterson should be able to comfortably slide back to his most effective role as a versatile bench weapon who still stands to earn plenty of crunch time minutes. If Summer League is any indication (to be fair, it barely is) the rookie Poeltl looks ready to soak up some spot minutes at backup centre, while Bebe Nogueira should come into this season improved.
It’s an interesting mix, a unique blend of veterans and young developing talent that, despite the changes in the East, still find themselves as, pretty clearly, the second-best team in the conference.
Throughout his career, Ujiri has been lauded for often going against the grain when it comes to team-building in the NBA. Turns out this summer he was most different by being the same.
It’s worked for DeRozan. Time will tell how it works out for his team.