TORONTO – From now until a very long time from now the Toronto Raptors have an answer for that essential question: What does it mean to be a Raptor?
A cynic might think the answer doesn’t matter. That putting a bunch of talented guys in matching jerseys is enough; that the most talent wins.
It does matter. The NBA is so competitive that teams that can’t pull themselves together and find a greater cause and meaning than each individual players’ narrow self-interest are doomed to miss their potential. It’s proven over and over again.
Which is why DeMar DeRozan reaching an agreement on a five-year deal worth $137.5 million with the Raptors in the wee hours of Canada Day morning is great news. Huge news. Franchise-changing news.
The precise structure of the deal — which comes in about $15.5-million under what the maximum amount DeRozan could have signed for — was still being worked out early Friday morning and the timing of the actual signing is another variable. Inking it right away puts the Raptors over the cap and limits them to using the mid-level and bi-level exceptions to fill holes at power forward and back-up small forward.
Pushing the signing date out a bit leaves the Raptors with about $7 million in cap room and the option to clear more space if they can or choose to find takers for the likes of Terrence Ross and others.
But in the big picture, what this means on the floor is plain and important. DeRozan turns 27 this summer, never gets hurt, and enters the early stages of his prime as a two-time all-star. He was one of only eight players in the NBA to average at least 23 points, four rebounds and four assists last season, a list that started with Stephen Curry and LeBron James and ended with Damian Lillard.
He’s shown the determination to improve nearly every season and given that he shot a career-best 34 per cent from three on the year and an encouraging 40 per cent from deep in a three-month stretch beginning in January, there is reason to believe he’s got more room to grow offensively. There is certainly upside defensively, too.
He’s not James or Curry or Kevin Durant or even Kawhi Leonard. He might not even be the Raptors’ MVP, given the all-around work Kyle Lowry puts in most nights, but he’s an elite scorer who is absolutely not scared of the moment.
In my book the most impressive thing DeRozan accomplished this past season wasn’t fighting through his post-season struggles to average 32, four and four in the Raptors’ two home wins over the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, but that in Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers – a game the Raptors absolutely had to win to advance past the first round for the first time in 15 years – DeRozan took 32 shots, making only 10.
Not pretty and the Raptors’ next stage as a team will be having other players feel comfortable taking on that responsibility and DeRozan sharing it, but that he was willing to shoulder that load at that moment spoke volumes about his willingness to risk failure in order to succeed. His 13-point burst in three minutes of the third quarter was the defining moment of the game and allowed the Raptors’ best-ever season to keep going.
But it’s off the floor, in ways hard to quantify, that this signing is even more meaningful.
We’re now through two generations of players who have come to Canada, to Toronto and liked it. It’s miles – kilometres – from the backwater status it had in the franchise’s early days.
The city is cool, the team is good, and the franchise is exceptionally well run. If you work in the NBA and you don’t know those things, you’re a fool.
But DeRozan might be the first Raptor to ever make up his mind that he wanted to spend all of the best years of his career here. He had his hometown Los Angeles Lakers waiting on him and maybe the Miami Heat and certainly his old general manager Bryan Colangelo would have paid him richly to help him steer the Philadelphia 76ers to respectability.
But that’s not what he wanted. DeRozan wanted to be identified with the franchise and the city. He’s not a speculator trying to flip properties for personal gain. He’s taken ownership, joined the neighbourhood watch committee and hosted street parties.
It took someone with some vision and maybe a little bit of a rebel’s spirit to take that stance to heart. DeRozan can come across as laid back and a little sleepy-eyed at times, but he’s a fiercely independent person with no fear of commitment, or of going where others haven’t.
Here’s what DeRozan told me about his being a Raptor-for-life for a column I wrote nearly two years ago when his long view on the Raptors was taking shape:
“After Vince [Carter] left it was a team that no one paid attention to. Everyone heard that … no one wanted to play here, no one wanted to come here. After Chris [Bosh] left it was just so on and so forth,” he said.
“Me personally, I never looked at anything like that. I’m different from everybody. I don’t care what other people’s opinion is. A million people could tell me something and I’m going to believe my own opinion.”
For some – or most – being drafted to an NBA outpost would be accompanied by some trepidation. For DeRozan, it’s been career affirming.
“It’s different … but I never complained about anything,” he said. “I just came in, did my job and wanted to be part of something where there was nothing until there was something, and I feel great about it.”
“I never wanted to be the guy, when I’m finished, that has four different team jerseys hanging up in my house saying I played for them, I played for them, I played for them,” he explains. “If I could finish my career here and say I did everything here, I’d feel more accomplished than doing it every other place.
“I take pride when I come in here and there’s a division title hanging up, that’s going to be here forever and I had a part in that. There’s going to be more to come for a franchise that don’t have everything the Garden might have or the Staples Center might have … I want to be part of something that can go on longer than my career.”
The next time a potential franchise cornerstone gets quizzed about how much they really want to be in Toronto, DeRozan’s emphatic, unequivocal clarity will be the standard.
“Did so-and-so say he ‘really wanted’ to play in Toronto? Or did he say he ‘wanted to die here, in his uniform?’”
That’s why DeRozan was so believable when he made his heartfelt pledge about staying here after the season. It was simply a reiteration of what he’d been saying all along.
Did the Raptors over-pay in giving him an average of $27.5-million a year for the next five years? There are those who will argue it was too much money for a wing player who shoots just 28 per cent from three, has long lapses defensively and – based on recent history – commits Toronto to playing a more iso-heavy brand of basketball than is common of late.
But DeRozan will improve his weaknesses; his history a testament to that and as the salary cap rises his overall impact on the Raptors’ payroll will soften.
What won’t change is that in DeRozan, the Raptors have an elite player who wants to have his jersey retired at the Air Canada Centre; who has been a central figure in the best era in the franchise’s often tattered history; who is already Toronto’s all-time leader in wins and will leave the Raptors as the all-time leading scorer, games played and playoff wins.
Will he win a title here? Maybe, but the odds are always long in the NBA. But by the time this deal is done DeRozan will have set the bar so high for the next guy that only a championship will do.
Until then DeRozan will be the standard by which all that come after him will be measured.