DeRozan’s reaction to trade won’t impact bigger picture for Raptors

Raptors president Masai Ujiri discusses how difficult the human element of his job was, in trading away DeMar DeRozan, but he's trying to win, and couldn't pass up the chance to bring in a top 5 player in the league.

The other sneaker was eventually going to drop, DeMar DeRozan would tell his side of the story and the Toronto Raptors and Masai Ujiri would be left with no choice but to take the high road.

That was the inevitable aftershock that was going to reverberate after last week’s earthquake that saw the Raptors icon dealt to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard.

It arrived Tuesday night by way of a sit-down interview DeRozan gave to ESPN’s Chris Haynes in Los Angeles.

The question is how widely the tremors will be felt?

Not surprisingly – given his first Instagram post read, “Be told one thing & the outcome another, ain’t no loyalty in this game” – DeRozan didn’t hold back in his view that he was misled by Ujiri in advance of the trade.

“I felt like I wasn’t treated ­– with what I sacrificed for nine years – with the respect that I thought I deserved. By just giving me the say so of letting me know something’s going on or it’s a chance. That’s all I wanted. That’s all I wanted,” DeRozan said in the interview.

“I’m not saying, ‘You don’t have to trade me’ or … just let me know something is going on because I sacrificed everything. Just let me know. That’s all I asked. Everybody know I’m the most low-maintenance person in the world. Just let me know, so I can prepare myself for whatever my next chapter is, and I didn’t get that.”

DeRozan went on to suggest that Ujiri’s argument that the DeRozan-era Raptors had reached their ceiling and something had to be done to shake up the mix was ‘some B.S.’ and questioned Ujiri’s sincerity as he carefully crafted a family-type culture around the club they combined to lead to five straight playoff appearances.

“I mean, when you use the word ‘family,’ ‘brother’ or whatever, things other people use lightly … for me, once you use that term, I stick by that term. I stand by that term,” DeRozan added.

Whether DeRozan is justified in his view that Ujiri somehow misled him about the likelihood or even the possibility of being traded with three years left on a contract that the two-time All-NBA player signed with the hope that he would spend his entire career with the Raptors probably depends on the gap between what was communicated and what each party wanted those communications to mean.

That there was a ‘gap’ was Ujiri’s explanation at his press conference last week: “I think maybe my mistake was saying there was nothing imminent at the time. I apologize to them if it was a mistake.”

Without a deposition and a time-stamped transcript, we’ll probably never know or understand the complete picture of the communication between Ujiri, DeRozan and DeRozan’s agent Aaron Goodwin.

But a number of agents I’ve communicated with have described Ujiri as upfront and transparent as a matter of habit. And make no mistake: most communications between an executive and his players that relate to contracts or player movement take place through agents to avoid miscommunications and hard feelings that sensitive business discussions can sometimes bring about.

And those with clients who might be on the move that have been on the receiving end of texts from Ujiri relate the same story: messages that are on point, clear and honest about what range of possibilities might be, for example.

It only makes sense. An executive in Ujiri’s position can’t last if they get in the habit of making promises they can’t keep, so better to keep things open-ended and avoid making promises altogether.

Which doesn’t mean DeRozan’s disappointment or frustrations with how the trade went down are without basis. Perceptions count. If Ujiri suggested DeRozan and his agent would be kept in the loop if things started moving and they weren’t, it could be cause for hard feelings.

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In a perfect world, I’m sure Ujiri would have flown to Los Angeles and told DeRozan in person, but that’s not realistic. Further complicating things, Ujiri was several time zones away in Kenya as all of this was happening.

There was a reason Ujiri’s first comments after the trade were phrased as an apology, but an apology for what?

For misleading DeRozan’s camp? Or more likely for the fact that would have been nearly impossible for Ujiri to keep them abreast of developments as they unfolded?

Put yourself in Ujiri’s shoes: once a deal begins picking up momentum the last thing he wants to do is have word of it leak out, even inadvertently.

Why give another team a chance to trump their offer?

An even bigger consideration: What if the deal falls through – would Ujiri really want to let DeRozan know a trade was imminent only to have to walk it back?

And difficult trades break down all the time. In Ujiri’s immediate experience with the Denver Nuggets and trading Carmelo Anthony, it was widely expected that Anthony was going to be traded to the New Jersey Nets only for the deal to fall apart at the last minute. It got so close that the Nets wanted the Nuggets to hold the key figures in the deal out of the lineup for an afternoon game. The decision wasn’t reached soon enough and the players all played anyway saving all involved awkwardly trying to explain why after the deal ended up cratering.

More recently, former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Bryan Colangelo believed he had a deal to trade Jahlil Okafor to Portland before the trade deadline in 2017 and even went so far as removing him from the lineup for two games only to have the trade fall apart, leaving an embarrassed Okafor back in Philadelphia.

The minute Ujiri began entertaining trading the quintessential Raptor, he had no choice but to make sure he got it right the first time. If that means not being able to bring DeRozan or his agent into the loop as the trade gears began to grind, that’s the cost of doing business, harsh as that can seem at times.

How DeRozan’s response to the deal affects the Raptors’ reputation or Ujiri’s long-term is hard to measure, but chances are it won’t.

Time starts the healing process and winning will finish it.

If the Leonard deal works out, Ujiri will properly be regarded as the fearless kind of executive willing to take big risks for big rewards. Whatever miscommunication or perceived miscommunication between him and the player he decided to trade to help his team reach its next stage will get swept aside if Leonard leads the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals and beyond.

If the deal fails, the challenges facing Ujiri and the Raptors will be far more pressing than debates about what he should have told DeRozan or when, and his reputation will be the least of Ujiri’s concerns.

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