TORONTO – On a sunny Saturday morning near the lake, DeMar DeRozan pulled up a seat at a table with ‘We The North’ emblazoned across it, leaned into the microphone and delivered a love letter to the city of Toronto and basketball’s place in it.
It was only hours after the Toronto Raptors’ magical season came to an end; not long after LeBron James himself stood on the floor of the Air Canada Centre and seemed overwhelmed at the intensity of the passion and affection the crowd had for their team, even in defeat.
It’s a moment that should be preserved as long as possible, given what it’s taken to get here.
But in the NBA things move at the speed of light. The second after the final horn sounded, the most pivotal off-season in franchise history began, and the first question for the summer and the future centres around DeRozan, the two-time all-star who stands as Employee No.1 in the franchise’s slow and steady image makeover.
He’s going to decline the option on the final year of his contract, become a free agent, and no matter what happens will become richer than he ever could have imagined growing up mindful of gang violence on the outdoor courts of Compton, Calif.
But instead of being overwhelmed by the potential choices – being torn between financial opportunities and personal loyalties, and the tug of home and chances to win – DeRozan made the whole thing sound obvious, and simple.
He likes it here – always has. He wants to win here. He wants to stay.
“I don’t think so,” DeRozan said when asked if he thought there was a better situation for him than re-signing with the Raptors. “My mindset has always been Toronto. I always preached it. I was passionate about it when we were losing. When we were terrible, I said I’m going to stick through this whole thing and I want to be that guy who brings this organization to where it is now. I definitely don’t want to switch up after we win.”
There was no equivocation. No, ‘I haven’t thought about it.’ No, I’ll let my agent handle that.’
It wasn’t all the code words and whispers Raptors fans have come to know and learn that signals a star player is hoping to work their way out of town.
This was the native son of one of the NBA’s glamour markets who grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant – whose retirement just happens to leave the needy Los Angeles Lakers with a big hole in the their lineup at two guard and a bucket of money to spend – saying that he wants to stay with the Raptors.
DeRozan patterned a good portion of his game on the Lakers legend, but it turns out Bryant’s status as a ‘Laker for life’ that resonated more than any reverse pivot in the post, or any other of Bryant’s famous feats of footwork.
Staying with one franchise for his entire career? The idea energizes DeRozan. No Raptor has ever done it – unless you count some one-hit wonders whose lone NBA cup of coffee was in Toronto. But player drafted, developed and launched to stardom here? Not even close.
“I think that’s the most incredible thing you can do,” said DeRozan of the idea of going cradle to grave with one team. “Me personally. That’s awesome.”
The Raptors have reached a nearly astonishing moment in their roller-coaster history. More than the records set for wins and playoff wins and every other possible benchmark, this season marks their transition into an organization that stands for something, that has an identity and no longer needs to be explained to people around the NBA.
As various Raptors met with the media for one last time before dispersing – “have a great summer, don’t call me,” was Kyle Lowry’s joking farewell – every one of them spoke about how this season felt different than other seasons in their professional careers, this organization different and this city different. All in the best way possible.
“It’s just the locker room, the energy around the locker room,” said Bismack Biyombo, himself a pending free agent. “It was great. After practices, people would stay in the locker room and just have conversations. Sometimes the conversations would be kind of stupid but we would still have fun with it and enjoy it. People would come early before practice and just sit around the locker room, and then on the road.
“The whole thing, I’ve been in the league, but this is the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been in the league.”
Having come this far the question becomes ‘where next?’ And, this is the tricky part, is DeRozan the one to help them topple LeBron and then slay the dragons of the Western Conference?
The answer to that question ebbed and flowed among the fanbase as DeRozan alternately struggled and thrived in the playoffs. Even after his resurgence against Cleveland, DeRozan finished the Raptors’ playoff run as one of just four players in NBA history to shoot less than 40 per cent from the floor while taking more than 350 shots in one post-season. There are parts of his game that give pause, but he’s shown he can win, has made strides every year and he wants to be here.
What is the dollar value of all of that?
It’s clear that DeRozan loves Toronto and loves the organization with the kind of passion and pride that sports fans can only wish was shared by all athletes. When Chris Bosh left in the summer of 2010 DeRozan reassured the fan base via Twitter: “Don’t worry, I got us …”
And all he’s done is steadily improve his game since, turning himself into a two-time all-star and helping the Raptors – winners of 22 games in the season after Bosh left – to 31 playoff games over the past three seasons, more than the franchise had played in since its inception.
“I took pride in putting that Raptors jersey on when people counted us out or when people said, ‘Why go to Toronto? Why this, why, that, why this, why that?’ You hear it so much,” said DeRozan.
“That gave me the motivation to want to prove people wrong or prove critics wrong why this organization can’t be a winning organization. You know what I mean? I took pride in that a long time ago. And it’s crazy even now, I see people bring up a tweet I tweeted after Chris left. And I don’t even remember tweeting it, but I meant that. I really meant that. To see how far it came, that’s what it’s all about.”
But the Raptors’ standards have changed. No longer does a player’s willingness to be here automatically mean the Raptors will do anything to keep him.
As the NBA enters it’s bubble economy phase (the salary cap is expected to rise by more than $20 million this season and another $20 million the following year) DeRozan will be offered a maximum contract by at least one team – four years and roughly $107 million – and probably more.
The NBA grapevine is rife with intelligence saying that his hometown Lakers will offer him the moon. No one would be surprised if Bryan Colangelo – the man who drafted him – will try to lure him to the Philadelphia 76ers.
The question is whether he’ll get a maximum contract from the Raptors, which will clock in at five years and about $145 million, and if he doesn’t, will it test his loyalty beyond limits?
Every financial move the franchise makes sets off one domino against the next.
What impact does a max deal for DeRozan have on finding the wiggle room to keep Biyombo or find a replacement for Luis Scola or on down the list?
Would DeRozan keep a little less in the ultimate expression of loyalty to the franchise he’s served unfailingly for his entire seven-year career?
Would the Raptors risk alienating their 26-year-old homegrown star who really, really wants to stay here?
It will be a call that Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri will have to make. He hasn’t shown his hand.
It will be his job to put a price on DeRozan’s love.