Following the biggest — and perhaps most divisive — trade of his career, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri stepped off a transatlantic flight, headed straight from the airport to the Scotiabank Arena in downtown Toronto, and addressed the media for the first time since trading DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard.
Here’s a recap of what Ujiri said of DeRozan’s departure, selling the Raptors to Leonard, and the short and long-term risks he took on in transforming his team this summer:
Ujiri began his press conference with an apology to DeMar DeRozan for a “gap in communication” when the two spoke at the NBA’s Summer League in Las Vegas last week.
That conversation, which Ujiri confirmed took place, was a major of topic of conversation in the aftermath of the deal that sent DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round pick to the Spurs for Leonard and veteran shooting guard Danny Green.
DeRozan believed that he had been assured by Ujiri that he wasn’t going to be traded, and took to the news of the deal hard. As one source close to him told Sportsnet’s Michael Grange, DeRozan had felt “lied to.”
“Maybe I should have handled it better,” Ujiri said on Friday. “Maybe my mistake was talking to him about what we expected going forward from him. Not a trade, but what I expect from him going forward.
“If there was a miscommunication there I do apologize to DeMar and his family and his representation.”
Ujiri praised DeRozan for what he brought to the Raptors organization over the past nine seasons.
“There’s no measure to what this kid has done,” he said. “We appreciate him and I promise we’re going to celebrate him in the best possible way I can,” a thought Ujiri echoed when asked about the notion of a future statue.
“He was unbelievably loyal to us. He has no faults. Our team just wasn’t at that level. If we’re honest with ourselves, everybody knows that.”
In an off-season in which he’s replaced two of the team’s figureheads in DeRozan and former head coach Dwane Casey, Ujiri stressed that those decisions were wearing, but took a moment to acknowledge the opportunities they were given in Toronto.
“I hate to be defensive here,” Ujiri said, “but I can also say that when I came here I gave them a chance. I could have done anything I wanted. I could have let the coach go, traded players. I’m hoping that they rode out on a high horse. I feel proud of them and what they did.”
“I understand sports. Sports is about winning. I have a mandate to win and that’s what I want to do: put the Toronto Raptors in a position to win. But I acknowledge there’s no measurement for what DeMar Derzan has done for this organization.”
A new era — with new challenges
“That being said,” Ujiri pivoted, “it’s onto another chapter. We’re excited to welcome Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to our fold. On paper, we feel we have a team that can compete in the east and hopefully to compete for a championship in this league. That’s why we play sports. To win, and compete for a championship.”
Ujiri called the Raptors’ newest superstar a “top five NBA player” who can help elevate the team and its goals.
Leonard is coming off a season in which he missed all but nine games due to a right quad injury, and while Ujiri wouldn’t speculate on his future health status he said that the 27-year-old former Finals MVP will be undergoing his physical within the next few days.
He also made clear that if there weren’t questions surrounding Leonard’s injury and subsequent recovery, the Raptors wouldn’t be in a position to land a player of his calibre.
“Without all this medical drama, we have no chance of talking to a player like that — zero. He’d be in San Antonio and there’d be no chance to get him.”
But the biggest question surrounding Leonard is whether or not he will re-sign in Toronto once his contract expires after the upcoming season. Ujiri acknowledged the risk but mentioned he had spoken to Leonard and his camp twice over the phone since the trade went down, and is confident in his pitch.
“I think we have a good game plan,” Ujiri said. “I think there’s a lot to sell here. Our team, culture, ownership, city. We have everything except a championship.
“There is something about this place that reaches out to the whole world. We’re proud of that and will continue to sell that and hopefully its of appeal to not only him but NBA players.”
Knowing the risks
For Ujiri, trading for Leonard was an opportunity he couldn’t pass on after seeing little post-season progress over the last two seasons with his previous core.
“We’ve been doing this for how many years? You can’t keep doing the same things over and over again. When you get a chance to get a top-five player — which doesn’t happen very often — you have to jump on it. We’ve built it as much as we can. This opportunity came up for us and we had to jump on it.”
There are inherent risks involved, but as he put it: “The risks are what puts people above.”
He mentioned that the Raptors are still open for business, and that he and the front office won’t be shy to capitalize on any other opportunities that arise on the trade market.
“If any other moves come our way to help us get better, win a championship, we have to look at that because there is a certain window. We acknowledge that.
“I’m willing to take risks. My team is willing to take risks.”