One year later, Kawhi trade still leaves DeRozan in no-man’s land

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse discusses how the Raptors will adapt after the departure of Kawhi Leonard.

One year ago today, the Toronto Raptors pulled off the biggest and best trade in franchise history — not that it’s exactly the most extensive list — acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a 1st-round pick.

We all know how it worked out for the Raptors. They won a championship — a previously unthinkable notion and the best-case scenario (ok, second-best-case scenario. Retaining Leonard and keeping title hopes alive would have been best, obviously).

We certainly all know how it worked out for Kawhi. In helping carry Toronto to a title, he had a playoff performance that rivals some of the greatest and most dominant we’ve ever seen, climbing the ladder to become the NBA’s alpha dog and arguably its best player, while using his newfound power to orchestrate landscape-altering moves to lure Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers where he’s poised to continue his winning ways.

And we know how it worked out for Green, who parlayed his championship run in Toronto to a $15-million annual salary with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the new-look Los Angeles Lakers.

The trade opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the Raptors, and the team capitalized on just about every one of them, capturing the hearts of an entire nation of basketball fans, new and old, in the process.

But it came at a price for their most loyal star.

With possibly the exception of BFF Kyle Lowry, no player was as synonymous with the Raptors brand and organization as DeRozan. The price of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy was losing a model franchise player — one the team would happily pay time and time again.

But, one year later, DeRozan now finds himself fighting to stay out of no-man’s land when it comes to the NBA’s hierarchy, like the teams that aren’t good enough to compete for a title but too good to tank. Fitting, I suppose, given that’s where DeRozan’s Raptors teams stood for much of his Toronto tenure.

Ironically, this time last year it seemed like DeRozan stood to be a major winner in the deal. The Raptors’ all-time leading scorer was clearly hurt and felt betrayed — a feeling that may never go away — but the move to San Antonio was poised to be a godsend.

Sure, the Raps were getting the best player and improving their title odds considerably — two significant accomplishments in any trade. But, remember, Kawhi’s mysterious health status (he missed all but nine games in 2017-18 and the timetable to returning to full strength was unclear), coupled with the many reports of how badly he didn’t want to be in Toronto didn’t exactly inspire confidence.

DeRozan, meanwhile, was joining the most respected organization in sports, playing under a Hall of Fame coach who has built his name off of maximizing his players’ strengths, while the opportunities playing with an all-star like LaMarcus Aldridge – a calibre of big man DeRozan never teamed up with in Toronto — were equally promising.

DeRozan played great for San Antonio, particularly coming out of the gates last season. He continued to expand his game, becoming the Spurs’ key facilitator and averaging career-highs in assists (6.2) and rebounds (6.0) per game while also raising his field-goal percentage from 45.6 per cent in 2018 to 48.1 per cent last season — the highest since he was a rookie a decade ago.

But as the season wore on, some of the uglier realities of his new situation slowly set in. In San Antonio’s system, he posted his lowest usage rate since 2013, his fourth season in the league. His scoring dropped to 21 points per game, seven fewer than the 2017 season when Toronto reached the Conference Finals and the fewest since 2015.

The Spurs snuck into the playoffs as the seventh seed, tied with the eighth-seed Clippers with a 48-34 record. In the post-season it felt like Déjà vu, with the 29 year-old tasked with carrying San Antonio and falling short when the team lost a hard-fought seven-game series to the Denver Nuggets in the first round.

With the conference completely transformed this summer — the Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Rockets, and Jazz all improving greatly, and up-and-coming teams like the Kings, Pelicans, and Mavericks expected to take a step forward and compete for a playoff spot — it’s hard to see how DeRozan’s situation in San Antonio will improve. With two years left on his current deal, it’s also hard to see a team breaking the bank to anoint the four-time all-star as their go-to star the next time he enters free agency, like the Raptors were quick to do in 2017 when they inked him to a lucrative contract extension.

Meanwhile, as DeRozan appeared stuck in neutral, Raptors fans were too caught up in their own playoff run to pay attention. But they no doubt still wished for his success. After all, countless fans mourned his loss immediately following the trade, when responses like this filled my timeline:

Once the season began, it became a lot easier to move on from DeRozan.

Leonard’s next-level abilities were flat-out captivating — and clear from the very start. When he jumped this passing lane and stole the ball with his back to the passer you knew he was going to provide something special in Toronto.

The fans embraced Leonard like they had DeRozan. I mean, how could you not? But now, one year later, after a frenzied and furious summer of player movement, it’s just as easy to see how rare it is for a star player and franchise to commit to one another like DeRozan had in Toronto.

For that, he will always be a Raptor. Here’s hoping he didn’t leave his best days behind once he became a Spur.

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