Red flag Kawhi Leonard trade will be career-defining for Masai Ujiri

NBA insider Michael Grange speculates whether the Toronto Raptors will be better, once the trade that sends a package including DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard is made official.

For most of two decades the Toronto Raptors were a bad team in a cold, foreign place that couldn’t keep their best players.

Now they can send them away and believe they are a better team for it.

Call it progress. Call it betrayal.

Call it a new era.

The Raptors no longer employ DeMar DeRozan. They now have one of the very best players in the NBA in Kawhi Leonard under contract, although for how long and in what condition is another layer of intrigue after a deal that has rocked the NBA, the city of Toronto and will forever be a landmark moment in Raptors franchise history.

All of this before breakfast.

During DeRozan’s tenure with the team that drafted him in 2009, the perception of the city and the franchise changed dramatically for the better and the All-NBA guard from Compton drove that shift more than any player the club has ever had.

What impact Leonard will have is unknown, although it’s tantalizing on paper.

But you never had to guess with DeRozan. There was never any gamesmanship with him and his commitment to the city, the jersey and his craft. There was no hedging or coded language.

DeRozan wanted to be a Raptor for life and did nearly everything possible to prove that commitment on the floor, where you could always find him given his status as a modern-day NBA ironman. He showed up to work. In nine seasons he was never late for a team function.

He would give you 40 and a win on a Tuesday night in January in Memphis when no one else wanted to compete and he could give you 33 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four steals on the road in a momentum-shifting Game 4 win in a first-round playoff series in Milwaukee in May of 2016 – for my money the best game DeRozan played of his record 675 in a Raptors uniform.

But DeRozan has been shipped out of town, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer the centrepiece of a deal with the San Antonio Spurs to bring the disgruntled Leonard north.

Of all the iterations of the trade that have been bandied about in recent weeks, the one that landed Leonard is undoubtedly the most favourable for the Raptors.

In addition to acquiring Leonard, they will receive Danny Green — a defensively tough, playoff-hardened wing who has shot 39.5 per cent from three for his career. Meanwhile, the Raptors only had to give up centre Jakob Poeltl from their stable of up-and-coming young players – a significant coup given the upside of young wings OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, widely reported as Spurs targets – and a protected first-round pick in 2019 that will likely fall in the 25-30 range.

It is a good bit of business, but also proof that the NBA is a cold-blooded place with Masai Ujiri’s veins filled with Freon. A month ago he fired Dwane Casey — the most successful head coach in franchise history — and now he’s traded the closest thing the Raptors have ever had to a franchise icon, all on the heels of a franchise-record 59-win season and the best five-year run Toronto has ever had.

The personal costs are steep. A source close to DeRozan told Sportsnet the second-team All-NBA player was assured he wouldn’t be traded in a face-to-face meeting with Ujiri in Las Vegas:

“He was lied to.”

So while others can call the trade a win for Ujiri, DeRozan can quite rightly call it a betrayal:

“Be told one thing and the outcome another,” DeRozan said in the early hours of Wednesday morning on his Instagram story. “Can’t trust’em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out for a quick bit of nothing.”

For that reason and others it will be the defining moment of Ujiri’s career and marks the end of the Raptors’ innocence – to the extent any remains in pro sports or anywhere else, for that matter.

The interior of the Raptors dressing room features a white-tiled montage of the Raptors and their families. The message is clear and well-intentioned, but will ring hollower today.

The Raptors and their fans waited generations for an NBA star to embrace them and their city and lift their sorry team to new heights. Now he’s been traded in a high-stakes gambit that makes some sense on paper but could very well end up in an unmitigated disaster, given Leonard reportedly has no interest in playing in Toronto and has the option of bolting in the summer of 2019 as a free agent.

Ujiri now has to hope Leonard arrives healthy and engaged and can be convinced that spending the rest of his prime in Toronto is the best move for his career.

Given the ‘we’re loyal’ card won’t available to be played, it will be an interesting pitch.

The reasons for making the deal are obvious: At his best, Leonard is a better player than DeRozan and on the very short list of the best players in the NBA.

In 2014, he was the Finals MVP in the last championship of the Tim Duncan era and in 2015 and 2016 he was named the NBA’s defensive player of the year. In 2016 he finished second in the MVP vote and in 2017 he finished third. In a game that has evolved to value defensive versatility and offensive efficiency above all, the six-foot-seven Leonard – a career 39 per cent three-point shooter who can lock down the game’s best perimeter players on defence — embodies the ideal as much or more than any player in the sport.

DeRozan, for all his strengths, is not that player – defensively he’s too often been a liability and offensively his below-average three-point shooting has at times hampered the Raptors’ spacing.

But it’s not that simple. There are red flags everywhere.

A mysterious reoccurring quadriceps tendon injury limited Leonard – who has never played more than 74 games in a season – to just nine contests last season. There were reports that he didn’t trust the Spurs’ diagnosis and treatment plan, stayed away from the team while following his own rehab protocol and eventually seemed to lose the trust of some of his teammates, who began to question his commitment after he apparently missed a number of targeted return dates before finally closing the door on the season.

Subsequently, Leonard’s camp made clear the Los Angeles native’s desire to be traded to his hometown Lakers – or perhaps Clippers – using the leverage of his 2019 free agency and the prospect of losing one of the NBA’s best players for nothing.

How determined was Leonard to force a deal? The Spurs were in position to offer him a five-year, $219-million deal as of Monday. The most the Raptors will be able to offer him will be five years and $190 million, so his determination to leave San Antonio has already come with a $29-million price tag.

The most Leonard could get from another team in free agency next summer is four years and $141 million, so not signing with the Raptors could cost him nearly $50 million. That seems like a lot of money to leave on the table, but understanding what is driving Leonard’s agenda is impossible to know given that at the best of times he’s the NBA’s most inscrutable player.

DeRozan was never inscrutable. He put his ‘I heart’ Toronto on his sleeve from Day 1, never took it off and never planned to.

“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,” DeRozan said in the summer of 2016 when he was heading into free agency but didn’t even bother pretending he was entertaining the idea that he might leave.

“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 … to see how far it came, that’s what it’s all about.”

The Jeff Blair Show
Raptors-Spurs deal shows there's no room for loyalty when it comes to winning
July 18 2018

He wasn’t a perfect superstar – he sat on the bench in the fourth quarter of Game 6 in the Raptors’ series-clinching win over the Washington Wizards; he wasn’t on the floor as the Raptors were making their ill-fated comeback in Game 3 against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But he was the Raptors’ superstar. He took a ‘hometown’ discount in free agency, worked constantly to evolve his game, was all-in and took responsibility for his performance in good times and bad. And now he’s gone.

The upside? Leonard shows up, buys in, stays healthy, plays at an MVP level and the Raptors make it to the NBA Finals for the first time. Leonard finally cracks a smile and signs on long-term, helping the Raptors to meet the NBA’s elite on close to equal terms.

The downside is considerable: Leonard isn’t healthy or doesn’t perform; he fails to buy in. He leaves as a free agent for nothing and the Raptors are forced into a rebuild having sacrificed principal for a moon shot.

Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup
In Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors are trading for an enigma
July 18 2018

Building statues for franchise icons has become a ‘thing’ across sports.

If this deal works, Ujiri may well get one outside the building formerly known as the Air Canada Centre.

Regardless of how the rest of DeRozan’s career unfolds, he should get one for what he’s done for the Raptors and the Raptors in Toronto.

The question will be if he’ll ever want one after being pushed out at the peak of his game.

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