Raptors’ Masai Ujiri on DeRozan trade: ‘Time heals those things’

San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan (10) drives against the Toronto Raptors during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in San Antonio. (Eric Gay/AP)

It’s been seven months since the Toronto Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard, and it’s a subject that still gets plenty of airtime among fans and media alike.

Now, as we’re about to hit another key milestone of the aftermath — the homecoming — it only makes sense to revisit it once again.

The Raptors host DeRozan and the Spurs Friday night, the first time the longtime franchise favourite will be back on what was his home court for almost a decade.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri made an appearance on ESPN’s morning show, Get Up!, on Wednesday morning and was asked about the deal that changed the face of the franchise.

“Change is very hard for us, I think, and for everybody. But we had done the same thing for a long time and we had gotten to a certain stage, and sometimes in sports you have to make that change,” he said of his thought process behind the trade.

“DeMar was unbelievable for us and he took us to this level. We needed to have that in Toronto, have a winning culture, and that really helped our franchise. But at some point, you get a chance to get a player like Kawhi Leonard, I think you either do it through a trade, through drafting, or through free agency, and this was our opportunity.”

Under DeRozan’s leadership on the court, Toronto went from being a struggling club to a contender. Despite making the post-season five straight years, the team was never able to make much noise once they got there — they ran into LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers the past three playoffs, and couldn’t find a way to solve them.

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Ujiri has addressed the topic several times since the trade, and maintained Wednesday morning that despite the clear attachment between a city and player, trades and transactions are simply part of the business.

“I think time heals those things,” Ujiri said. “That’s just the nature of our business. I did explain what happened at the time. I think everybody has kind of taken that next step and moved on. He’s doing great in San Antonio and we’re trying to figure out the East and keep up with the big boys here. So I think people move on and time heals stuff.”

Through 54 games, DeRozan has averaged 21.4 points, 6.1 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game while also posting a shooting percentage of .463.

Leonard hasn’t played as many games as the guy he’ll always be compared to in Toronto, but is having one of the best seasons of his career on the stats sheet: He’s averaging 27 points, 3.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game and is shooting 49.2 percent from the field.

But as Ujiri pointed out, it’s the influence Leonard has on his younger teammates that might be most valuable.

“He’s incredible, brings it on both ends, a shot-maker. Having that calibre of a mind, I think also helps the rest of the players, whether it’s our young players — the Pascals, the OGs, the Freds, or even Kyle Lowry, it helps,” he said. “Having him, it’s a great level to be at, and you test yourself and everybody tests themselves as an organization, to see where you can get to.”

As for the biggest question in the city — the one about where Leonard will play next year — Ujiri had this to say:

“I’d rather have the free agent in my building or in our organization for one year rather than a one-hour pitch. You know, I don’t know how much of a chance we have with a one-hour pitch,” he said. “But you have him for one year, he can deal with your culture, he can know what the organization is about, you can develop a relationship with him and we are developing a relationship with Kawhi and I think he’s enjoying the organization. And I think even medically, that’s been huge for him and getting better and getting back to the level he was a couple years ago.”

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