"Don’t worry, I got us…"
For the last eight years, the immortal tweet from DeMar DeRozan in response to Chris Bosh leaving for the Miami Heat has been a comfort for Toronto Raptors fans. In the moment, it seemed too bold a claim. DeRozan, coming off a shaky rookie season and then only 21 years old, did not yet look the part of franchise player. The confidence was appreciated; the degree to which it would ring true was unexpected.
The Raptors have traversed a great distance in the time since. There were some painful years in the immediate aftermath, and as they ran their course, DeRozan's slow ascension was one of the lone bright spots. There was Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay, a number of ill-fated or short-sighted trades, a coaching change, and a five-year stretch without a playoff berth. DeRozan offered reprieve with Slam Dunk Contest theatrics, improved shooting and ball-handling, and glimpses of an All-Star future, the hint of a spark that if nothing else, the Raptors had a piece to keep building with and around.
When Masai Ujiri came aboard and flipped Bargnani and Gay, then had a Kyle Lowry deal fall apart, DeRozan had his best opportunity yet to deliver on his promise. What has come since is something maybe only DeRozan believed possible back in 2010: He truly did have the franchise and the city covered. First, there was an All-Star berth in 2014, his first. Later that year, the Raptors would make the playoffs for the first time since 2008, helping an expanding Toronto basketball culture reach what to that point was a crescendo, DeRozan's promise and unlikely ascent standing as the perfect avatar for the team's We The North marketing campaign built on collective doubt and being the other. If DeRozan wasn't Toronto before, he became it at that moment, embodying the growing rabidity of the city's appetite for the sport.
The years that have followed have been the best in franchise history. DeRozan has made three more All-Star teams, two All-NBA teams (including Second Team this past season), earned down-ballot MVP votes, and helped lead the Raptors to five consecutive playoff appearances for the first time ever. There was an Eastern Conference Finals trip, a franchise-record 52-point game, countless posters, beautiful moments with Lowry in one of the league's best friendships, and a downright assault on the Raptors' all-time record books. DeRozan ranks first in Raptors history in games, minutes, points, and Player of the Week and Player of the Month honors, second in steals, third in assists, third in Win Shares, fifth in rebounds, first in playoff games and points, and has played more seasons with the Raptors than anyone else at nine.
There have been times where that impact became somewhat divisive. Advanced stats and specifically on-off numbers haven't always been as kind to DeRozan as counting stats, and the fan base has occasionally tried to cut off its nose to spite its face debating DeRozan and Lowry, while Stats Twitter, until recently, held DeRozan up as a relic. His game is imperfect and a bit outdated, and his defense has always proved a problem come playoff time. He has not been the "best" Raptor during this stretch, nor does his remarkable peak match that of Vince Carter.
At the same time, he's pretty safely had the "best" Raptors career, and he has been their most important player during this run in a larger sense, given his commitment to the team and how that helped secure other commitments, his commitment to improving and his role in culture-setting, and his status as the face of the franchise and the fan base. He has become a spokesperson for mental health advocacy and a community leader, and he played while dealing with heavy off-court burdens this year. He's never not been there. All of that stuff matters.
When he became an unrestricted free agent, DeRozan took no meetings, quickly re-signing and claiming "I am Toronto" at the press conference that followed. When recently yelled at on the street to join his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, he replied "hell naw." At every turn, DeRozan has been steadfast that Toronto is home and that he hoped to be the rare player to spend an entire career with one organization. He was not promised that—he was ineligible for a no-trade clause when his contract came up—but it at least seemed likely he could be the first career Raptor, the franchise's first home-grown and long-term star, perhaps even the first jersey to be honored in the rafters of Scotiabank Arena (assuming Carter, who left on far more acrimonious terms, does not beat him to it).
Because through everything, there has been DeRozan. He's been the biggest constant for a franchise that until recently was identified by its consistent tumult; he's been the one player to stay for a franchise that was always a place people wanted to leave; he's been the most or second-most important player as the Raptors redefined themselves from perennial afterthought to legitimate high-end organization. The growth in Toronto is not singularly credited to DeRozan, but it's also inextricable from his own individual growth.
That's all in the past now, as DeRozan's career will continue in San Antonio after Toronto completed a blockbuster trade with the Spurs on Wednesday.
The Raptors shipped DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a 2019 first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. In strictly basketball terms, it is a good, if risky deal. Leonard at his best is a top-five player and was in the discussion as the league's second-most important player behind LeBron James. He is an all-world defender, one of the best perimeter defenders of the modern NBA, and he is an efficient scorer on or off the ball. It is an upgrade, and that the Raptors made the deal without having to include OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, or a valuable 2021 pick is somewhat shocking.
This is not playing out strictly in basketball terms, though. Leave aside questions about whether Leonard will report, whether he's healthy, and whether he'll walk at the end of 2018-19. The Raptors surely weighed those risks, and the trade is structured such that Toronto didn't sacrifice too much of its long-term future to roll the dice. It's messy on the Toronto side alone.
DeRozan is reportedly quite upset, as the Instagram story of him and his brother would both suggest. Multiple reporters have indicated that DeRozan was told as recently as Las Vegas Summer League that he would not be traded, and him feeling slighted and lied to is entirely understandable. Players know well at this point that the idea of loyalty in sports is an illusion. Teams will trade players on their whims, and players have little recourse. Similarly, players should never be questioned for leaving or exploring options in free agency. The loyalty DeRozan has shown the Raptors is admirable, and it is the exception rather than the norm. The Raptors trading him is understandable, but if it's true that he was misled, that's a terrible look for an organization that has built up its reputation and cache around the league in large part because of a run that was made possible by DeRozan. It's always difficult to navigate the trade of a player who committed to a franchise; it's more clear-cut if the player was done wrong by.
If that's the case, DeRozan unquestionably deserved better. He'd earned honesty, at least. The franchise can't be beholden to his commitment if a trade is for the good of the team now and down the line, but for a player who as vociferously put on for the city and the organization like DeRozan did, grace was warranted.
In addressing the idea of a difficult DeRozan trade earlier in the offseason, I'd more or less come to terms with the idea, on the condition that a deal does somewhat right by him and offers a return commensurate with letting a player of his off-court importance go. The latter is satisfied here, and San Antonio under Gregg Popovich could be a good fit for the next stage of his career. Considering what he's given to the team, it sounds like it could have been handled better. There's an organizational risk at the player or agent level to handling a star player poorly, and more importantly, DeRozan has earned that kind of respect.
From a personal perspective, DeRozan will be missed. To pull back the curtain a bit: I've been writing at least casually since 2008, and my first ever post at Raptors Republic was an analysis of DeRozan immediately after the Raptors drafted him (after which I purchased his Compton High jersey). Watching him turn from a raw player and immensely shy teenager into a legitimate All-Star, an outspoken player, and an advocate for mental health has been remarkable. Getting to speak with him about designing his own Kobe AD Compton player exclusive was one of my favorite stories I've written. He's always been a consummate professional, and his consistent desire to improve himself is a great example inside and outside of sport. There is an entire generation of new Raptors fans who look at DeRozan as a favorite player and as an extension of the city's basketball identity.
That DeRozan is no longer a Raptor will feel weird for some time. His first visit back to Toronto as a member of the Spurs will be awkward, and a cause to celebrate what he meant to the franchise. It's a little strange, I guess, to be eulogizing the career of a 28-year-old still in the middle of his prime, but DeRozan's impact on the Raptors warrants it. Ironically, the opportunity to make an all-in push for a player like Leonard, the ability to offer a compelling package, and a situation where it all made sense is only possible if DeRozan becomes the player he's become and gets the Raptors as far as he has. That the Raptors might take the next step without him will take some getting used to, because DeRozan has been Toronto for so long.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports CA.