A New Chapter Begins
Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors are taking a leap.
Earlier this week, the franchise made the most dramatic acquisition in team history, sending DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Holly MacKenzie recapped the specifics on Wednedsday, and on Friday, Ujiri, the team’s president, met with media on the practice court of Scotiabank Arena to discuss the trade.
The situation still requires some time for clarity. His message does not. Despite all of the risks and uncertainty associated with the move, Ujiri weighed them and found that this opportunity – the chance to land an elite talent, to better position the Raptors for their first-ever run to the NBA Finals – was worthwhile. In that he was steadfast, and his confidence in the organization’s ability to work through some of the muddier aspects of Leonard’s departure from San Antonio and the quadriceps injury that cost him most of his 2017-18 season is unbreached. In his eyes, the Raptors have been building to something over the last five seasons, and acquiring Leonard and Green, even with risk and cost, furthers that goal.
The cost was high, to be clear. In trading away DeRozan, the Raptors have lost the previous face of the franchise, their all-time leading scorer, and their longest-tenured player ever. It was not easy, and a good portion of Ujiri’s press conference was dedicated to appreciation for DeRozan (as well as an apology for miscommunication in the process).
“First off, I want to not only apologize to DeMar DeRozan for maybe a gap of miscommunication but also to acknowledge him and what he’s done with the Raptors, for this city, for this country. There is no better. We appreciate him, I promise you that we’re going to celebrate him in the best possible way we can as long as I’m here,” he said, later also thanking Poeltl. “DeMar is the greatest player that’s played, for now, for Toronto, at least for what he’s done here.”
The human side was difficult. On the basketball side, the Raptors feel they’ve come away with a win here. Leonard is the type of talent who doesn’t hit the unrestricted free agent market without having a destination already in mind, who isn’t acquirable in the draft without some painful years and good fortune, and the ilk of who rarely, if ever, becomes available on the trade market for a reasonable price. He would not have been available to the Raptors were there not risks and costs associated with him, and they’ve deemed him the type of player who warrants those.
“All I'll say is without all this medical drama that there is, we have no chance of talking to a player like that. Zero. You have no chance,” Ujiri said. “He would be signed to a new (contract), and we wouldn't have a chance to get him. This is why we have a chance, this was the risk that we are taking. We've looked at some of the medicals as soon as the deal was done and the rest will depend on the physical that will be done shortly.”
It’s a dramatic turn, one that sends out the longest-serving Raptor ever and leaves Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas as the team’s elder statesmen on the basketball side. For the last half-decade, the Raptors have undergone tweaks and changes, but DeRozan, Lowry, Valanciunas, and Dwane Casey were at least constants amid the changing tides. That will no longer be the case, with Nick Nurse installed as the new head coach, a key piece of the vaunted Bench Mob gone, and a new star in place of an old star.
That is not to say the run to this point has not been a good one, because it has. It’s been the most successful five-year stretch in franchise history, and it’s led to some of the best playoff moments and longest postseason runs. The Raptors, though, have come short of their ultimate goal on several occasions, with similar endings to their playoff runs in three of the last four years. That necessitates a more fundamental change at some point, lest the stated goal of competing for a championship sound less and less earnest with each attempt.
“We’ve been doing this for how many years? You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and when you get a chance to get a top-five player – which isn’t very often – I think you have to jump on it. I think we’ve given a chance to his team, we tried to build it up as much as we can but at this point, we got to this level, this opportunity came in front of us and we had to jump on it,” Ujiri said.
“Our team is just not at that level and we keep pounding on the same thing over and over again. I think if we look at ourselves honestly everybody knows that we had to do something different, even if it wasn't this. We had to figure out something different. I take responsibility for that.”
This is something different. In Green, the Raptors have landed a player who thrives in his role as a versatile 3-and-D wing. Teammates are fond of him, and his difficult path to secure his spot in the NBA will mesh well with a locker room full of self-made and once under-appreciated players.
And in Leonard, the Raptors have acquired a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate, when healthy. Prior to his quad injury, Leonard had become the league’s youngest Finals MVP, won an NBA Championship, made a pair of All-Star games, won a pair of Defensive Player of the Year awards, made All-NBA First Team twice, and made four All-Defensive teams. In 2015-16, he was the runner up in the MVP voting. In 2016-17, he placed third. Either would be the highest any Raptor has ever finished, and Leonard may have the claim to be the best player in the Eastern Conference when at 100 percent.
“It’s on to the next chapter with the Raptors and we’re excited to welcome Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to our home,” Ujiri said. “Hopefully, on paper, we feel we have a team that can compete in the East and maybe hopefully compete for a championship in this league. That’s why we play, that’s why we play sports, to win and play for a championship. We’re really excited about this, getting a top-five player in the NBA into our fold and hopefully, this will elevate us.”
The Raptors may have found their way to the NBA Finals with the team they had in place, though they surely would have been criticized for standing still and trying once more with the same group. With the trade, their upside stretches higher, even if their variance may now be greater given some of the risks at play. Upside is what the Raptors want to measure themselves by, because it’s a championship that Ujiri stated as his ultimate goal on Day One, and it’s the chance to at least compete for one in the NBA Finals that represents the next step for the franchise.
Leonard and Green have been there, and Leonard has played a leading role. The Raptors gave what they had a real chance, and now they’re taking a chance with something new and different.
“At the end of the day, we all want to win. We want to win a championship,” Ujiri said. “I hate to be defensive here, but I can also say when I came here, I gave them a chance. I could have done anything I wanted. I could have traded players. We kept giving them a chance and giving them a chance. At some point, we have to do something different. I’m actually happy that we did something different. I’m proud of what we’ve done here. That’s the nature of the job. That’s the nature of what we do. I’m willing to take risks. My team is willing to take risks.”
This is the biggest one the Raptors have taken, and they’ve calculated it carefully. There’s still a lot of uncertainty around Leonard and what the future holds in both the near- and the long-term. There’s no uncertainty about why Ujiri and company have taken the chance and what their goals are in having done so.