Flashback. It’s January 22, 2006. You’re in a downtown Toronto bar when a Toronto Raptors game comes on. You didn’t go to the bar to watch the game — no one does — but it came on while you were eating and your eyes naturally peered over to watch your hometown team play the Los Angeles Lakers. Jose Calderon dribbles the ball up the court and runs around pointless screens for 20 seconds before passing the ball to Matt Bonner, who takes a contested three. It clunks off the front of the rim. Kobe Bryant rebounds the ball jumps out to a fast break before hitting an uncontested jumper. Kobe scores a career-high 81 points in the game. It will be remembered for a very long time, and not in the good way if you’re a Raptors fan. Life is not good.
Flash forward. It’s March 7, 2018. You’re sitting at the same bar you sat at 12 years earlier, this time purposely to watch DeMar DeRozan and your hometown Raptors fight for the No. 1 seed in the East against a desperate Detroit Pistons team vying for a playoff spot. Blake Griffin is doing everything to help the Pistons win, but franchise star DeRozan and the Raptors won’t go down easily. First, DeRozan dunks all over 6-foot-8, 240 pound Anthony Tolliver to tie the game at the end of regulation. Then, in overtime, he grabs a rebound, storms down the court and attacks the lane before throwing a perfect outlet pass to undrafted sophomore Fred VanVleet, who drains the corner two with 1.1 remaining. Raptors win and DeRozan puts up 42 points and the game-winning assist. Trump is president, but otherwise life is good.
To me, it’s clear: Life with DeRozan > Life before DeRozan.
Some fan bases won’t understand just how important one player can be to a team, a city, and a country in the modern NBA because they have the luxury of routing for an already established franchise; one that was established by players in previous generations who paved the way. For that reason and more there is a growing consensus that the Raptors should blow it up and trade DeRozan, the only franchise star they’ve ever had. There are even rumblings that he is on the trading block. I understand the sentiment behind trading DeRozan considering he is our best player and represents the most trade value on the market. We might even be able to get an established star or an intriguing prospect for him. But the situation the Raptors are in makes it more complicated.
The Raptors are not the Boston Celtics, a team that can have no loyalty and maintain a passionate fan base no matter how good they are. The Celtics had the luxury of trading away cult hero Isaiah Thomas last summer because past stars like Bill Russell, Larry Bird, and Kevin McHale who spent their entire careers (a combined 39 years) with the Celtics, establishing the franchise to a point of no return. The Raptors are different. The Raptors have never had a franchise player as good as DeRozan; at least none that wanted to stay in Toronto. The Raptors are not even an established franchise. Despite everything DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Dwane Casey have done for the team in the past few years they have still never been to the NBA Finals, never retired a jersey, and never had a star player stay with the team for his entire career. In DeRozan they can have their cake and eat it too.
If the Raptors want to trade away established veterans like Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas in order to acquire assets and build for the future I understand that. Afterall, bringing back the same team that got swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers last year will likely result in disappointment once again, especially in an improved Eastern Conference. But in order to keep the Raptors fan base tuned in, a fan base that remembers when Andrea Bargnani was the team’s best player and doesn’t want to go back to the dark years, the organization needs some resemblance of the team that made them relevant. Without DeRozan this becomes a whole new Raptors team. A younger one with more upside, sure, but also one that will be bad for a long time without the franchise player millions of Canadians have come to love and respect.
In fact, one reason Canadians have come to love and respect DeRozan is due to the loyalty he has exhibited to the city of Toronto and the Raptors organization. When his previous contract was up for extension in 2016, DeRozan made it clear that he wanted to stay in Toronto and resigned a max extension without the drama that usually materializes when a star player is up for an extension. To trade him after he displayed that rare kind of loyalty would shine an ugly light on a Raptors franchise that is trying to become a lauded player destination.
Don't worry, I got us…
— DeMar DeRozan (@DeMar_DeRozan) June 29, 2010
Another reason Canadians look up to DeRozan has to do with his compassionate and courageous personality. Although he might be more shy and introverted than many professional athletes, DeRozan has become an advocate for mental health awareness by speaking out about his own depression, opening the floodgates for professional athletes to talk about their illnesses and seek help. His work towards breaking down the stigma around mental illness has already had an impact and will continue to inspire future generations not just in the NBA, but in professional sports in general.
Being able to talk about mental wellness openly has had such an impact on me. Know that it’s OK to ask for help, and never be ashamed of wanting to be a better you.https://t.co/gt1qgNOISq
— DeMar DeRozan (@DeMar_DeRozan) May 1, 2018
The fact that Toronto gets to claim such a compassionate athlete and potentially retire his jersey as the first Raptor to play his entire career in Toronto could go a long way in helping establish the Raptors franchise and basketball in Canada.
DeMar DeRozan had the 14th most popular jersey from April-June. It's his first time cracking the top 15. Raptors 8th as a team in merch sales.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) June 28, 2018
On top of all the intangibles — the things help establish a franchise that has been irrelevant for most of its history but don’t help you win basketball games — DeRozan is also a very good basketball player who is just 28-years-old and improving every year. Fresh off his best campaign to date where he averaged 23.0 points and 5.2 assists on 45.6 percent shooting, DeRozan improved his efficiency while taking steps forward both as a facilitator and a three-point shooter. It was his impressive play that allowed DeRozan to finish eighth in MVP voting and helped the Raptors win 59 games and claim the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time in franchise history. Although his shortcomings are highlighted every postseason, DeRozan is a professional and a gym rat who has proven he will do everything it takes to help his team win a title. Eventually this team is going to be built around someone else — I don’t think DeRozan can be the best player on a championship team — but if DeRozan continues improving his ability to space the floor and play defense he will be valuable in any system.
Because buzz words like ‘veteran,’ ‘leader,’ and ‘professional’ are thrown around so often to describe NBA players they often lose value, but DeRozan is as professional as a franchise player gets. He may not be the most outspoken or active leader in the league, but DeRozan has earned respect from his peers and is looked up to by his teammates. Younger players who are still in the early stages of their development and are unfamiliar with the league look to DeRozan for advice and attempt to emulate his work ethic and career trajectory. For a team that looks likely to rebuild and get younger in the near future, that kind of leadership is invaluable.
People often say there is no loyalty in sports. DeRozan would disagree. Now the Raptors have the power to prove DeRozan right. No matter what trajectory Masai Ujiri decides to take this Raptors team, DeRozan is an invaluable asset that will help the team win games while maintaining a strong culture admired throughout the league. If that’s not enough for the Raptors to keep DeRozan, what is?