It wasn’t too long ago that we were rather flippant of the word ‘loyalty’. Arguably the most devoted Raptor of all time, DeMar DeRozan, lamented about the lack of loyalty being shown to him by the Raptors. Having served for nine years DeRozan was right to feel that way. After all this was a franchise that was shunned by previous stars when it came to extending their deals in the face of ambiguity and suspect prospects. It hurt with Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh, in varying degrees. DeRozan was the first to put his back to the wall and stand with us even when things were bleak and there were opportunities elsewhere.
Last summer was the first time we gleefully waved goodbye to a star that wanted to be here. It felt odd at the time. We thanked DeRozan for his time and moved to Kawhi Leonard who we were delighted to have. Even the most ardent DeRozan supporter saw the logic in the trade and rested their love for the man in favor of true contention. Thanks for your service, but it’s time to go.
It’s come full circle today and as Woj puts it:
Ujiri had delivered Leonard everything that he wanted in a franchise: leadership, trust, championship talent and a medical partnership that preserved and prepared his body. What Ujiri couldn’t give Leonard was out of his control: geography, weather and a chance to return to his Southern California roots.
The Raptors had treated Leonard the way he wished the Spurs had. He was publicly thankful for what the franchise had done to give him the platform to go from being labelled a suspect character who quit on his team, to the best player in the NBA. That too in a contract year. Unfortunately for the Raptors, that dedication and care yielded little in the free agent market. And they shouldn’t be surprised because loyalty is a deflating currency and there’s an element of what goes around must come around.
Of course the circumstances are different than DeRozan. Leonard’s decision was likely equal parts location and title contention, and loyalty did little to sway him. Those of us who thought that load management might have made a tangible difference in free agency were misguided. In the end this came down to what a man wants in the moment and for the Raptors, past favors meant as much as future promises: very little.
The championship does a lot to soften the blow. It makes it bearable. A cynical take would be to view this as another star choosing to not extend in Toronto. The fact that even a championship isn’t sufficient to sway such decisions can be seen as quite bleak. In my view though, this was a case of two relatively even situations where in the end location competed against loyalty and location won.
There are forks in every road and if rumours are to be believed, Ujiri’s belief was that Lowry, Leonard, George and Westbrook were not enough to compete in the NBA’s new power structure. If true, it is an interesting decision because Ujiri just finished a successful one-year experiment with Kawhi Leonard who had a quirky injury situation. Paul George has his own medical issues which Ujiri chose not to deal with. Given that George was someone he tried to acquire for DeRozan in the past it’s fascinating to see him pass on him a second time when he was within grasp. The most likely reason why Ujiri declined would have to be the Thunder demand for future first round picks. From the Woj piece:
Ujiri and Raptors GM Bobby Webster had no ability, nor inclination to counter the Clippers offer with a multitude of first-round picks into the middle of the next decade, league sources said.
I wonder what fans would think of this rationale. If healthy, Leonard and George would have offered a title window of at least three years, and even if five picks were sacrificed over the course of several years, how much of a cost would it have been? Maybe a lot considering Siakam would be going the other way and that Kyle Lowry would need to be replaced during that window.
Then there’s a rumour that the OKC deal wouldn’t guarantee Kawhi Leonard’s signature which I find very extremely difficult to believe. If that was a legitimate fear then you can see why Ujiri would have passed. We don’t want to swap situations with OKC so I’m truly hoping that executing on that trade would still mean a low probability of signing Leonard. That can help me sleep.
One can also contemplate on how much of Kawhi Leonard’s success in Toronto was fit and how much of that will be lost in his migration to LA. We don’t win the title without Kyle Lowry’s massive testicles, or Fred VanVleet’s redemption story, or Pascal Siakam’s scoring, or Ibaka’s hustle. Leonard rose to the occasion when he was needed but also was able to shuffle to the background when things weren’t ideal. How much of that is replicable in LA remains to be seen and though the Clippers have talent, that chemistry may take a while to develop, if it even ever happens. I have full confidence that Doc Rivers will screw things up.
Though the timelines aren’t exactly in line the Clippers had their own loyal servant like DeMar DeRozan in Blake Griffin. They shipped him in search for a true superstar and in Kawhi Leonard they’ve got one. For the Raptors he was the missing piece but for the Clippers he may not be.