Article Written by Adam Corsair (@ACorsair21)
Raptors fans had two days to process the trade that will bring one of the best players in the world to Toronto - Kawhi Leonard - but subsequently send out one of the most loyal players to ever play for the city - DeMar DeRozan. The reaction has been polarizing, to say the least, and each of us were anxious to hear from the man that is largely responsible for getting the deal done.
The opportunity came today, as Masai Ujiri returned from his trip to Africa and - quite literally - went straight to the Scotiabank Arena to conduct his press conference. I'll cover the important parts that ought to be addressed in the (unlikely) event that you missed it.
With Apologies to DeMar
Masai wasted no time from the jump of the conference as he immediately thanked DeMar DeRozan for everything that he had done for not only the Raptors, but for the city of Toronto. The apology seemed very sincere and heartfelt and looked as though he felt genuinely sorry for any miscommunication on his behalf.
First of all, 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 here with the Raptors, for this city, for this country. There's no measure to what this kid has done and we appreciate him and I promise you we are going to celebrate him in the best possible way that we can as long as I'm here. It's one of the tough things in this business because we want to win. And I have to do everything in this organization to get us to a championship level. But, there's also the human side of this business and that's the part I really struggle with the most. And that's what's most difficult.
It's no secret that DeRozan felt betrayed by the move as reports went as far as stating that he was "extremely upset." He made his feelings known publicly as he produced various cryptic social media posts on his personal Instragram page -
From DeRozan's perspective, he claims that he was told by members of Toronto's front office in Las Vegas during the NBA Summer League that he would not be traded and was part of their long term plans. Thus, one can understand his discontent, as this was completely contrary to what happened this past Wednesday.
However, as I've said recently on the latest SOT6 Podcast episode, as well as floated out on Twitter, the thought of Masai literally offering such a straight-forward assurance, thereby killing any potential deal that would improve the team seems unbelievably counter-intuitive to me. This isn't to say that I think DeMar is lying about what occurred, but rather it may very well have been a huge misunderstanding. It seems more likely to me that what was said was somewhere along the lines of "We have no current plans of trading you," or "We are not including you in current trade discussions," to which DeMar translated to a definitive "You will not be traded."
There's a subtle difference between what I speculate to be what was said and what DeMar took it to mean, but the subtly is extremely important. Masai is a master with his words and, from what I have seen, has also been extremely careful with what he vocalizes. I don't see him saying something so definitive, so irreconcilable, and so robust that it would handcuff him from doing any future trades. To me, that's just not smart for a person that runs an organization to do.
However, what I also take from the beginning of Masai's presser is how he doesn't ignore the human side of the equation. Yes, this is a business, and yes, it is his job to improve the Raptors without completely gutting the team. But there's also an element of emotion, camaraderie, and friendship that shouldn't be underscored. These are human beings that experience human emotions just like you and I, and Masai clearly recognizes that. So for me, it's an extremely class act for him to start off the conversation by thanking and apologizing to DeMar for anything that he may have done to make him feel betrayed.
The Next Chapter
Masai hyped up the notion of bringing both Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green into the fold. He went so far as to say that "on paper" he feels that he has the team that will be able to compete in the East and, hopefully, for an NBA Championship; the ultimate goal. He described Kawhi as a "Top-5 Player" and is extremely excited to be able to have him as a key addition to the team.
He claimed that the opportunities to acquire a player like Kawhi are rare and he had to jump on it while he could. Sure, it means making sacrifices and making changes that a lot of the fanbase will feel uncomfortable with, but it's what needs to be done if the Raptors are looking to take the next step.
For me, it's simple. After two consecutive sweeps by the hands of Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, it's a tough sell for Masai to trot out the same exact team and have fans and ownership expect different results. Sure, Lebron has gone out West to Los Angeles, but there still stands a stacked Boston Celtics squad, an improving Philadelphia 76ers squad, an Indiana Pacers team that showed resilience to the very same Cleveland team that swept the Raptors, as well as an ever improving Milwaukee Bucks team that includes Giannis Antetokounmpo. It's unreasonable to think that the Raptors, as they were constructed, would be able to be better than they were last year and overcome some of these challenges. Thus, a change had to be made. In a vacuum, it's not even close - Kawhi is better than DeMar. To be able to have a player of his caliber on a team that is already close to being a true contender propels them to new heights. A change was necessary. Masai stressed this beautifully -
The reality is, if we didn't do anything, it's hard to satisfy everybody in our positions. If we didn't do anything, I think everybody would be pounding on "you didn't do anything! It's the same team, so what's the difference? You're gonna play the regular season and you're gonna get beat again in the playoffs!" That would be the narrative going into the season.
I've been saying this since the Therapy episode of the podcast right after the playoffs ended. There was no way that it makes business sense for the front office to bring back the exact same team and try to convince fans that there would be different results. It just doesn't make sense. A change was absolutely necessary and although it came as a result of the greatest player to ever wear a Raptors uniform being traded, it was a necessary move in order to (greatly) improve the team. I get that the narrative is that Kawhi is a rental and we traded away the most loyal player who had a year more on his contract. Sure, but think of it this way. If the Raptors brought back the same team and got eliminated in the second round again, chances are that they were going to blow it up anyway and DeMar would've been traded next year!
How people cannot understand this, I don't know.
Yeah, But Is He Playing? Is He Staying?
There was a collective exhale when Masai outright stated that he's had conversations with Kawhi and his representation. Although a physical has yet to be performed (it will in the next couple of days), Masai is nothing but comfortable with the aspect of being able to attain Kawhi long-term by attracting him to the city and its beauty.
It's my job. I think there's a lot to sell here. Our team, our culture, our city, our ownership - we have everything here except a championship, in my humble opinion. I don't think we lack anything in this city. We have great fans, we have a great organization, we have a great following, and I think we have a great country. And there is something about this place that reaches out to the whole world and we're proud of that and we're going to continue to sell that. And hopefully it's an appeal, not only to him but to more NBA players.
Honestly, the whole idea that it's set in stone that Kawhi is heading to LA is generally overstated by talking heads. If I recall correctly, it was also set in stone this time last year that Paul George would be heading to LA to play for the Lakers, and there was no use trying to convince him otherwise. Fast forward a year later and Paul George has signed an extension to stay with the Thunder.
I don't want to be the person to say that Kawhi will definitely stay, but I will be the person to say that he's not definitely leaving (note: do not confuse that with "he's definitely not leaving." Two different things). In other words, I don't think that there's a 0% chance that he will want to stay in Toronto. There's this unfair growing narrative that Toronto is some wasteland of a destination and that a player's career is considered to be on the tail-end when it comes to getting traded there... until they actually play there. Once they familiarize themselves with the beauty, diversity, and passion that Toronto possess, it's hard to not fall in love with it. I have no doubt that Kawhi will recognize this, but that's not to say that he'll definitely stay. It's just to say that he won't definitely leave.
Oh, and those definite, set-in-stones, no doubt about it claims that Kawhi has no desire to play in Canada for the Raptors?
Yeah, he didn't express a lack of interest to play in Canada to me. A lot of this is that everybody has their own opinion about everything. And I know first hand, I've dealt with this kind of a situation with my first job as a rookie, so I know first hand how these things work and how they don't work.
...I haven't gotten that sense from Kawhi Leonard or his people and I'm going to give him that chance when we meet him face-to-face.
I'll just leave it at that.
OK, Cool... But The Injury, Tho!
Simply put - we don't know yet. As mentioned above, Kawhi still hasn't undergone his physical, so there's a chance that something may come up to stall this (remember Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland?). However, Masai emphasized today that he understands the risks that he is taking by acquiring Kawhi despite the injury concerns.
All I'll say is that without all this medical drama that there is, we have no chance of talking to a player like that - zero. He would be in San Antonio and we wouldn't have a chance to get him. This is why we have a chance and this is the risk that we're taking. We've looked at some of the medicals when the deal was done and the rest will depend on the physical which will be done shortly.
So... yeah, it doesn't quite ease my concerns completely, but it's at least reassuring that they did take a look at his medicals when the trade was done. There really isn't any indication or reports of there being any red flags after viewing the medicals, so I think that it's best to take it at face-value and assume that he's pretty much good to go. I know that there's a lot of unease in that last sentence, but until I see that Kawhi has passed his physical, the aspect of him not being 100% will be lingering among the fanbase.
Thus, is he healthy? Is he good-to-go? Probably.
Any More Moves?!?
Masai was noncommittal, as to be expected. Initially, he did sort of pass this one off to General Manager, Bobby Webster, and said that the latter was handling "all the trades," as Masai was in Africa for the past few days. However, he stressed that the organization is confident in this team and the combination of players that they have. But with the chatter earlier in the off-season in regards to nobody being untouchable and everyone being on the table, it certainly makes you want to pay special attention to the following.
If any other moves or deals come our way that make sense for our team to get better to win a championship, I think we have to look at that. There is a certain window and we have to acknowledge that.
Squint hard enough and you'll see that the whole "everyone is on the table" is reiterated here. Normally, when you acquire a player of the caliber of Kawhi Leonard, you do so thinking that the team you already have compliments him well enough to compete. To me, I think Masai thinks he is almost there, and I don't disagree. I believe him when he says that he’s “comfortable” with the current team, on paper. But how much does that comfort translate to confidence? With how teams are built these days (i.e. "super teams"), it's a real tall order to expect this Raptors squad - as constructed - to be able to beat the Warriors, should they make it that far. We can take it a notch below and still not be super confident that they'll be able to beat the Celtics in a theoretical Eastern Conference Finals 7 Game series. The talent matches up well, and Toronto surely has the defensive edge, but the Celtics should still be really good.
Thus, if Masai can work his magic and somehow be able to trade for one more superstar player (hey Jimmy Butler, I hear you hate it in Minnesota. Come join the real north squad!), then it's almost a lock. Again, if the Kawhi/DeMar trade has taught us anything it's that no player is off the table in trade discussions if it means that Toronto can compete for a championship. It's clear that Masai is tired of the status quo of making it jjjjuuuuussssttttt far enough to be considered "good." He wants the Raptors to be great. If it takes another big trade to enable that to be so, then by all means.
But do I expect that? No. I expect minor tweaks and a Vince Carter deal for the league minimum for his swan song.
But I've been wrong before...
PS - Take this to the bank.
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