DeMar DeRozan’s unexpected departure from the Raptors this week has been the source of much self-reflection within the Toronto fanbase. As a result of the polarizing deal for disgruntled Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard, Raptors fans have been forced to evaluate DeRozan’s legacy with the organization far sooner than maybe they thought they would have to. After all, DeMar “I Am Toronto” DeRozan was supposed to be a lifer. Perhaps even more significant, he wanted to be a lifer. In the aftermath following Chris Bosh’s departure towards NBA glory, there was a feeling within the fanbase that this team was unlovable; that no proper NBA star would ever come to understand the things that this city, or this country, has to offer. DeMar DeRozan proved that wrong, and then some. And yet, as of Wednesday morning, he’s gone.
The trade has conjured up a wide range of reactions, and it’s not hard to understand why. Kawhi Leonard may be far superior on the court, but his reported desire to high-tail it straight to Los Angeles spits in the face of the loyalty that DeRozan has shown for years. It’s incredibly rare in this hive-mind-dominant social media era to see a fanbase so divided over a trade, but these are unique circumstances.
In the season following Chris Bosh’s departure for the Heat, the Raptors posted a 22-60 record. They seemed destined for several more seasons in the metaphorical NBA doghouse; a house in which they’d made themselves plenty comfortable throughout the 17 years of their existence. This would’ve been fine if they had a wealth of top-shelf prospects, but they didn’t. It would have at least been palatable if there had been any glory days to feel nostalgic about (a la current Chicago Bulls or current New York Knicks), but the Raptors didn’t have that either. The one brief good stretch in Toronto’s history, the Vince Carter era, was marred by the calamitous way in which it ended.
When Toronto went 22-60, it felt like a return to their true form. They sucked, had always sucked, and looked like they’d keep sucking forever. I’d argue that Bosh leaving hurt even worse than when Vince Carter did, because Bosh’s betrayal felt familiar. Carter’s exit was met with a fury that can still be felt today, but at least people cared enough to be angry. Chris Bosh’s departure was met with a depressing feeling of resignation. That 2010-2011 season marked the height of Canada’s apathy for the Toronto Raptors.
DeMar DeRozan was on that 22-60 team. There were whispers of excitement for the shy 21 year-old averaging 17 points a night, but it was hard to get too invested in a guard with so many flaws to his game. He couldn’t pass, he couldn’t defend, and he most definitely could not dribble. His dunking prowess made the games a bit more bearable, but he was no Vinsanity. Try as hard as he may, that 21 year-old was unable to light a spark for this city.
Fast-forward six and a half seasons to New Year’s, 2018. DeMar DeRozan is standing at the free throw line with the chance to break Vince Carter’s (and never to be forgotten, Terrence Ross’) franchise record for points in a single game. The kid who would routinely dribble the ball off of his foot was now a man receiving MVP chants on a nightly basis. Showing a supreme calmness at the line, he’d bury his 52nd point of the night.
That moment felt so fitting. If there was any doubt about DeMar DeRozan being the greatest Raptor of all time, the 52 point game vanquished it. DeMar had been present for the Raptors’ darkest hour, and now he was the face of its brightest. Alongside point guard Kyle Lowry, he clawed and dragged this team into relevance. When the Raptors Cinderella-ed their way into the playoffs in 2014, they did so as a ragtag team of misfits led by two guys that the league had never believed in. When DeRozan sunk that record-breaking free throw on the first day of 2018, he did so as a four-time all-star and Olympic Gold medallist. The Toronto Raptors finally felt like an established team in the NBA, and DeRozan had been the face of that movement.
And yet, DeMar DeRozan was dealt for Kawhi Leonard on Wednesday morning. Because even despite DeMar’s status as the franchise legend, Kawhi Leonard is that much better than him. A potentially injured, potentially unhappy Kawhi Leonard is so good that even the franchise’s greatest player of all time was made expendable.
That realization hit me like a splash of cold water. I realized what a beautiful and naïve space that we, as fans, have existed in for the last five years. The undeniable “Golden Era” of the Toronto Raptors is a stretch of five seasons in which we won a total of four playoff series and got swept on three separate occasions. The main reason Toronto fans have felt so on top of the world for the last five years is because of the constant catastrophe of a team we’d watched for the prior 19. Beyond perhaps the Hornets or the Pelicans, there is not a single team that would mirror the Raptors’ past five years and proclaim it to be their Golden Era. Most teams in the NBA have a title or a finals berth, or at the very least a period of sustained playoff success. The Raptors are a young franchise, and essentially a “nouveau-riche” team as far as NBA relevance. If you look down the list of franchise greats across the NBA, you see names like MJ, Duncan, Kobe, Iverson, LeBron, etc. Barring significant improvement at the age of 28, DeMar DeRozan will never be one of those names. Whether he’ll even make the Hall of Fame remains to be seen.
The Raptors’ greatest player of all time is someone who is a top 15 player in the league at his peak, and we’ve fallen in love with him like he’s an all-time great. .
It is this inherent Toronto Raptors naïvety that makes me immeasurably excited for the future, and it should make you excited too.
It’s important that fans appreciate the boundless energy that DeMar poured into this franchise, but also to realize that there are still so many mountains left for this team to climb. Canada has fallen head-over-heels-in-love with the 2013-2018 Raptors; a team whose biggest achievement was losing to LeBron James in only six games. The Raptors lost Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals by 26 points, and yet the fans cheered so loud that LeBron had to take a moment of pause to acknowledge it. Can you imagine what this country would do for a championship? Can you imagine how this country would celebrate a true all-time great playing out his career here?
I know that those things still seem so far away. I understand that Golden State looks set to win their next five rings, and that while Kawhi Leonard may be that all-time great player we’ve been searching for, it is admittedly very difficult to picture him staying.
All I’ll say is this: The Raptors were looking for a saviour in 2011. What nobody knew at the time was that he was already on that roster; lying in wait as he prepared to drag a lifeless organization to relevance. Now the franchise is finally competitive, but a championship still seems impossibly far away. This franchise no longer needs that saviour to raise it from the dead, it needs a finisher to take it to the promised land. DeMar DeRozan was unable to do it, but that’s okay. He showed that the Toronto Raptors could be taken seriously, something that in 2011 seemed just as impossible as the idea of winning a championship might feel now. Unlike Vince Carter and Chris Bosh, he did not leave us empty-handed. His last act as a Toronto Raptor was to bring in the most talented player that this team has ever even sniffed.
So maybe that finisher is already on this roster; lying in wait.