Two summers ago, DeMar DeRozan inked a five-year extension with the Toronto Raptors, committing the prime of his basketball career to a team that’s customarily failed to retain their star players.
DeRozan could have easily booked it, signed with his hometown team in Los Angeles and put himself on the path to becoming a bonafide superstar. But he decided to stay, eventually leading the Raptors to the first seed this season and their best regular season in franchise history. He sacrificed personal gain for the sake of continuity — sacrifices that he believes weren’t considered when the Raptors traded him for what could be a one-year rental of Kawhi Leonard.
Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri has a history of trading stars to increase his chances of winning a championship for the team he’s running—and he’s unapologetic about doing what’s required to win. He took a risk when he traded Carmelo Anthony from Denver, who at the time was a top-10 player in the league, for a collection of role players and picks - a deal that panned out years later.
The Raptors trade represents an even bigger gamble, for a multitude of reasons that go beyond the obvious—the fact that Leonard could leave after a lone season and Toronto would be left with a major hole, and likely start another rebuild. DeRozan, as he’s made clear since becoming a Spur, embraced Toronto and Canada more than any other player who’s been a Raptor. He put the Raptors on the map in a way Drake never could—he made the city’s basketball team relevant again and gave their rabid fans legitimate hope.
Then Ujiri, merely months after another second-round elimination, ousted DeRozan for, quite frankly, a better player - with no regard for loyalty or the sacrifices DeRozan made. He took the connection with DeRozan out of the equation and did what’s best for the team, even if Leonard only ends up having a cup of coffee in Toronto before leaving.
Ujiri, renowned in the NBA circles for making shrewd deals, has put winning a championship atop his hierarchy as a general manager—team morale, fan appreciation and continuity be damned. It was seen in the Anthony trade, Dwane Casey’s firing and now in the DeRozan deal - and it’s going to be the way he’ll continue operating, as he should.
The Raptors’ core, like Washington’s, has been unable to get over the hump. Toronto showed flashes of becoming a contender this past season—Ujiri added shooting, defense and unassuming players, like Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby, gave the Raptors the toughness and grit they were missing. He could have easily run it back with their current core and had reason to with LeBron James, the team’s annual assassin, leaving the conference. But he deemed the core unable to win a championship, so he blew it up.
Washington is returning with the same trio that was kicked out of the first round last year by Toronto. John Wall is coming back, but with a brand new tattoo—a Wizards jersey inked on his body, ironically representing the permanence of Wall in the organization. Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, a year older and with another summer of development, are returning too.
The Wizards—specifically general manager Ernie Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis—are content with what the team has, in spite of the team’s failure to make the leap into contention status. Leonard was available, and the Wizards reportedly made a call to San Antonio, but Washington wasn’t willing to part ways with neither Wall nor Beal, it seems, tallying another possible deal Grunfeld could have made that would have changed the outlook of the team.
Grunfeld is taking another approach—one that resembles insanity. He’s adding to the team’s bench and swapping Marcin Gortat for Dwight Howard - a maligned former All-Star whose priorities have been in question for about a decade. Washington, locked into three max contracts, was unwilling to make wholesale changes, relying yet again on minor tweaks—just as they have been doing since the playoff drought ended in 2014.
Four years later, though, the team hasn’t made an appearance in the conference finals and took a step back last season, falling to the eighth seed and getting bounced in the first round. Wall, who’ll make more than $40 million a season in his thirties once his extension kicks in, is a permanent fixture in D.C., and the management hasn’t displayed any concern about recurring knee issues—or, more importantly, the team’s lack of improvement in the postseason with him as the best player.
If there was any question about the Raptors’ commitment to winning, it was answered this summer. Ujiri, like the 29 others hired as general managers, has a lone task: to win a championship. At the cost of loyalty, fan and player perception, Ujiri has put the goal above all—something the Wizards, and plenty of other teams, haven’t had the chutzpah to do.