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Real Friends: DeMar DeRozan Finds Out That the NBA Is a Business

The Raptors lifer has been traded for Kawhi Leonard, leaving him to start his NBA career over, away from the city he repped, the franchise he promoted, and Kyle Lowry, his best friend in the league

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

DeMar DeRozan has been with the Toronto Raptors since 2009, when former team president and GM Bryan Colangelo drafted him out of USC. Over those nine years, he adopted the city as his own, never taking a meeting elsewhere, and became a major part of the franchise’s recruiting. Now, he and Kawhi Leonard have more in common than just L.A. roots: Neither wants anything to do with Toronto.

On Wednesday, the Raptors sent DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected 2019 first-round pick to San Antonio for Leonard and Danny Green.

Unlike Los Angeles or Boston, Toronto wasn’t on the Kawhi-watch radar until recently. But the Raptors’ objective is clear: Team president Masai Ujiri is moving on from the DeRozan–Kyle Lowry–Serge Ibaka core that he dreamed up three years ago, counting on the development of the younger players on the roster, and dumping salary in return for what will likely be a one-year rental in Kawhi. Southern Canada isn’t Southern California, and after all we’ve heard about Leonard’s wishes to play in L.A., Toronto can’t possibly be counting on him staying past the upcoming season.

DeRozan was as unaware of the trade machinations as the rest of the public: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the 28-year-old guard met with Toronto brass in Las Vegas during summer league, and was led to believe he would not be included in any trade. However, per ESPN, the Spurs and Raptors front offices had been communicating for weeks about a possible deal. (Whether or not DeRozan was mentioned in any proposed trades prior to Wednesday’s final package is unclear.)

Wednesday morning, DeRozan posted the following on his Instagram story: “Be told one thing & the outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing... Soon you’ll understand... Don’t disturb…” TNT’s David Aldridge later tweeted that DeRozan is “not backing off claim he was lied to” about being traded.

The adage “it’s a business” always comes up in these transactions, followed by “there’s no loyalty in basketball.” It’s true: Isaiah Thomas’s gut-wrenching story of being traded by Boston stands out as a recent example, but it’s always been part of the NBA’s history. As it becomes more and more a player’s league—one in which the players, not the owners or the front offices, are calling the shots—that “business-first” attitude has gone both ways. It’s what gave Leonard leverage to force his way out of San Antonio, but it’s also why DeRozan’s situation stands in such a sharp contrast. His career is directly tied to the identity of an emerging basketball city, one he was a vocal ambassador for. DeRozan wanted to be a franchise lifer during a time when that concept is trending the way of traditional bigs.

The trade also splits up one of the NBA’s most entertaining friendships in DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who were a mostly effective duo on the court (unless it was the playoffs), but a better show off it. There are close relationships in every locker room, but rarely ones as on display and celebrated as theirs was.

DeRozan being Toronto’s best player since Vince Carter twists the knife in deeper. Raptors fans who have found peace with Carter deserting the city are either rare or lying; you always remember your first heartbreak, and an expansion franchise having a player like VC that early in its existence is a tough high to come down from. This is not to say that trading DeRozan was a bad move for the Raptors, but there is some irony that the player who wanted to stay in Toronto was dealt for someone who reportedly doesn’t want to be in Toronto.

Though the Raptors gave up their franchise player in this deal that mantle won’t necessarily transfer to Kawhi, whose willingness to take on Toronto remains to be seen. DeRozan’s identity will change in San Antonio—though it is a place superstars tend to stick around in. Leonard’s certainly will. Before the chaos of this season, Kawhi’s most interesting quality was just how boring he seemed to be. He was Gregg Popovich’s quiet, likable, straight-A student, and whether it’s fair or not, that reputation is gone. Leonard was traded from a team he didn’t want to be a part of to another team he doesn’t want to be a part of, and now he’ll be forced to decide what his second act will be.