TORONTO – Raptors president Masai Ujiri apologized Friday for a “miscommunication” with four-time All-Star and franchise icon DeMar DeRozan, but Toronto’s traded All-Star guard didn’t seem quite ready to make amends.
Speaking for the first time since sending DeRozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard, Ujiri began by saying sorry to DeRozan. The career Raptor had expressed anger and frustration in an Instagram post after learning of the deal, indicating he’d been told he would not be traded.
Shortly after Ujiri apologized Friday, DeRozan added a new post to his Instagram feed: a facepalm emoji, a symbol of frustration and exasperation.
Reflecting on a conversation he’d had with DeRozan at Summer League earlier this month, Ujiri said he “should have handled it better” when discussing future plans.
“Maybe my mistake was talking about what we expected going forward from him,” Ujiri said. “I think that’s where the gap was, because in my job I always have to assume that I’m going forward with the team that I have. If there was a miscommunication there, I do apologize to DeMar.”
Still, after three straight disappointing playoff exits, Ujiri felt something needed to change with the Raptors. He acknowledged struggling with the “human side” of the trade, but decided Leonard was too good a prize to pass up.
Now, Ujiri says, the Raptors “are stepping on territory that we never have.”
“I think if we look at ourselves honestly, everybody knows that we had to do something different, even if it wasn’t this,” Ujiri said. “We had to figure out something different. I take responsibility for that.
“We’ve been doing this how many years?” Ujiri said. “You can’t continue doing the same thing over and over again. And when you get a chance to get a top five player, which doesn’t come very often, I think you have to jump on it. We’ve given a chance to this team, we’ve tried to build it as much as we can but, at this point, this opportunity came in front of us and we had to jump on it.”
DeRozan led the Raptors in scoring in each of the last five years, and was key to Toronto winning a franchise-record 59 games and securing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last season.
“There’s no measurement for what DeMar DeRozan has done for this organization,” Ujiri said, pledging that the departed guard will be acknowledged “in the biggest way that we can possibly do it” for his nine seasons with the Raptors.
Even with DeRozan, Toronto lost three straight postseason series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, including consecutive second-round sweeps. The Raptors have never reached the NBA Finals.
Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, has twice finished in the top three in MVP voting and is a two-time winner of the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Ujiri called his new acquisition “a no-nonsense basketball player that plays on both sides of the floor and produces.”
Still, there are reasons for concern. A seven-year veteran, Leonard missed all but nine games last season because of a leg injury. He can become a free agent next summer, and has stated his desire to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.
As long as Leonard is with the Raptors, however, Ujiri will work to show him what Toronto has to offer.
“I think there’s a lot to sell here,” Ujiri said. “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.”
Leonard has yet to pass a physical, Ujiri said, adding one is expected to happen “in the next couple of days.”
Ujiri, who returned from a trip to Africa earlier Friday, has not met Leonard in person since the trade, but said they have spoken on the phone. Ujiri disputed rumors that Leonard has no interest in playing north of the border.
“He didn’t express a lack of interest about playing in Canada to me,” Ujiri said.
DeRozan and Leonard are expected to be on the court together next week when USA Basketball convenes a national team training camp in Las Vegas. That team is coached by San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.