Without a doubt, losing the talents of DeMar DeRozan was the hardest thing Toronto Raptors fans have ever endured. It was harder than watching Vince walk right out the door without looking back or saying farewell. Harder than any bounce out of the playoffs, including the lastest, where Lebron James packed his broom to the second round when he met the Raptors.
DeMar was a player who Toronto had drafted, and “trusted in the process” so to speak. He developed his game each year, without ever abandoning the ability that brought him into the big leagues. He never left any doubt that he was committed to being part of the Raptors organization until the day his jersey would've hopefully be hung from the rafters. His mid-range game was loved by all fans and can be comparable to Steph Curry’s three point consistency, you just trusted it was going in.
Yet here we are, into the start of the regular season for the team, and does anybody truly feel Toronto lost this trade? Let’s look at first, the “meat” of the trade if you will. It’s very safe to assume that Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan were the essential parts of this trade. A disgruntled Kawhi needed a change of scenery, as it was well known he was no longer happy in the place that brought him his first taste of championship experience. It was the perfect situation Raptors GM Masai Ujiri needed to execute arguably the biggest trade in franchise history.
Almost hidden in the star studded Western conference, and recovering from an injury, it’s easy to forget just how gifted Kawhi is. When he has the ball from mid range he's able not only to shoot as effectively as DeRozan could, but we’re seeing that he can create his own scoring opportunities. DeMar was constantly getting to his spots by navigating through off ball screens. Whereas Kawhi cannot only move smoothly through screens, but he can muscle his way into better looks at the basket; something DeMar would struggle with as he looked more for the foul than the finish.
What’s also impressive about Leonard is how talented he is as a defender. I feel like I'm one of the only ones who’s realized the team finally has the shutdown defender they've long sought out for. Year after year we watched them struggle to shut down anyone defensively in the playoffs, due to the other team abusing the weak spots in the defence. By obtaining Kawhi, they also made that defender their best player on the team. Whenever he's on the court he makes the intelligent play. Toronto fans, and all those who have now taken notice of the Raptors, are witnessing a level of all-star they just haven't seen before. It’s truly beautiful.
With any cut of prime meat, well any cut worth it anyways, always comes with the beautiful and juicy fat along the side. The fat that came along with Kawhi, was Danny Green. Once again the Raptors answered another huge question in their offseason… Three and D. For years and years the search was on for a player capable of knocking down three point looks, along with being influence on the defensive side. We watched player after player be touted as “that guy” and fail to live up to the responsibilities in the big games. The likes of Terrance Ross, Demarre Carroll, and even current Rap CJ Miles come to mind. Green is all over players when they have the ball, bringing that Spurs style of in your face, press up defence. He has hands in the passing and shooting lanes making no look at the basket easy. Not to mention he has that confidence to hit some big shots at big moments. His catch and release shooting range this early in the season is something to be confident in. He can move around the three point line, and still be ready to fire a shot home when his number’s called. The chemistry he's carried over from San Antonio with Leonard, and his new found relationships with the Raptors squad, has made his transition to the north seamless. Green should continue to be the savvy veteran and opportunist we've seen to date.
In no way, shape or form am I knocking what DeRozan has done with and for the Raptors. I was more heartbroken finding out he was no longer part of the “We The North” movement than I was when Mufasa died. DeMar was the first player that Toronto had drafted, developed and successfully kept around to be the All-star. DeMar grew into an All-star as fans grew support for the team. He almost felt like the “hometown kid”.
But Kawhi Leonard is arguably one of the best players in the league, and is most certainly the best player in the Eastern conference right now. They've already taken on the likes of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, handling them in convincing fashion. Even after losing to the Bucks, they were able to regroup and not let that turn into a skid of a couple; which is exactly something all too familiar in prior years. The new look Raps are committed to playing hard the entire 48 minutes, not letting teams crawl back in. Kawhi is consistently a matchup nightmare, and Green is probably low key my favourite part of this trade.
In a season where ‘The King’ has packed his crown, fled his homeland, and left an empty spot on the Eastern conference throne, Kawhi Leonard and the team are out to prove that you no longer need to be royalty to hold the throne. Being hungry, being focused, and being just down-right scary top to bottom through your roster; the Toronto Raptors are showing the entire league they're the beasts of the east. So when I'm asked the question of which team I think can not only be the team to represent the Eastern conference, but also be the team to interrupt an all but perfect storied legacy for the dynasty that is the Golden State Warriors, my answers easy.