The sales pitch normally comes before the deal, but Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri is doing things the other way around with Kawhi Leonard.
Ujiri spoke with media for the first time after Wednesday’s blockbuster trade that sent fan favourite DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP. Several reports say that Leonard is reluctant to come to Toronto, instead preferring to go to either the Clippers or Lakers in his hometown of Los Angeles.
Even if he has no problem reporting to the Raptors, he has a player option for the 2019-20 season and could become an unrestricted free agent after just one season in Toronto.
Either way, it’s up to Ujiri to sell Leonard on the benefits of living north of the border.
“I think there’s a lot to sell here,” said Ujiri on the Raptors’ practice court at Scotiabank Arena. “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. We have great fans, we have a great organization, we have a great following. I think we have a great country. There’s something about this place reaches out to the whole world.”
The trade was finalized Wednesday. The Spurs also sent Danny Green to the Raptors, who shipped Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round draft pick to San Antonio.
The trade ended a drawn-out saga regarding Leonard’s future in San Antonio. He appeared in only nine games with the Spurs last season, and any doubt about whether there was a disconnect between him and the team was answered earlier this off-season when he asked for a trade.
“I’ve had conversations with Kawhi, with his agent, with his uncle, and everything has gone well. I look forward to meeting them face to face,” said Ujiri on the Raptors’ practice court at Scotiabank Arena. “That’s our responsibility, to figure it out and make them as comfortable as possible.”
Much of Leonard’s unhappiness in San Antonio centred how the Spurs handled the ongoing problems with his right quadriceps. The team cleared him to play in late February, but he got a second opinion from his own doctor and refused to suit up for San Antonio, even after his teammates asked him to in a players-only meeting in March. These issues behind the scenes found their way to media and Leonard held Spurs president and head coach Gregg Popovich responsible for the leaks.
Ujiri said on Friday that Leonard had not yet had a physical with Raptors doctors but that he would be in Toronto within the next few days for the tests.
Before taking any questions at the news conference Ujiri addressed DeRozan directly, apologizing for a “gap in communication” that led DeRozan to believe he would not be traded from Toronto.
DeRozan had said emphatically in the past that he wanted to finish his career with the Raptors. The guard voiced his displeasure regarding the trade on his Instagram account as the news was breaking on Wednesday, insinuating that Toronto’s management was disloyal.
“I had a conversation with DeMar at summer league,” said Ujiri, who said that at that time the Raptors were considered a long shot to land Leonard in a trade. “I think maybe my mistake was talking about what we expected going forward from him.
“If there was a miscommunication there I do apologize to DeMar, his family, and his representation. It’s not what I meant.”
Shortly after the news conference DeRozan posted a facepalming emoji to his Instagram feed.
DeRozan was Toronto’s best scorer in each of the last five seasons and helped the team to a 59-23 record and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs this past season.
The Raptors also announced Friday they have signed guard Lorenzo Brown and Canadian forward Chris Boucher.
The six-foot-five Brown signed a two-way contract with the Raptors last July. Toronto signed him for the remainder of the 2017-18 season after he was named the most valuable player of the developmental G League.
Boucher, a six-foot-10, 200 pound forward from Montreal, played for the Raptors at Summer League in Las Vegas, averaging 10.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and 20.8 minutes in four games.
Boucher spent last season with the Golden State Warriors after signing a two-way contract with the club. He appeared in one game with the Warriors and averaged 11.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 22.2 minutes in 20 games for their NBA G League affiliate.