Masai Ujiri had to choose between loyalty to a player and a chance to acquire a better one
Just a few hours after DeMar DeRozan expressed anger, frustration, and betrayal from being traded away from the only team he’s ever known, Isaiah Thomas offered his social media version of consolation.
“Learn from my story,” Thomas wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “Loyalty is just a word.”
DeRozan obviously felt misled after Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri talked about the Raptors’ future with the shooting guard just a week or so before trading him to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard . DeRozan was Toronto’s first-round pick in 2009 and for a franchise that had lost all of its previous stars — Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Chris Bosh — DeRozan wanted to be the one who spent his career in Toronto.
Much like Thomas’s situation with the Celtics (when he seemed secure in Boston until a better potential replacement expressed unhappiness elsewhere), DeRozan was safe in Toronto until Ujiri found out he had a shot to acquire the disgruntled Leonard.
Ujiri spent a good portion of his press conference Friday explaining the move, expressing remorse over trading the Raptors’ latest franchise player, and lamenting the difficult side of making such deals because of the “human” side of the business.
Celtics president Danny Ainge didn’t really want to trade Thomas either last August, but for Kyrie Irving, he sure did.
“We’re going to acknowledge him and what he’s done here for the Raptors, for this city and this country, there’s no measure to what this kid has done,” Ujiri said of DeRozan. “We appreciate him and I can promise you we are going to celebrate him in the best possible way that we can as long as I’m here.
“It’s one of the tough things in this business because we want to win and I have to do everything in this organization to get us to a championship level. There’s also a human side of this business and that’s the part I really struggle with the most. A lot of excitement but there’s also, I’m a loyal person and you build relationships in this business and the human part doesn’t make it easy at all.
“I understand sports and sports is about winning. I have a mandate to win and that’s what I want to do. There’s no measurement for what DeMar DeRozan has done for this organization.”
Ujiri fired coach Dwane Casey after the Raptors were swept by the Cavaliers in the playoffs for the second consecutive season. His desire to make changes was understandable because contending windows don’t stay open long. DeRozan was the team’s most marketable player and he had three more years on his contract, offering security for the Spurs, who had to trade Leonard, who was entering the final year of his contract and was not going to stay in San Antonio.
But DeRozan isn’t taking the trade well. He could have signed with the Lakers when he became a free agent but didn’t even entertain a meeting. He immediately signed a five-year deal with Toronto. He had found a second home, a place to raise his family.
“DeMar has done so much for this organization and I think when you’re in my position, you always have to be open in what you can do,” Ujiri said. “Both of us had a conversation and me and DeMar know what that conversation was. Maybe I should have handled it better.
“When you get a chance to get a top five player, which doesn’t come very often, you have to jump on it. We’ve given a chance to this team. We’ve tried to build it as much we can. This opportunity came in front of us and we had to jump on it.”
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Words could never express what you’ve meant to me. I was just a 19 year old kid from Compton when we first met, but you took me in and embraced me as one of your own. I am so grateful for the Love and Passion that you’ve given me over the past 9 years. All I ever wanted to do was duplicate it 10x over just to show my appreciation. Thank you Toronto, thank you Canada. #Comp10 #ProveEm
It was similar to the Celtics a year ago. If Irving doesn’t request a trade from the Cavaliers, Thomas doesn’t get shopped. He plays the final year of his contract with Boston on the same bad hip he did during his remarkable playoff run in 2016-17.
Ujiri needed to shake things up and he’s taking a chance that Leonard, who has intimated he wants to play in Los Angeles, will want to stay in Toronto long-term. It’s a major risk but it’s better than the status quo.
“I think there’s a lot to sell here. Our team. Our culture. Our city. Our ownership,” Ujiri said. “We have everything here except a championship in my humble opinion. I think we have a great country. My mistake was talking about what we expected going forward from him. That’s where the gap was. In my job I always have to assume we’re going forward with the team that I have.
“It’s honestly why I will not be doing this one day. [DeRozan] was unbelievably loyal to us. The human part of this business is what it’s all about. He has no faults. Our team is just not at that level. We have to do something different, even if it wasn’t this. It is a challenge but it’s not something we’re not put in position to handle. We’re stepping on territory that we never have.”
For the Raptors, they become instant challengers to the Celtics and 76ers for the Eastern Conference title. For Ujiri, he has to live with the fact he fired a loyal coach and traded his best player because the team he built failed when it counted. That’s on Ujiri’s conscience but the show goes on.
“I’m not here to cry. I don’t want anybody’s pity because it’s not me,” he said. “I still have my job. I’m still standing here. I know who they are as human beings. I could have done anything I wanted when I took the job. At some point we have to do something different.”
WNBA players deserve better
Who is Liz Cambage? She is the 6-foot, 8-inch center of the Dallas Wings, who scored a WNBA-record 53 points in a 104-87 win over the New York Liberty last week.
In a league that is always seeking star power, Cambage is a fiery personality whose skill set has finally caught up with her size. She was the 2011 No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft by the Tulsa Shock. She played parts of two seasons with the Shock before signing in China and then playing in her native Australia, taking a five-year hiatus from the league.
She returned this season to the Wings, formerly the Shock, and has averaged 21.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, and nearly 2 blocked shots per game for the resurgent franchise.
“To me, she’s the most dominant player we’ve seen in this league,” teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith said. “Her skill, her personality, is great with the fans and the community. Obviously what she brings on the floor as well, one of the easiest players to play with. She opens up opportunities for me on the floor. She’s dominant every game. Her dominance never surprises me.”
Cambage’s personality is as imposing as her size. She is an emotional player on and off the court, with strong opinions about the structure of the WNBA and how players are treated compared with their male counterparts in the NBA. She has taken to social media to express her concern with how WNBA players are undervalued.
“My tweets are not that we should make the same amount as the men, my tweets are more that, isn’t it interesting the differences,” she said. “I don’t think our game is marketed the way it should be. How we [don’t] get treated the way we should be.
“The WNBA is constantly called the best [women’s] league in the world yet we don’t get treated like the best athletes in the world. We sign million-dollar contracts in Asia and Russia and get treated like royalty. When we’re here in America, we’re flying in the back of the plane, playing back-to-backs. I don’t know how you’re going to get the best out of your elite players when they’re playing back-to-back and flying economy on the day of games. It’s frustrating — you want to market something as the best, you’d better treat it as the best.”
It’s not that Cambage is complaining solely about playing back-to-backs, those are rare in the WNBA. Many of the league’s players don’t fly charter flights, meaning they arrive in the next city the day of the game.
Also, neither Cambage nor Diggins-Smith is pleased with the league’s marketing. Most of the league’s teams wear jerseys with the primary sponsor’s name prominently displayed. For example, the defending champion Minnesota Lynx wear “Mayo Clinic” on the front of their jerseys while the Wings wear the name of an insurance company above the numbers and a cellphone company below it. What’s more, only the Atlanta Dream, Las Vegas Aces, and Washington Mystics have their team name prominently on their uniforms.
The players understand that selling the league is part of the equation of playing in it, but the Dallas duo believe the players and quality of play deserve more accolades than they receive.
“I think at the end of the day, yes, we should have to focus on our games and we shouldn’t have to tweet about when we have our only game on ESPN2,” Cambage said. “It’s frustrating having to think of better ways we can market ourselves and market the league. That’s not our job. Our job is to play. We shouldn’t have to be worried and stressing about that.”
Diggins-Smith, one of the faces of the league, openly resents that WNBA players make an average of 22.8 percent of their NBA counterparts.
“Considering we do everything except clean up the gym after the game and don’t get paid [fairly],” she said. “Obviously it is frustrating seeing [NBA] bench players make seven-figure deals and the last men on the bench making seven-figure deals when we work our [butts] off every single day. It’s pioneers of this league, they’re the shoulders that we stand on. They fought for us to even have a league and to take this league this far. Part of it just comes with the territory and a lot of women in the WNBA I know are very proud to speak of what we’re capable of and our ability.”
These circumstances have brought the league’s players closer together, understanding they are fighting constantly to maintain or improve the health of the league. It’s an added pressure and responsibility that players are forced to embrace.
“Even when other people won’t speak for you, it’s just great having the support of other women in this league who have been in this league,” Diggins-Smith said. “Anybody that tries to disparage us usually tries to disparage women in sports period, or women in positions of power or powerful women period.
“We don’t listen to that noise. It comes with the territory for us to do our part just like the pioneers and the women before us did their part for us to even have a league and try to sustain this league for our daughters to play and give them something proud to want to represent.”
Women given less latitude on calls
Cambage leads the WNBA with six technical fouls, which is part of her fiery style. But she also claims that league officials are trying to reduce the game’s emotion. Last week, Diggins-Smith received a technical foul after flexing following a contested basket.
“Right now in the league, I just see referees trying to soften the game,” Cambage said. “You would never tech an NBA player for flexing after making a move. I got a technical last week for looking at a referee — looking at a referee. I don’t understand why our emotion and our passion is being suppressed when that is part of who we are. We are women and we are passionate, and we are playing hard. Let us play our game and don’t try to soften it because it’s making it boring. It’s like they are trying to make it more lady-like. That’s not how we play. We play like fierce women. Stop trying to suppress our game. That last week, all the calls have been whack.”
Death of Upshaw becomes a unifier
The NBA said it wants to team with the NBA Players Association after the tragic death of G-League player Zeke Upshaw, who collapsed during a game in March and died from heart failure two days later. Doctors said Upshaw may have had heart abnormalities but his mother, Jewel, has filed a lawsuit against the NBA, Grand Rapids Drive, the Drive’s owners, and the DeltaPlex Arena for failing to provide adequate care once Upshaw collapsed.
The league has said little about this case. Meanwhile, the Players Association has ramped up its efforts for more heart awareness and wellness in recent years for retired players who may have health issues. Executive director Michele Roberts said Upshaw’s death will only aid the increased efforts to ensure player health and safety.
“I read about another [former] player who died of a heart attack [former Warrior Clifford Rozier],” Roberts said. “It is at the top of the list. The PA has for some time now, I think it was immediately after [Moses] Malone died [of heart failure] is when we became very concerned about some of those cardiac issues in connection with basketball. And that interest hasn’t waned at all.
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Continuing the legacy ___ Last week, we teamed up with the NBA Retired Players Association in Las Vegas to provide our veterans with a comprehensive cardiac screening and other testing to ensure that our vets are educated and have access to the best medical care moving forward.
“It scares me to death when I hear about a young guy, that scares us to death. We are both together with the league but also independently trying to commission some additional study because it is concerning. As a sports association we have to be concerned about it. And with any luck we will both independently and together with the league have something more definitive to say about it.”
For the past three years, the NBPA has held heart screenings at the summer league in Las Vegas for current and former players. Many former players have gained weight post-career and aren’t as active because of injuries sustained during their playing careers. The NBPA voted in the last CBA for health insurance for all former players with at least three years’ service time.
There became increased awareness after Malone and fan favorite Darryl Dawkins died from cardiac issues within 17 days of each other in 2015.
“The screening is an issue we are trying to determine the adequacy of,” Roberts said. “Because if there needs to be greater screenings, then we need to be able to perform that to make sure our players are healthy.”
Having health insurance for retired players was a major step in insuring better wellness, especially since some former players had trouble financially after their careers were over. Upshaw’s tragic passing, which occurred during a G-League game, could perhaps serve as a wakeup call to pay increased attention to current players and their cardiac health.
Roberts and commissioner Adam Silver have essentially agreed or come to terms on many pressing league issues. And player health and wellness has been a concern and a focus for both sides.
The trade of Carmelo Anthony to the Atlanta Hawks was expected because the Hawks had the salary cap space to absorb the $27 million contract and they wanted to move point guard Dennis Schroder, who was not in general manager Travis Schlenk’s future plans. Schroder told reporters at a press conference in Germany that he wanted to play for the Indiana Pacers or Milwaukee Bucks. It wasn’t that Schroder was playing poorly, but Schlenk didn’t view him as the point guard of the future and he still has a pending battery case. Schroder averaged a career-high 19.4 points last season but also shot just 43.6 percent from the field and 29 percent from the 3-point line. So it was a case of a player dominating the ball on a bad team. The Hawks drafted Trae Young with their lottery pick and plan to play him at point guard . . . The Celtics are still playing a waiting game with restricted free agent Jabari Bird, who can accept offer sheets from other clubs. The Celtics would like Bird, who led the club with 16.8 points per game in summer league, to accept their qualifying offer and return on a two-way contract. Bird would like a spot on the Celtics’ roster but the club already has 15 players committed to contract. That number could shrink to 14 if the club waives swingman Abdel Nader, whose contract would be guaranteed by Aug. 1. And even if the Celtics do waive Nader, they are likely to wait until later in the summer to see if they can strike a deal with a free agent whose market value might have dropped. Boston still has its $5.3 million mid-level exception to offer a free agent, which may sound attractive to prospective free agents in a few weeks. The more likely scenario is Bird returning on a two-way contract and then signing an NBA contract next summer . . . One player who opened eyes in Las Vegas was former UNLV center Christian Wood, who was named to the summer league’s ffirst team playing for the Bucks. Wood left UNLV after his sophomore season and was undrafted before playing for the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets with stints in the G-League. Wood is just 22 years old and impressed in Las Vegas with his defensive activity and rebounding. That earned him a training camp invitation.