DeMar DeRozan wanted to come home.
The Compton, California native had spent the first nine years of his career building his resume with the Toronto Raptors, then three more seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, but the summer of 2021 was his chance to come home and play for the team he grew up supporting.
Why didn’t he end up a Laker after wanting to play there for so long?
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Trade to San Antonio
It was 2018 and the Raptors had just been knocked out of the playoffs, swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in consecutive seasons in the Conference Semifinals. Toronto GM Masai Ujiri had reached a fork in the road. Try to run it back and hope for a different result, or should he make a radical move to kickstart the roster and hopefully make a push for the franchise’s first NBA title? Ujiri pulled the trigger on a trade that was a gamble, but one he felt the rewards outweighed the risk.
On July 18, 2018 a deal was struck to send franchise icon DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick that later became Keldon Johnson to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. It came as a shock to DeRozan – the most loyal player in Raptors history to date – after he’d taken a pay-cut to allow the team flexibility in building a contender around him. When Chris Bosh left for South Beach in 2010, it was DeRozan who vowed to put the city on his back.
DeRozan was blindsided by the deal, as he was not even consulted on the trade by Ujiri. He didn’t want to leave, he wanted to finish what they had started. But, as most athletes know, professional sports is a business, so DeRozan went to San Antonio.
Playing with the Spurs was a little different from the Raptors. Sure, Gregg Popovich was an all-time coach and the Spurs were on the tail-end of a 21-year run of making the playoffs. They were bounced out of the first-round in DeRozan’s first season with the team, while his former team and Leonard won their first championship in six games over the Golden State Warriors.
DeRozan’s numbers with the Spurs were decent, but the fit never seemed right, plus, it appeared the franchise’s trajectory was headed towards a rebuild. He was set to be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2021 and the stars were aligning for a return home to Los Angeles.
Talks with the Lakers
The Lakers were just one season removed from being crowned NBA champs. They’d grinded it out in the bubble and the pairing of LeBron James and Anthony Davis had paid dividends. They couldn’t defend their crown the following season, however, as the team was plagued by injuries to their two stars. James sat out for an extended period after going down with a high ankle sprain and Davis missed about half of the regular season with various ailments. The Lakers fell to the Phoenix Suns in the first round.
They needed to rebuild in the sense that they wanted to add another superstar to their current duo. The team explored the possibility of trading for players like Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and DeRozan.
James even set up a room in his Los Angeles home to host potential new teammates – a screening process of sorts. DeRozan met with James twice. They spoke on the phone, they discussed how a trio of James, DeRozan and Davis might work.
DeRozan felt like destiny would lead him back home.
“Yeah, I mean, it was, it was a real possibility,” DeRozan said about playing in Los Angeles. “I mean, I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say I wanted to come home, you know? I did try to make it happen. There’s a real possibility of it happening. You know, just things didn’t work out, you know what I mean?”
Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka strongly considered a sign-and-trade for the former USC star, but ultimately the Lakers and the Spurs could not agree on a suitable deal.
According to Bill Oram, Shams Charania and Sam Amick from The Athletic, once Westbrook requested a trade away from the Washington Wizards, the Lakers’ sole focus was acquiring the point guard. Instead, DeRozan agreed to a sign-and-trade with the Bulls. Chicago traded Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu, a protected first-round draft pick and two second-round draft picks to San Antonio as part of the deal and DeRozan was headed to the Windy City.
A new home in Chicago
“It took me 13 years to get to the point that I’m at mentally, physically, emotionally in approaching the game. So for me, I think it’s just my best go-round,” said DeRozan prior to the season.
Paired with an exciting point guard in Lonzo Ball and an explosive two-guard like Zach LaVine, DeRozan is back playing at an All-Star level. In 12 games with the Bulls, DeRozan is averaging 25.3 points (his highest scoring average since the 2016-17 season), 5.5 rebounds, and 3.9 assists.
The Bulls are currently sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference and looking like a fun, exciting squad, while the Lakers are seventh in the West and struggling to find some chemistry. Who’s to say if things may have been different if Los Angeles had opted for DeRozan over Westbrook? But Chicago sure is happy they didn’t.
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