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Raptors’ Masai Ujiri says he walked around hotel in Kenya for 2 hours to work up courage to tell DeMar DeRozan about trade

Masai Ujiri, DeMar DeRozan

The nature of the Toronto Raptors’ title run makes it seem hasty. Kawhi Leonard wasn’t acquired until last summer. Pascal Siakam, the newly-minted Most Improved Player of the Year, started just five games in 2017-18 before staking his claim as one of the league’s most valuable two-way players this season. Marc Gasol only arrived in Toronto at the trade deadline, after more than a decade spent with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Three of the Raptors’ best players were in much different circumstances this time last year, basically. Even Nick Nurse was barely over a week into his tenure as Toronto’s head coach, having beaten out presumptive favorite Mike Budenholzer – named Coach of the Year with the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night – to replace longtime Raptors coach Dwane Casey.

Casey, of course, wasn’t the only franchise stalwart who moved on before 2018-19. Toronto parted ways with DeMar DeRozan to bring in Leonard, a controversial decision not just because the reigning Finals MVP barely played during his final year with the San Antonio Spurs, but because DeRozan, the rare homegrown product who hoped to spend his entire career north of the border,  had established himself as one of the most beloved players in team history.

Masai Ujiri knew trading DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl for Leonard and Danny Green was necessary to increase his team’s championship hopes, but that hardly made pulling the trigger any easier for him to stomach.

It wasn’t always easy for the Raptors this season. Kyle Lowry spent its first couple months in a funk, and didn’t exactly hide his dismay at the departure of DeRozan, one of his closest friends. Many fans lamented Leonard’s frequent rest for “load management,” and Toronto’s offense never really coalesced until after the Gasol trade.

Clearly, the pain and frustration gleaned from an offseason overhaul proved worth it for Ujiri and the Raptors, but that doesn’t mean DeRozan’s contributions to help them get to this point will ever be forgotten.