Instead, Leonard missed the first 27 games of last season with a right-quadriceps injury, then played nine games before he was sidelined again. After he was cleared to play by the team’s medical staff, Leonard got a second opinion from his own doctor, then rehabbed on his own. The Spurs and Leonard disagreed on whether he was ready to return to the court. Toward the end of the season, Leonard remained sidelined as his own medical staff did not clear him to return to the court. Frustrated, the team held a players-only meeting a month before the playoffs involving Leonard, who didn’t return and wasn’t on the court for their first-round defeat to the Golden State Warriors. The trust between player and team dissipated to the point of no return.
In Toronto, an almost entirely different narrative played out. DeRozan had his strongest season in his nine years with the Raptors, as his offensive game continued to evolve. The Raptors won 59 games and was the best regular-season team in the Eastern Conference. DeRozan publicly stated his desire to remain a Raptor for the entirety of his career. For a team often seen as an outpost of the NBA, that has never attracted a marquee free agent and isn’t a preferred destination for star players, the way DeRozan upheld Toronto as a basketball city helped him build a strong relationship with the Raptors’ fan base.
In spite of DeRozan’s connection to Toronto and his year-to-year improvement, the Raptors failed once again in the 2018 postseason, losing in four games to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round. Toronto’s latest playoff failure was preceded by a sweep to the Cavs last year, and the franchise clearly decided that whatever loyalty DeRozan had for the team and the city was outweighed by its desire to give themselves a better chance at winning a championship.
DeRozan was adamant after the trade that there was a breach of trust by the franchise, not only in trading him, but also because team president Masai Ujiri reportedly indicated to DeRozan that he would not be traded. Around the league, former teammates and opposing players expressed the same sentiment. Ujiri described it as a “gap of miscommunication.”
Of course, the problem with the framework of loyalty, in either direction, is that it is ephemeral. Players demand new scenery, through the sheer force of their market power or because they seek a better chance at winning. Teams do, too. They commit to players—as the Raptors did by signing DeRozan in a five-year, $139-million deal in 2016—then change course when there’s an opportunity to chart a better one.
It’s happened before, and will happen many times again. Isaiah Thomas played through a hip injury in last year’s playoffs for the Boston Celtics and was in line for a huge contract this summer, but was then traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he missed the start of the season recovering from his injury, and then was traded midseason to the Los Angeles Lakers. An injury-plagued year across two teams derailed Thomas’s free-agency value; he signed a veteran’s minimum contract with the Denver Nuggets earlier this month.