Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors, USA Basketball

“Vince Carter has publicly requested a trade from the Toronto Raptors”

“Chris Bosh has decided to join the Miami Heat”

“Hedo Turkoglu does not wish to return to Toronto”

They were the type of headlines Toronto Raptor fans depressingly read and it almost seemed ritual. Star players on the team had no desire to stay and wished to play for championship contending teams south of the border. Top free agents seemingly laughed at the idea of playing north of the border: “The weather is too cold; I’m not even representing my country; The foundation and culture is terrible”. Raptor GMs were hesitant to make trades due to the expectation that the player would dip after the season. It was a horrible trend and reputation for an organization who struggled for so many years to take a step forward.

This has all changed now thanks in big to the Raptors’ all-star duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. These two players have made the Raptors a better team every season. 3 straight division titles, a franchise record in wins, and a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals has certainly put relevance back in Toronto Basketball. Without them (and maybe Drake), Toronto may not have hosted its first NBA all-star game in … ever. The fan base is large, with almost the entire nation behind Canada’s only NBA team. Jurassic Park has become a popular destination and the playoff atmosphere at Air Canada Centre is nearly irreplaceable.

Lowry and DeRozan’s play have been widely praised around the league. Regarded as one of the best backcourts in the league combining for over 44.7 points per game, these two men are deemed the heart and soul of the franchise. Even when both players struggled early in the 2016 playoffs, it ultimately came down to both of them leading the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals and 2 wins over the eventual Champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Head Coach Dwane Casey never lost faith in either player, even stating “Ride or die with Kyle and DeMar” in a press conference. Both players will be representing Team USA in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

It is easy to praise great play, especially when a team is winning. However, it is even more respectful to praise loyalty. It has become a common trend for players to jump ship for the best opportunity to win a championship. Both Lowry and DeRozan have had that opportunity. It all started at the beginning of the 2013-2014 season when the Raptors got off to a slow start. When leading scorer Rudy Gay was traded, it appeared GM Masai Ujiri was ready to enter re-building mode. A trade to the New York Knicks seemed like a done deal for Lowry, however, the Knicks were not willing to give up another 1st round pick. Everything went uphill for the Raptors from that point on. The Raptors emerged as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and finished with a franchise best 48-34 record. Lowry’s leadership and hustle on both ends of the floor were significant factors to the success. When the Raptors were eventually eliminated in Game 7 to the Brooklyn Nets, Lowry was set to enter free agency. As one of the summer’s most coveted free agents, Lowry attracted interest from powerhouse Miami Heat along with his former team Houston Rockets. However, he decided to stay with the Raptors on a 4 year, $48 million contract stating he had some “unfinished business” in Toronto. Lowry has not looked backwards since, appearing in back to back all-star games and ending the 2015-2016 season on the All-NBA Third Team.

Then it was DeRozan’s turn to enter free agency. Drafted 9th overall in 2009, DeRozan has spent his entire career with the Toronto Raptors. When all-star Chris Bosh left after DeRozan’s rookie season, he immediately tweeted “Don’t Worry Toronto, I got us”. DeRozan has certainly backed that up, emerging as one of the best wing players and scorers in the league. When DeRozan struggled early in the 2016 playoffs, many analysts questioned if DeRozan deserved a superstar contract and was the right man to lead the Raptors in the right direction. All concerns seemed to be erased at the conclusion of the playoffs. Coming STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, DeRozan was pursued by both his hometown Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers. However, DeRozan did not even consider meeting with other teams and eventually re-signed with the Raptors on a 5 year, $139 million contract. “I am Toronto. Outside of where I’m from, I represent the city harder than anybody…I just can’t wait to put that jersey back on and keep going” DeRozan stated at a press conference.

The friendship between Lowry and DeRozan off the court is a big factor as well. Even though Lowry stated DeRozan is going to have to pay for all the meals now with this new contract, their post-game interviews together clearly outline their bond. Lowry once stated “You’ve got a friend on the team (DeRozan) in the same backcourt, a leader who doesn’t care what you do; he just wants you to happy. No recruiting, no pitching, no nothing. Just, ‘Whatever you do, bro, I’m gonna be happy for you’. It’s kinda hard to leave that. It was close. It was very close”.

The days of superstars laughing at Toronto appear to be coming to an end. The fact LaMarcus Aldridge even scheduled a meeting with the Raptors during his 2015 free agency is a huge step. LeBron James has highly praised the play of Lowry & DeRozan and even praised the city of Toronto during the all-star weekend. Finally, none of this would be possible without the fan base across Toronto. Even the Brooklyn Nets publicly stated that they wish their crowd was like that of the Air Canada Centre. Nothing lasts forever but these trends are certainly beneficial for the Raptors and the city of Toronto. #WeTheOther #WeTheNorth, however, you want to put it, the Raptors will continue to leave their mark on the game of basketball!