Looking back at the trade that changed the course of Raptors history
The 2013-14 season got off to a fittingly weird start for the Toronto Raptors.
At an early morning press conference in late September, incoming general manager Masai Ujiri shared the stage with the club’s newly appointed global ambassador, Drake, and then Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Together, they announced the team would be rebranding in time to host the NBA All-Star Game in 2016.
Ujiri, who had been hired to replace Bryan Colangelo as the head of basketball operations that summer, was desperate to reinvent the organization. He imagined sold-out arenas, championship banners and league-wide (and even global) relevance.
They would get there eventually, but not in a way that anybody could’ve anticipated at that time, Ujiri included. Everything they’ve accomplished over this past decade can be traced back to that season and a nine-player trade that was consummated 10 years ago – the deal that changed the trajectory of the franchise and inadvertently sparked the most successful era in Raptors history.
Toronto had averaged a mere 30 wins per season over a five-year playoff drought – the longest in its history – when Ujiri took over. His first order of business, after restructuring the front office, was trading Andrea Bargnani – the maligned former first-overall pick and, for better or for worse, face of the Colangelo era – to New York.
Believed to have eyes for a loaded 2014 draft class, highlighted by Canadian phenom and expected No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, the sense was that he could opt for a full rebuild.
What would that mean for the team’s three best players: Rudy Gay, who was acquired less than a year earlier, Kyle Lowry, who was coming off a disappointing first season in Toronto, and DeMar DeRozan, its longest-tenured player? There was no shortage of uncertainty going into the campaign.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors guard: “That year we didn’t know what the hell was going to happen because [Ujiri] fired everybody, basically, and he was putting his regime in, and I think he was motivated to show who he was as a general manager. Me and Masai had a meeting in the summertime, and he challenged me to figure out who I wanted to be as a player. At the time, he was like, ‘You could be a $4 million player, or you could be an [eight-figure] salary player.’ So, for me, it was just trying to figure out who I was and how I wanted to show myself.”
Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors head coach: “Rudy and Kyle were really close [from their three seasons together in Memphis]. Kyle was going into a contract year… [Ujiri] had been a general manager [in Denver], so he wasn’t a rookie, but he wanted to put his stamp on the program. He decided to keep me there, which most [new] general managers don’t do, but he gave me the opportunity to stay and see the rebuild through.”
Landry Fields, Toronto Raptors forward: “We had a team meeting right before training camp started and [Ujiri] came in and gave a very passionate speech. He looked at everybody in the room and was basically saying over and over again, ‘The losing is done in Toronto.’ And he had his finger out and was looking at every single person in the eye.”
DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors guard: “Going into my fifth year, I hadn’t made the playoffs yet. I remember seeing a lot of my peers that were drafted in ’09 [playing] in the playoffs, making All-Star Games, in winning situations. I was just eager to feel that. I didn’t know what was going to happen that season. I remember that year they wanted to tank for Wiggins, that was the whole feel around it. That summer, coming into that season, all I wanted to do was win. But that season started off shaky.”
Rudy Gay - Raptors yourk
The Raptors hovered around .500 for the first couple weeks of the season until dropping five straight games in late November/early December. After a Dec. 6 loss in Phoenix, the second stop on a tough three-game West Coast road trip, they fell to 6-12. Gay, the team’s highest-paid player (he made just under $18 million that season), was shooting a career-low 39 per cent on 18.6 field goal attempts per contest.
Casey: “Masai gave us every opportunity to be successful that season and it just didn’t come together. From a coaching standpoint I thought that Rudy and DeMar demanded the same room, the same space. They were the same type of player, so our spacing at that time was not good… Offensively and defensively we were suspect. We got off to a tough, tough start. Masai was very upfront in saying, ‘Hey, look, if we don’t get it going, we maybe have to start the rebuild,’ and that meant playing the young guys or trading DeMar, Kyle or Rudy.”
Lowry: “We knew something was going to happen. I think we all kind of felt it. It just wasn’t meshing well.”
DeRozan: “You just didn’t like the feel that was going on, from practices to bus rides, plane rides, after games, locker rooms. We just knew it wasn’t right.”
Bobby Webster, Toronto Raptors VP of basketball management and strategy: “If we were 12-6 or even 9-9 maybe you let it go. But there was that game in Phoenix, we just got blown out, and my thought at that point was this is not going to work out… The plan [going into the season] was to see if this worked. But it was like, listen, we were 6-12. That wasn’t going to be good enough. That wasn’t sustainable and so we felt like [it was time to] make a change.”
Casey: “We were in Phoenix and Masai and I had a long conversation about where we were, what was going on. And that’s when he said that we might have to make a move. I knew that some people were calling and wanting the assets that we had and the one that got mentioned was Rudy to Sacramento.”
Webster: “We had some conversations [with other teams] but nothing that made a ton of sense. I think that next year on Rudy‘s [contract] made it hard [to move him]. Go back to 2013, where salaries weren’t that crazy, and [he had a $19 million player] option [for 2014-15] – it was a big number. I don’t think it was a robust market for Rudy… Masai was with Pete [D’Alessandro] in Denver, I had known Pete for a while, and so I think there was a familiarity with Pete as a new GM in [Sacramento]. We had been having those discussions for a while. I think like many of these [deals] it’s just, when do you pull the trigger based on what’s going on with the team?
December 8, 2013. The Raptors were in Los Angeles preparing to play the Lakers that night. Kobe Bryant would be making his highly anticipated return after tearing his Achilles eight months prior. At 4 p.m. local time, the news broke. Toronto was trading Gay, sophomore forward Quincy Acy and veteran centre Aaron Gray to Sacramento for four role players: point guard Greivis Vasquez, forward Patrick Patterson, swingman John Salmons and big man Chuck Hayes.
Quincy Acy, Toronto Raptors/Sacramento Kings forward: “We were on the backend of a [long road trip]. At shoot around [that morning], Coach Casey asked me if I could guard Carlos Boozer and I was like, ‘Yeah, of course, coach.’ He was like, ‘Okay, well we’re going to start you on him.’ So, that would have been my first career start. I was calling my family. I was pretty excited. So, I’m on the first bus heading to the arena and DeMar calls me over to sit by him and he was like, ‘I don’t know how true it is but I’m hearing somebody might get traded.’ He thought it might be Rudy because he wasn’t on the first bus, and normally Rudy used to ride the first bus.”
DeRozan: “Rudy called me, and he told me something was about to happen. He didn’t get on the [first] bus and he told me he was staying [at the hotel].”
Acy: “As soon as we walk in the locker room, I see Steve Novak reading off of social media and he was like, ‘Rudy just got traded – Rudy, Aaron Gray and Quincy.’ And that’s how I found out, right there.”
Webster: “I was getting on that second bus and that’s when we did the deal. Masai called Rudy and then [Casey] spoke to him in the lobby. We were at The Ritz, Marina del Rey. More than anything else, you don’t want them to find out on social media. You want it to come from us, you want there to be proper messaging and you want everyone on the team to know what’s going on… Those trade days are always a bit hectic. It’s less about the team and the future at that point, you just want to do the process properly and respect everybody.”
Acy: “It was pretty tough, man. It was a flood of emotions all at once. You go from about to make your first career start versus the Lakers to getting traded on the road. I’m thankful that I had Rudy and Aaron; they really took me under their wing. We went to dinner that evening… Rudy felt bad, so he got us a private plane from Los Angeles to Sacramento and we flew out the next day… I never went back to my apartment in Toronto. I had to send my agents out there to pack my entire house and ship everything over. I don’t have the words to explain how rough that was. It was a wake-up call.”
Casey: “What a bad time to not be whole. It was the right move because we were floundering, and it wasn’t Rudy’s fault, it wasn’t DeMar’s fault, they just didn’t fit. But my thinking that night, going into that game was how in the hell are we going to slow Kobe down coming back breathing fire, fresh and ready to play?”
Webster: “Masai called me after the game and he was like, ‘How did it look?’ I said, ‘Listen, it felt really good, it felt different.’ I didn’t know if it was going to sustain but I just remember it felt different, so I was just like, we’ll see how this goes. Clearly there was something there.”
Undermanned, the Raptors upset the Lakers at Staples Centre that night, winning 106-94. DeRozan and Lowry combined for 49 points and Amir Johnson scored a career-high 32. Patterson, Hayes, and Salmons met their new team in Toronto a couple days later, with Vasquez arriving shortly after due to visa issues.
Patrick Patterson, Sacramento Kings/Toronto Raptors forward: “My mother had been in town, and I was spending some quality time with her. We were literally walking into the theatre [to see The Hunger Games] and then right before we get up to the tickets that’s when my phone starts blowing up and my agent is reaching out to me. He’s telling me the trade went through, that I’m going to Toronto… I put [my phone] on silent and then we walk into the movie theatre. But I’m not thinking about my mother’s phone, so as we’re watching the film her phone is blowing up with her friends and some family and my father… She’s like, ‘Patrick, did you get traded?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I got traded before the movie, I was going to tell you, but I wanted us to enjoy the film first and we could talk about it after.’ Then that pretty much just ruined the whole movie because she just wanted to keep talking about it.”
Chuck Hayes, Sacramento Kings/Toronto Raptors centre: “I remember Dec. 8 because I took my son to [see] his mother for her birthday. I went back home with my son to watch football because it was on a Sunday, and I was checking my fantasy football when my agent called me and told me the news. I remember having to express the news to my son and tell his mother that I’ve gotta leave in two days and I won’t be back until after the season.”
Patterson: “Coming from Texas to California, from California to Canada, and during this time it was the winter storm, so I had no heavy coats, I had no idea about any winter jackets. All I had was a fleece and a light little hoodie. So, immediately there’s snow everywhere and I’m telling my agent from the moment I touch down, ‘Whatever it takes get me out of here. I don’t care where I go, but I can’t be here. There’s snow, it’s freezing cold, I have absolutely nothing. I’m in a foreign country, I don’t know anyone, I don’t know what to do. Get me out of here.’ That was my initial reaction.”
Hayes: “I was like, man, are we going to win? Am I going to another rebuild?”
Lowry: “It was also like, damn, all right, I guess we’re going to be tanking. We heard the chants, tank for Wiggins, so we knew about all that stuff. You start to think, oh s--t, are we really about to tank to get Andrew Wiggins?
THE TRADE THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN
Ujiri wasn’t done. On Dec. 12 it was reported that the Raptors were nearing a trade that would have sent Lowry to New York for a package that included Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace, and a first-round draft pick. The sticking point was New York’s reluctance to part with third-year guard Iman Shumpert or rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. Knicks owner James Dolan ultimately squashed the deal, fearing he would be on the losing end of another trade with Ujiri (who got a haul of prospects and picks back for Carmelo Anthony when he was with Denver, in addition to netting a first-rounder for Bargnani a few months prior).
Lowry: “I’m dead serious, my bags were packed. I had two duffle bags packed. [I was] sitting in my condo on Lakeshore, my two bags were packed, and I was sitting there waiting for my flight info on Porter Airlines to go to New York. I sat there with two duffle bags full of clothes, as much as I could take, ready to go. That’s how close it was.”
Webster: “Yeah, but Kyle had his bags packed every day of that season.”
DeRozan: “I remember when he told me I was like, well s--t, I’m going to want to get traded too. I don’t want to be here if [Lowry gets traded].”
Patterson, Vasquez, and Salmons debuted for the Raptors on Dec. 13, playing key roles off the bench in a win over Philadelphia. Prior to the trade, Casey had been using a thin rotation. Suddenly, he had some depth to work with – one of the unexpected consequences of the trade.
Casey: “Our hopes were for Wiggins. He was a national treasure, and rightfully so. He was a great young player from Canada, so I understood that, but the group that came in had other ideas.”
Lowry: “We picked up four unbelievable players. You had a guy like John, who came in and was the vet; he was the closer. I lot of people don’t remember [that] John closed a lot of those games out for us [that season]. You picked up Chuck Hayes, who was also a vet, but he was my friend – we had a relationship going back to [our two seasons together in] Houston – so I knew what I was getting from Chuck as a leader, as a man. You had Patrick Patterson, a young guy, jump shooter, gave us spacing on the floor, more height, more toughness. And then Greivis, who gave us the f---ing swag. He gave us the ultimate f--k you swag – I’m going to dance; I’m going to shimmy.”
Casey: “After the first fainting spell that I had [when I heard about the trade], having a week with them and seeing how it all fit together, I became optimistic even though there weren’t great expectations. It was a perfect fit. So, after a couple of weeks I could sleep at night.”
With Ujiri and the front office still evaluating where to go from there, the team left for a four-game, eight-day road trip in late December. Even at the time, it felt like a make-or-break stretch. In the first game, they pulled out an overtime win over Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. A couple nights later, they went into Oklahoma City and upset Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the first-place Thunder. They would go 3-1 on the trip.
Hayes: “We were not expected to beat Dallas and we sure weren’t expected to beat OKC, but we went in there and John Salmons was like our Mr. Fourth Quarter. And I was thinking, man, we’ve got a chance, this might actually work.”
Lowry: “That’s when me and DeMar really sat down and were like, hey, what are we going to do? That was the conversation we had on the plane heading [to OKC]. We said we’ve gotta pick this s--t up and do something about it right now. And I think that was the first time where we both saw that want-to in each other’s eyes. No knock against Masai but we weren’t going to let him control our fate.”
DeRozan: “I remember having that conversation with Kyle, [saying] that there’s a good chance that when we get off this road trip, we could both be traded. Honestly, I was just like, man, f--k it, let’s just go balls out and try to win every single game until we get back to Toronto... The reality was Rudy Gay just got traded and there’s a possibility that all this is about to crumble. It kinda put that necessary pressure on us. That’s what drove us.”
Webster: “For that period of time after the Rudy deal it was still an evaluation period. I know at a certain point it was like this team is showing enough promise – Kyle was young, DeMar was young, [Jonas Valanciunas] was young, Terrence [Ross] was young, we still had [Johnson] under contract for one more year. So, I think there was enough in place where it was like, we can build off this. There was definitely a point during the season where they played so well that it was like, okay, we’re not going to change things up.”
A DYNAMIC DUO IN THE MAKING
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry yourk
With a win over Washington on Jan. 3, their ninth victory in 11 games, the Raptors climbed back above the .500 mark. The other unexpected consequence of the trade, and the most important for the short- and long-term success of the organization, was the emergence of Lowry and DeRozan. They blossomed individually as players and leaders, and together as a duo. Both enjoyed career years, with DeRozan making his first All-Star Game. As the season went on, their chemistry grew – on and off the court.
Lowry: “Early in Year 2 we still weren’t the DeMar and Kyle that everyone knows. We were cool but it wasn’t like who we are now, of course, because it took time. My first year there I didn’t really have a relationship with him at all. We didn’t talk much at all, besides on the court. And then going into that year we kinda had a little bit of familiarity with each other, but at the time, we were just teammates.”
DeRozan: “What’s crazy is there wasn’t a relationship. I didn’t have his [phone] number, we didn’t talk, we didn’t hang, we didn’t socialize, nothing. I really didn’t have any relationship with him at all the season before. And I think with so much happening when the trade [went down] that’s what brought us close, unknowingly. Just the competitive nature, the will to win – that’s what gave us the relationship and the bond that we have today.”
Casey: “Right, wrong, or indifferent, I think that Kyle’s friendship with Rudy [made for] a triangle there that just didn’t fit. And once Rudy left, I think it galvanized Kyle, DeMar, and the team. I think that situation brought them together. You could see it – the communication level, the friendship, hanging out with each other’s families. It really was beautiful to see.”
Lowry: “I think our mentality was the same but the way we went about it was perfect for what the organization needed at the time. I had to be me – feisty, fiery, got at people, and he was the quiet, calm, cool [guy]. It just meshed perfectly. It’s kind of cliché to say but it was like fire and ice. Not trying to be cool or anything but that’s literally how it was. It was like Kyle’s f---ing going to curse you out and DeMar’s going to be like, ‘Yo, good job.’”
The Raptors went 42-22 after the trade and finished the 2013-14 season with 48 wins, a franchise high at the time. We The North, the popular slogan and rallying cry that the team still uses to this day, was born that spring. Ahead of their opening-round playoff series against the Nets – their first postseason appearance in six years – Ujiri addressed a raucous crowd in the inaugural Jurassic Park with the iconic phrase: “F--k Brooklyn.”
Patterson: “When we ran out the tunnel [before Game 1], I’ve never heard anything that loud before. And I played at Rupp [Arena] in Lexington and those fans, Kentucky fans, are next level, like No. 1 in the world in my opinion. But when we first ran out on that court, we couldn’t hear anything, we couldn’t hear each other, we couldn’t even hear the music inside the arena because the fans were so loud, and the building was shaking. It was just that goosebump, stomach dropping, butterfly, roller coaster, Drop Zone feeling that you get. That’s what will always and forever stand out.”
Fields: “I thought that We The North campaign was absolutely brilliant. It was such a unifying theme. The team was starting to show some life and then you have this whole unification of an entire country, it rallied people in a way where there was this identity and this brand. It was such a palpable energy.”
DeRozan: “It’s kind of like when a dog gets behind you, you’re going to run faster than you normally run, you know what I mean? It was kinda that type of feel and sometimes that’s all you need is that fire lit underneath you to bring something out of you that you didn’t know you had in you.”
Patterson: “Just being there with those guys and as we started winning my attitude and demeanour just completely changed. And then once the snow and ice and all that finally melted, being in [Toronto], hanging around, meeting people, eating the food, and just trying to get out of my comfort zone, get out of my bubble, get out of my head, and just embrace where I am, that’s when I really started to fall in love with the city… As the success came, as the energy started rising, as we started turning things around, I think everybody’s mood started to change a lot.”
Casey: “It was Plan B, probably. Plan A was probably hoping and praying and crossing your fingers to get Wiggins, but it turned out for the best for everyone… It was such a transformation. It just changed at the drop of a hat. We were very competitive each and every night, on the offensive and defensive end, and it set the tone for being at the top of the conference every year and ultimately winning the championship.”
The lasting image of the franchise-altering 2013-14 season came in its dying moments. Lowry lay flat on his back in the middle of the paint, dejected after Paul Pierce blocked his last-second shot and Toronto was eliminated in Game 7 of the first round. DeRozan crouched over his teammate and friend, literally and figuratively lifting him up. Their unlikely run had finally come to an end, but for the first time in at least a half-decade, the team’s future was bright. That was the first of seven straight playoff appearances. Casey remains the club’s winningest head coach and is credited for his part in building the organization’s culture. DeRozan was named to four All-Star Games as a member of the Raptors and became their all-time leading scorer before being traded for Kawhi Leonard ahead of the title-winning season. Lowry went from nearly getting traded midway through his second year with the Raptors to spending nine memorable seasons in Toronto. After helping lead them to their first-ever championship in 2019, he’s widely regarded as the greatest player in franchise history. None of it happens if they didn’t catch lightning in a bottle a decade ago.
Lowry: “When Vince [Carter] left [in 2004] a lot of the air was taken out of the organization, the city. That’s how great he was. Then you go and you’ve got bad years and guys not giving you everything they could. But I think that [season] kinda changed the trajectory of the organization. It’s pretty special.”
DeRozan: “Me and Kyle went to dinner the other night and we sat and talked about how it started, how fun it was for us and how naïve we were for not knowing how much fun we were really having [in the moment]. It was such an amazing time because the connection and the bond, everything was so organic and genuine on and off the court. You can kind of lose sight of that and we didn’t really realize how special it was [at the time]. So that’s what makes it so good to look back at it now and talk about it. It was fun, man.”
Casey: “I had tasted a championship [as an assistant coach] in Dallas, so I knew what it felt like, but it was nothing like that [Raptors] organization – the great fan base that was there and being able to taste the playoffs for the first time in a long time. I remember Bryan Colangelo and I, when I first got there, going out and selling season tickets – having breakfast and coffee to get season ticket holders to renew and promising them that we were going to get it turned around. To see that whole fan base grow, Jurassic Park, We The North, that was probably my most gratifying coaching season.”
Lowry: “It meant everything to me. It really showed me how hard I had to work to be better. I think that’s what that year showed me is I have to work more, I have to work harder, I have to be better, I have to be a better leader, man, person. I think what it also did was it showed that if you win, the city and the country will love you. It takes you to different levels. Even as a person that lives in another country, I’m literally treated as one of them. Whenever I see a Canadian, still to this day, they show me so much love. It’ll be a place where hopefully my jersey will be retired first, and I will retire as a Raptor. That’s what that [season] did. It started a legacy and a relationship that means everything to me, still to this day.”