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How Dennis Schröder has evolved into a steadying force for the unsettled Raptors

In Sports
January 09, 2024

The Raptors have won three of four games, falling by just five points in Sacramento, ever since Toronto inserted Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett into head coach Darko Rajaković’s starting lineup on New Year’s Day. With that duo’s arrival from the Knicks as part of a trade for OG Anunoby, the Raptors went to Memphis and won before torching the Warriors in San Francisco on Sunday, all part of a six-game West Coast road trip. All while the future of All-Star forward Pascal Siakam looms over the franchise less than a month before the NBA’s trade deadline.

One rudder keeping Toronto on task amid these uncertain waves has been Dennis Schröder, the speedy playmaker and veteran point guard Rajaković depends on following shared days in Oklahoma City, who’s helping to establish a new culture rife with ball movement in the coach’s first try manning an NBA sideline. They spoke during the opening rush of free agency once Fred VanVleet spurned Toronto for Houston, and the Raptors were suddenly lacking a floor general next to Scottie Barnes. “We talked about [how] we’re going to be honest with each other,” Rajaković said. “I told him that I expect him to have a big role on our team. He’s at a great age. He’s 30 years old. Having that leadership role on our team is very, very important.”

Schröder’s seen the trades and the turmoil that come from NBA contract disputes and standoffs. Anunoby is with New York after rebuffing Toronto’s attempts at an extension, with a clear path to unrestricted free agency and a lucrative deal next summer. Siakam’s ongoing trade candidacy continues as the veteran plays out his own expiring contract, with no extension in place from the Raptors and his threat of testing the open market complicating teams’ pursuit of Siakam before the Feb. 8 deadline.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 07: Dennis Schroder #17 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball in the third quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center on January 07, 2024 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Dennis Schröder dribbles during the third quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center on Jan. 7, 2024, in San Francisco. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Look for an unresolved or waning partnership between player and team, and a trade often comes with it. After all, we’re only two years — “those two years,” as Schröder recalls them — removed from when Schröder’s former representation advised him to dismiss what became an infamous four-season, $84 million figure from the Lakers once he was traded from OKC. “And I would have signed it,” Schröder told Yahoo Sports. “I would never just leave money on the table. My mom didn’t raise me that way.” That didn’t stop the schadenfreude that followed his every dribble, post after post taunting how he fumbled a bag.

He no longer hears that noise, blocked by added perspective and by the bounce of the ball he drove time and again through Serbia’s defense in September, when Schröder powered Germany to gold at the 2023 FIBA World Cup. He credits his children for teaching him patience. His wife, Ellen, helped rationalize his losses compared to his victories. “It was like my two worst years of my career, and in those two years I made $8 million,” Schröder said. “I had two healthy kids, my mom, my siblings. I can buy anything I want. I had a $70 million contract before. A guy from Germany? From Braunschweig? I’m more than blessed. I’m with the people who love me and was there through the darkest days.”

There’s a comfort in Schröder’s gentle voice, like the exhausted father that he is after the end of a hard day’s work against Brooklyn in late November. His feet are both dunked inside frigid buckets, while he still wears the white compression tights from that night’s 14-point, nine-assist performance against the Nets. His knees are wrapped with their own bags of ice. A diamond is inked at the center of his bare chest in the middle of a pair of wings that stretch with the words “Hard Work Pays Off” scripted in cursive.

In Schröder’s lap sits an iPad with live footage of the Timberwolves facing his former Thunder teammate, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “I’m always watching basketball,” Schröder said. That means through Toronto’s bus ride to the airport and during their flight to the next NBA city. And that also means racing home from Raptors practices to catch his hometown club, Basketball Löwen, before its evening tip back in Braunschweig.

Schröder is not just the program’s most proven alumni, he holds sole ownership of the team for which he first became a professional. It’s no novelty act or plaything. The club would have folded, according to Schröder, without his initial 71.2% investment, and it needed millions in bailout money from the German government to help survive the pandemic. “To save my team from back in the day, it’s the best thing I can ever do,” Schröder said. He claimed to catch every one of his club’s games live this season, no matter the time change and Toronto’s jet-setting itinerary. He has a group message with Braunschweig’s entire roster where Schröder sends feedback after each contest. He does not hold back. He has never held back. “Last couple of games, I didn’t like how the players played,” Schröder said. “I mean, we can lose a game and give everything you have and miss shots, but you can’t lack competitiveness. That’s what I put in the group chat.”

“One thing nobody will ever say about Dennis is that he doesn’t compete,” said Lakers guard Austin Reaves, Schröder’s close friend and former teammate with the Lakers.

Schröder leaves day-to-day management responsibilities to Braunschweig’s president, but he’s involved in every final choice. “We decide together,” Schröder said. “As a team, as a family.” So far, Schröder’s greatest success has been resuscitating the club to not just play games again, but its home nights are now legitimate attractions. Schröder wanted to mimic the pageantry and showmanship of a night at any NBA arena. So lucky locals fire half-court heaves worth as much as 10,000 Euros. The dance cam constantly surveys the crowd to blast solos onto the stadium’s big screen. Schröder believes Braunschweig’s attendance has nearly doubled. “It’s almost like people can’t wait to go to the games because there’s so much going on,” Schröder said. Winning the World Cup must have provided an added boost. “I think it’s trending in the right direction,” he said, “and people are starting to love basketball in Germany.”

The national team has marked different chapters of Schröder’s career, both peaks and nadirs. He was unable to join Germany for the 2020 Olympics after he was unable to secure injury insurance while he remained unsigned as a free agent. “I wish I said f*** it and played,” Schröder told Yahoo Sports. But the massive money his counsel thought would be available, the expected sums far north of the Lakers’ initial advances, never materialized. Landing spots dried up left and right and emptied the board, until Schröder signed for the mid-level exception with the Boston Celtics — who traded him 49 games later.

The social media storm came with it, those jeers that follow when your life and career become memeable. “You can really see how people these days, how they are in life, they want to look at other people and pray for other people’s downfall,” Schröder said. “They don’t want to see you have a nice watch and have a nice car, be successful in basketball, raising up the trophy. A lot of people say congrats and they mean it, but a lot of people don’t.”

When he returned to Germany for Eurobasket in 2022, Schröder once again found himself without an NBA deal. It wasn’t until after leading the national team to a bronze medal alongside Franz Wagner that Schröder signed back with the Lakers on a veteran’s minimum. Then Schröder aided Los Angeles’ charge to the Western Conference finals. Rajakovic and Toronto’s two-year, $25.4 million offer were waiting for him come June 30, ending his free agency and his rebound from the bottom as quickly as he could exhale. “I’m not even worried about that [missed contract] anymore. It didn’t work out,” Schröder said. “God didn’t want me to get that, and you gotta move on.”

So when the confetti rained and Schröder’s children rushed the court inside Mall of Asia Arena, his boys were wearing black Raptors hats as Schröder celebrated being named MVP of Germany’s undefeated run through the World Cup.

“I wouldn’t say redemption. I mean, that’s an external motivator,” said Magic center Mo Wagner, a reserve on the gold-medal team. “He’s just a warrior, I always say that. Yeah, he’s kinda worked himself into that role. He gave us and still gives us a belief that that stuff’s possible. Which is not necessarily a German mentality to have.”

Schröder was at peace on that podium. He’s at peace as the elder statesman of Toronto, even if that now means coming off Rajaković’s bench in Quickley’s stead. Although Schröder relished the starting role, he is still scoring in double figures and closing games for a head coach he said he loves.

He believes another contract is coming after this first deal with the Raptors, whether in Toronto or elsewhere, when he’ll return to free agency at 32 years old. He believes he’ll still have plenty left to give, a danger to drive downhill on any given night.

“I’m not putting no time on it. I want to play til like 40, 45,” Schröder said, envisioning several seasons wearing a Braunschweig jersey once again. When the time comes, he’ll be well-versed in the roster machinations required to facilitate his signing, just like the Raptors’ familiarity with the ins and outs of the NBA’s annual trade window.

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