On DeMar DeRozan, and Other Raptors Playoff Thoughts

First things first: DeMar DeRozan is a good professional basketball player. A very good professional basketball player, even, as evidenced by his 23.5 points per game during the regular season, to go along with two NBA All-Star Game appearances. He is one of the faces of the Toronto Raptors franchise, the team’s all-time leading playoff scorer, and has been a part of the most successful regular seasons in franchise history.

Put that all together, and you have a legitimate NBA player. Furthermore, DeRozan has embraced both the city of Toronto, and the work it takes to improve as a basketball player at the professional level, getting better in each of his 7 seasons in the league. An athlete with that kind of drive and that kind of love for his adopted city is the stuff Toronto sports legends are made of.

So why is DeMar DeRozan such a source of grief for Raptors fans?

dd1

A small sample of the reaction to DeRozan’s Game 2 performance in the 2016 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.

The answer: well, it’s complicated.

As mentioned above, DeRozan has worked tirelessly throughout his career to become a better shooter, ballhandler, passer, defender, etc. In his defense, it has paid off, and DeRozan is a more well-rounded player than many people ever anticipated. It’s no coincidence that his team has improved as his skills have done the same, and there are nights when DeRozan’s combination of shot-making and foul-baiting wins the Raptors games almost single-handedly.

The issue, then, isn’t DeRozan’s skill or work ethic. No one can take that from him, and rightly so. The issue is more that DeRozan’s game is better suited for eras of NBA past.

In today’s NBA, a premium is placed on 3-point shooting, for a variety of reasons. To briefly summarize:

  • 3-point threats afford teams precious spacing on offense.
  • This spacing opens the floor for a more varied offensive attack: play up on your man, and you’ll get beat on the drive or by a back-cut; play off your man, and you give up a good look at 3 points for your opponent.
  • Spacing also creates room for movement on offense in the form of cutting, screening, and passing, which is less predictable to defend, and forces the defense to exert more energy than against a stagnant set.
  • 3 is greater than 2 (and 1), which is just about the extent of my mathematical knowledge.

The reason I make this point is because, despite small improvements over his career, 3-point shooting is not one of DeRozan’s strong suits. He makes up for this with an effective mid-range game and an elite ability to get to the free throw line…in the regular season. In the playoffs, however, when teams are able to gameplan extensively for a single opponent, DeRozan has proven to be less effective, in part due to the fact that he isn’t a consistent 3-point threat.

In fairness, in no way am I blaming the Raptors’ lack of playoff success on DeRozan’s lack of a 3-point shot. He’s one of the team’s two best players, and there’s a reason this team has won a combined 61 games between this year’s regular season and playoffs. Getting back to the question posed above, though, DeRozan’s style of play has been caught up in a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances that has recently enveloped the Raptors’ offense this post-season:

  • Kyle Lowry has lost his jump shot. This is huge for so many reasons, as he’s the engine that makes this team run, but to get DD-specific, Lowry as a shooting threat opens up the floor on offense for DeRozan’s drives and mid-range game (again, spacing is the DJ Khaled-level key).
  • With Lowry at less than 100%, DeRozan has been forced to carry a greater load on offense. The problem here:

offense consisting of mid-range shots and drives + locked-in defenders adequate spacing = an offense averaging right around 1 point per possession in the first two games of the TOR-MIA series

  •  In other words, u-g-l-y.

You could back DeRozan by asking, “What else can he do when his running mate is in such a funk?” He has put in a couple 30+ point performances this post-season, and made some big shots in big moments. Someone needs to shoot the ball, after all. Fair enough.

The reality, though, is that even Kobe, the classic mid-range gunner, occasionally trusted his teammates at important times. This trust in supporting players like Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll, and Terrence Ross is essential to kickstarting the Raptors’ offense. Too often during these playoffs has DeRozan received a pass and looked off a teammate to take a long contested or off-balance jumper. Yes, Masai Ujiri went out and got guys like Carroll and Cory Joseph for their defensive acumen, but they can also be useful offensive players in their own right if given the opportunity. As Daryl Morey and every somewhat analytics-savvy basketball fan will tell you, the long two-pointer is the worst shot in basketball, statistically-speaking. When that shot is coming at the expense of ball movement and potential opportunities for a better look at the basket, it’s now easier to see why a two-time All-Star draws such ire from the Raptors fanbase at times.

Much of this falls on the coaching staff, to be sure, and I pray to every possible deity that Dwane Casey is scheming at this moment to freshen up an attack that has gone dry. But the NBA is a star’s league, and it’s up to stars like DeRozan to consciously choose to have a positive impact on his team and on the game.

Other Thoughts

  • Despite the aesthetically-disturbing brand of basketball played over the past two games, and despite Lowry and DeRozan shooting as poorly as they have, the series is tied 1-1 heading to Miami. Given the circumstances, it could easily be worse for the Raptors.
  • Optimism as a Toronto sports fan is dangerous and probably inadvisable, but: are we witnessing Jonas Valanciunas take the proverbial “next step” in his development right before our eyes? His low post scoring, rebounding, and even the odd case of rim protection have been a sight for sore eyes. In any case, the man needs his coach and his teammates to get him more involved in the offense.
  • Healthy(ish) DeMarre Carroll is a gift from the basketball gods. I will now knock on wood for 6 hours straight while looking up “how not to jinx shit” on Google.
  • Dwane Casey takes a lot of flak, and whatever the hell was drawn up to end regulation in Game 2 is deserving of the Game of Thrones “shame” treatment, but his insertion of folk legend James Johnson into the game when Joe Johnson was cooking was a great call. James gave the Raps some good defensive energy throughout his limited minutes, and he deserves credit for staying ready to contribute.
  • Random prediction: he’s been quiet so far in this series, but Bismack Biyombo will have a beastmode game in Miami.
  • Lastly: I’d like it to be known that if/when I die of a heart-related ailment, I fully blame the Toronto Raptors for piling copious amounts of stress on their fanbase year after year. I need a hobby.
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