Following the Raptors' humiliating sweep at the hands of the Wizards, Masai Ujiri was understandably mum on his plans for the franchise moving forward. The Raptors boss did however repeat one sentiment throughout his predictably tight-lipped press conference on Tuesday: patience is a must as the Raptors head into a pivotal off-season.
If you were scrolling through a Twitter timeline or comment section on Sunday night as the last few moments of the Raptors' season mercifully wound down, patience and levelheadedness were the last things you were likely to come across. Piled on top of the cries for Dwane Casey's dismissal were demands for the Raptors to part ways with one or both of their All-Star guards, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
It seems doubtful that Ujiri will be answering those calls - particularly when it comes to his back court duo. And in the case of DeRozan specifically, it wouldn't make a lick of sense to do so.
The 25-year-old doesn't fit the profile of a typical NBA star. He's a perimeter player with an inability to shoot threes consistently. He's a tremendous attacker of the basket, but settles for the dreaded mid-range jump far too often. And while he is a gifted athlete, he has never been considered a premier lock-down defender.
But despite his oft-maddening style of play, DeRozan has ascended to All-Star status on the back of a well-documented commitment to expanding and improving his game each and every year.
Like a lot of Toronto's players, DeRozan came into his own during the team's turnaround season in 2013-'14. Prior to that breakout campaign, it was unclear whether or not DeRozan could play with the efficiency required of a go-to option - to that point, his career-high player efficiency rating was a slightly below average 14.7 in 2012-13.
Something clicked in 2013-14 though, as the Southern California product displayed multifaceted improvements to his overall game:
|2012-13 (82 GP)||17.7||3.4||2.8||1.4 / 28.3||5.1||52.3||12.0||14.7|
|2013-14 (79 GP)||21.4||4.1||3.7||2.5 / 30.5||7.5||53.2||18.9||18.4|
His improvement was truly impressive - and it netted him a well-deserved spot on the All-Star team. More importantly though, it seemed to justify the heavily-scrutinized extension that ex-Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo doled out to DeRozan at the outset of the final season of his rookie deal.
That extension - worth an annual cap hit of $10.1 million - was looking like a wonderful bargain following the guard's breakout year - and it probably still is. But the good feelings surrounding DeRozan's development were dampened slightly this year. After a season that began with a November-long slump followed by the first severe injury of DeRozan's career - and ended with last week's monumental playoff letdown - questions have risen regarding his potential as a franchise cornerstone.
In a way, those concerns have some weight. DeRozan has numerous foibles that will probably prevent him from ever becoming the type of player that can single-handedly lead a team to contention.
Three-point shooting has always been a struggle for him. After making a mini-step forward and creeping above 30 percent from beyond the arc in 2013-14, he took a step back this season. Not only did he make just 28.4 percent of his threes, but he only attempted 88 long balls in 60 games (1.5/game) after launching 210 in 79 games (2.7/game) in his All-Star year.
Such a lack of floor-spacing from the team's star guard was incredibly detrimental for the Raptors at times this year. For example, it prevented Casey from regularly playing DeRozan and James Johnson together - even though that tandem performed incredibly well on the defensive end this season (97.3 DRtg - 2nd best among regularly played two-man combos behind Johnson/Tyler Hansbrough).
On top of his struggles from distance, DeRozan experienced a noticeable drop-off in his mid-range game - a problem for a player so dependent on knocking down long twos. After shooting 41.4 and 39.5 percent from between 16 feet and the three-point line in his two previous seasons, DeRozan converted on only 35.2 percent of such shots this year.
All told, he posted a career low shooting percentage of just 41.3 percent. Had it not been for a steady stream of free-throw attempts, his PER would have fallen far below the 17.4 total he posted this year. Combine those depressed numbers with his propensity for completely stymieing the Raptors' ball-movement, and it's understandable to question his fit with this team.
At the same time, there are a multitude of reasons to love what DeRozan offers - and there remains plenty of hope that his glaring flaws can be rectified - or at least overshadowed by having DeRozan maximize his strengths.
As he's been apt to do throughout his career, DeRozan has added elements to his game over the course of the last couple years that could fit nicely into a more modern, free-flowing offense than the Raptors ran this year.
DeRozan's assist rate has spiked in his two most recent seasons compared to his first four in the league. A big part of that can be attributed to his improved drive-and-kick ability. Because he is such an excellent attacker of the rim, DeRozan commands multiple defenders any time he penetrates the defense. Lately, he has exhibited an ability to find open shooters on the perimeter when defenses collapse around him.
For example, shown below is the play leading to Lou Williams' go-ahead three-pointer in overtime against Boston on April 4th. DeRozan attacks the lane around a Patrick Patterson screen before displaying his excellent play-making ability:
This was a regular occurrence for DeRozan this season, and his ability to pull off such passes provides optimism that he could thrive in a different offensive scheme in spite of his current inefficient tendencies. If DeRozan is able to bolster his drive-and-kick frequency moving forward, it's not a stretch to suggest that he could morph into a player resembling an impoverished-man's James Harden (that's not a slight against DeRozan, but rather an acknowledgement of Harden's superiority).
Of course, Harden can shoot threes at a percentage that DeRozan has never come close to sniffing. And DeRozan's upside as a player will always be limited as long as he fails to connect on - or even attempt - a higher volume of outside shots. However, while his career 27.0 percent accuracy from deep is monstrously ugly, DeRozan's outside shot can not yet be considered a lost cause.
Over the last two seasons, DeRozan has shot just 89-298 (29.5%) on threes; his conversion rate varies drastically depending on where he shoots those threes from. Since the start of 2013-14, the former 9th-overall pick has made 59 of 152 corner threes for a very respectable 38.8 percent. It's when he travels above the break that he gets in trouble. He's gone just 30-145 (20.7 percent) from that part of the floor in that time span.
That's an ugly figure no doubt, but his ability to knock down corner threes gives hope that DeRozan may yet be able to diversify his offensive repertoire. He is widely recognized as a tireless gym rat, and it's not beyond the realm of possibility that he could return to camp in the fall as an advanced floor-spreader.
In his end-of-season press conference, Casey pointed to the Raptors personnel as a reason for the team's iso-heavy, ball-stopping offense that became incredibly predictable and easy to stop in the playoffs. And while Williams and maybe even Lowry are dependent on that style of play in order to be productive, DeRozan does not have to be.
His ever-improving ability to pass out of traffic and his relative steadiness on corner threes (and hopefully on all threes after another summer of work) provide an excellent base set of skills that, combined with his existing traits - strong post moves, a knack for hitting tough shots and an underrated strength on defense (he was after all the only Raptor who successfully defended Paul Pierce in the playoffs) - should make it easy for DeRozan to thrive in the modern NBA.
In fact, we recently got a glimpse of exactly how brightly he can shine when his extensive set of tools coalesces at once. He earned NBA Player of the Month honours for April thanks to a line of 24.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists on 49.2 percent shooting and a modestly upgraded 31.3 percent clip from three.
There is no doubt that he has his limitations. The three-point stroke may never come around, and he will almost certainly never be one of the great go-to options in the league. But with his reasonable salary, he doesn't have to be - especially with the salary cap set to skyrocket in the coming years.
Having DeRozan on the roster won't inhibit Ujiri from reeling in a high-priced player via free agency or trade. And should a Ujiri talent-coup come to pass, the Raptors will have a bargain-priced, multi-talented second option in DeRozan ready to pair with whoever the incoming star may be.
His ceiling has still yet to be reached. And the Raptors would be foolish not to see his development all the way through. Moving on from a player who has proven he is never a finished product would not only deplete Toronto's roster of talent it so desperately needs - but it would completely contradict Ujiri's grand vision of methodically and patiently building an NBA contender.