A popular perspective in the NBA universe is that there is nothing worse than being stuck on the mediocrity treadmill, a place of limbo of being too good for the lottery, but not good enough to be real contenders. The problem with this understanding of the NBA landscape, and using it as a pillar of team building is that it’s black and white categorization of teams neglects the existence of teams like the Raptors that find themselves thickly in the in-between, the grey. A stage of limbo in its own right, this tier is reserved for teams that are clearly a cut above those that have their season ceiling set at first round exits and below, but are also unable to call themselves true contenders.
Coming into this past season, the looming question was what the Raptors should do with soon-to-be free agent DeMar DeRozan. In a relatively shallow pool of marquee free agent talent, it was safe to assume that DeMar would command max money. The question of whether DeMar is worth the hefty contract has to be evaluated with two questions in mind. The first is whether the Raptors are going to be a championship contender with DeMar as one of their two stars (no). The second: with all things considered (available and future free agents, their likelihood of signing in Toronto, trade targets, etc.), is it better to hold onto a successful team by re-signing DeMar, then potentially taking a big step backwards and waiting on a potential upgrade that may never come? Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri made the prudent decision in opting to keep the team together, while tinkering around with the supplemental pieces of the roster. This is especially so when considering the city of Toronto’s collective sports record over the past decade and more. (Side note: Go Jays!)
A bird’s eye view of DeRozan’s past season shows a gleaming record of success. With averages of 23.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game, DeMar made his second straight All-Star team, and not only advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs, but co-led the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals. Oh, and he also won a gold medal at the Olympics.
The question for DeMar heading into the 2016-17 season as pondered by Ben Golliver of SI, is how close he is to maxing out his production with his current skill set, if he hasn’t done so already. With a player profile of the ilk that has taken the largest hit in the advancing age of analytics, DeRozan had a phenomenal season considering he’s far from a consistent shooter from beyond the arc, lacks the ideal defensive fundamentals and instincts, and is just efficient enough to produce a sufficient amount of winning so as to avoid being categorized with the likes of former teammate Rudy Gay.
DeMar’s playoff performances however give cause for concern, as despite the team’s success, DeRozan’s numbers declined in almost every meaningful category. Through 20 games, DeMar scored 21 points a game shooting below 40 percent from the field, an atrocious 15 percent from distance, while averaging two fewer free throws than he did in the regular season.
The best case scenario for this season is that DeMar adds to his game, showing off an extended range which would not only improve the spacing for the team, but also open up the floor for his greatest strength: his drives to the basket.
A hopeful, and more realistic scenario is that DeMar improves around the margins, taking slightly fewer long-twos, inching his overall field goal percentage closer to 50 percent, while hitting his three pointers at a slightly better clip, nearing 35 percent.
A less positive, but also realistic scenario is that following the team’s success, others around the league plan more deliberately for DeRozan, coerce him into magnifying his bad habits, leading to a step backwards in efficiency towards “chucker” territory.
All of that is to say, despite available data, only time will tell. Is DeMar DeRozan the perfect star for the Toronto Raptors, or even in the top 3 at his position? No. That said, was re-signing the first major home grown free-agent, who co-led the team to new heights, and showed a genuine interest and passion in staying in Toronto the right call? Definitely. DeMar DeRozan may not be the ideal player for today’s pace and space game, but his track record and commitment to both the city and franchise have earned him at least the benefit of the doubt heading into this season.