There may not be a more perplexing player to evaluate in the NBA than DeMar DeRozan. His pros and cons list is pages long, and is surely being mulled over again and again by the Raptors front office ahead of this summer's looming decision: let DeRozan leave as a free-agent once he opts out, or sign him to a max-contract and keep him as an expensive piece of Toronto's long-term core.
Any conversation about DeRozan begins with his propensity for annual improvement -- the product of his dial-breaking give-a-shit meter. In seven seasons DeRozan has evolved from being an athlete without a game into a slashing terror who can pile up free throws, create for his teammates and knock down tough shots that most wings don't even attempt.
Some of those strengths, however, are also where the anti-DeRozan camp bases its argument from. Those turn-around, contested jumpers we've come to expect from DeRozan a few times a game are gorgeous when they fall, but infuriating when they clank. He's done a good job of decreasing his dependence on tricky shots from the mid-range this season, but the DeRozan isolation remains one of the team's most counted-on bailout plays.
DeRozan is one of a handful of players in team history who is exclusively recognized as a born-and-bred Raptor. Tracy McGrady left before realizing his potential, Vince Carter sulked his way out of town and Chris Bosh left after the front office failed for years to build an adequate supporting cast around him. Sure, there are guys like Alvin Williams and Morris Peterson who are easily identifiable as classic Raptors alumni, but neither of those guys have the clout of DeRozan, Toronto's home-grown two-time All-Star.
But then, of course, there are DeRozan's playoff showings. Drawing conclusions from small samples has become sacrilege in basketball analysis circles, and for good reason. A full season -- and often times more than that -- is needed in order to properly assess any player or team. But when it comes to DeRozan and his playoff struggles, that standard seems to be thrown out the window. Coming in to this series with Indiana, DeRozan's marked improvement and wire-to-wire excellence this year seemed to win over the fan base on the idea of keeping him around for the long haul.
Oh how things can change in nine days.
DeRozan has been a disaster in four games against the Pacers. He's taken 71 shots in the series -- fifty of which have missed. After posting a nearly 2-to-1 assist-turnover ratio in the regular season, DeRozan has coughed up as many balls as he has delivered to his teammates for scores. Normally someone who takes up residence at the free throw line, DeRozan has failed to get to the stripe in two games against Indy. Such a thing didn't happen once in the regular season. His 3.5 PER is not a typo. Even his "good" game on Thursday saw him go 7-of-19. He was somehow a team-worst -1 in a game the Raptors won by 16.
That's now eight-straight playoff games in which DeRozan has failed to affect winning. He wasn't the biggest issue the Raptors had against the Wizards last April, but he certainly didn't lift the team either. His shot was wayward, and his free-throw rate was as equally minuscule as it is this time around. That he's doubled-down with another poor playoff outing this year has, understandably, incited calls for change.
We've come to learn over the last seven years that DeRozan's flaws are such that he'll never be able to be the best player on a team serious about winning a title; he probably isn't even good enough to be the second guy in a contending Big Three. He has however, been the leading scorer and co-offensive fulcrum for a team that has set a franchise wins total in three straight regular seasons. For some fans, who view success through the prism of what happens in spring, that's not enough. The playoff downfalls have clearly soured a large swatch of the fan base on DeRozan being a part of the Raptors' future.
Hypocritical as it is to judge DeRozan on 15 career post-season games, questions about DeRozan's makeup as a playoff performer are swirling. And, hey, maybe there really is something to them. He's been absolutely swallowed up by Paul George in this series -- even more so than he was by Otto Porter Jr. last spring. Instead of taking advantage of the attention being paid to him by the Pacers' best defender and facilitating for his teammates, DeRozan has amplified the problem by running right down the gullet of the dragon. Most of his drives have either been snuffed out at the point of attack by George, or ended violently by a Myles Turner swat. Still, he keeps on trying -- and Dwane Casey keeps on trusting (aside from the fourth quarter of Toronto's Game 2 win).
It's not crazy to suggest that George and the Pacers are in DeRozan's head. The relationship between the two All-Stars goes back to their high school days; it's human nature to want to get the best of a rival, no matter how unlikely it may be. Has anyone out there had a similar experience with an older brother? All that said, part of enduring in the playoffs is overcoming mental hurdles. DeRozan simply hasn't done that against Indiana.
Maybe it's not psychological at all, though. It could just be that George, one of the two or three best wing defenders in basketball, is one of a select few players capable of neutralizing DeRozan's crafty game. There are no 6-9 monstrosities to line up across from DeRozan waiting in the second round. Miami and Charlotte's rosters aren't exactly built with defensive pushovers, but DeRozan has shown this season an ability to bully smaller wings, no matter how defensively stout -- something he could not claim in years past. The first round could be a minor blip on the radar for this improved edition of DeRozan.
For those who were already on the fence about bringing him back, though, the last four games may have been enough to crush any belief they had in DeRozan as a long-term fit with the franchise.
But what happens if the Raptors do in fact deem the '"cons" column too extensive to bring DeRozan back? If the Raptors are going to allow him to walk away this summer, there will need to be a succession plan that ensures minimal drop-off next season. If fans are unimpressed by a less-than-convincing first round performance after a 56-win regular season, then they may want blood if the team takes a step back next year without its leading scorer.
Coming up with realistic ways to fill a potential DeRozan void is difficult, but not impossible. The upcoming free agent class is paper thin, especially so on the wings. On top of that, the Raptors are financially hampered due to the healthy extensions given to Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, which kick in this summer. Assuming DeRozan signs elsewhere, and James Johnson, Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo leave as expected, the Raptors will have a shade under $19 million in cap space to work with (shout out to our Daniel Hackett for that confirmation) -- that probably rules them out when it comes to Nicolas Batum, the best wing on the market and most sensible fit with the Raptors among potentially available wings. Could some finagling be done to free up more room? Yes, but that would cut into depth that was so important to the Raptors this season. Swapping DeRozan and say, Patrick Patterson out for Batum on a near-max deal would probably a NET negative for the Raptors.
Below Batum, the field is sparse. Courtney Lee and Gerald Henderson, for example, are nice role players to have on a good team, but neither would be capable of filling a DeRozan-sized hole in nightly production. There was a time when Eric Gordon would have been an immaculate complement to the driving terror that is Kyle Lowry, but now any contract the injury-riddled Gordon receives will be overflowing with risk.
Norman Powell and Ross are the obvious in-house replacements. However, Ross has looked much more at home as a reserve this year, and it's risky to put that kind of burden on a second-rounder like Powell who flashed brilliance mainly in the garbage time portion of the season. Who knows -- maybe Powell's late season exploits were foreshadowing for a year-two explosion. That's the kind of gamble a rebuilding team can take willy-nilly, but for a team looking to uphold a 56-win standard, Powell is probably best served as a key reserve in his sophomore season.
Lowry has always been a more positive force than DeRozan, and there's something to the idea of letting Lowry run the show while giving Valanciunas an uptick in usage to help absorb the lost DeRozan production. We've seen in these playoffs just how much of a force Valanciunas can be; his pick-and-roll offense and passing seem to be making jumps by the day. However, we're just two months removed from the days of questioning whether or not Masai Ujiri needed to trade for another offensive weapon to help alleviate the load placed on Lowry and DeRozan's shoulders. Those concerned with Lowry's sky-high minutes totals this season won't have those fears erased next year if the team decides to go DeRozan-less. In fact, it was the stretch in 2014-15 where Lowry carried the team while DeRozan was injured that was the first rock to fall in the avalanche that crushed that team.
The most logical path to seamlessly replacing DeRozan would be to do so via trade. A nice benefit of Powell's play this season is that it may make Ross and his soon-to-be three-year / $31.5 million contract expendable. Perhaps that's the key to matching salary in a trade to bring in more weighty replacement for a departed DeRozan. Still, the "trade Ross" route probably requires the Raptors to ship off bench pieces as well to match money, in addition to some of the draft picks Ujiri has collected. If the right name becomes available say, at the draft, then that could be the way to re-jig team for next season while allowing the flawed DeRozan to leave.
If a trade can't be completed until the free agency window opens, though, then the Raptors will be treading in dangerous waters -- at risk of losing an All-Star without any guarantee that a sufficient replacement can be found.
The looming DeRozan decision, as is the case with so many of his shots, will not be easy. It can't be as simple as "he can't succeed in the playoffs, set him loose." Doing so would be putting too much stock in a teensy-weensy sample of playoff experience. Then again, if the Raptors front office feels as though it can find a more cost-effective way to fill DeRozan's shoes while boosting the team's odds of making sustained playoff runs, then of course it should look to do so. The problem is, such a solution isn't just going to materialize from the ether.
Even if you're in favour of severing ties with DeRozan, it's hard to deny that the most reasonable outcome for all sides would be for the Raptors to offer him a five-year max, hope he takes it, and then seek to trade what will surely be a movable contract if it looks like things aren't going to work out.
That isn't exactly an inspired solution, I know. It seems like a half-measure at a time in the franchise's trajectory where stasis might not be the desire of the fans. But we know from watching DeRozan over the years -- and even in that first-round series with Brooklyn in 2014 -- that he's a better player than he's displayed over the last four games, and should be able to contribute to a successful playoff team, although maybe not one on the level of your Golden States, San Antonios or Clevelands.
A string of dreadful playoff games, no matter how embarrassing, shouldn't wipe away all of the progress DeRozan has made in his time with Toronto. He's helped the franchise dig itself out of irrelevance, been a leading voice touting the merits of the city, and is a pillar of one of the best teams in the team's 21-year existence. Maybe he really is the playoff choker the last two years have illustrated him to be, but without DeRozan's dependability in the fold next season, there are no assurances the Raptors will even get the opportunity to dance.
Where do you stand on the DeMar DeRozan question?