September 15, 2016.
The day Sports Illustrated released their annual list of the NBA’s top 100 players.
Not so coincidentally, this day was also significant for one DeMar DeRozan.
FOH. 46— DeMar DeRozan (@DeMar_DeRozan) September 16, 2016
DeMar — coming off a career season and a conference finals appearance — was not particularly content with his place among the league’s finest. Dwight Howard, Steven Adams, Andre Iguodala, and eventual teammate Serge Ibaka all took their places above DeRozan on SI’s list. The rankings had the Raptors’ star forty-sixth best in the league, blasphemous for a player most would consider not even deserving of a hyphen.
Just months after representing his nation on their journey to Olympic gold alongside teammate Kyle Lowry, Double-D was ready for a new opportunity to face his critics: the 2016-17 NBA season. With LeBron James approaching greatest of all-time status, and expectations back home in Toronto at an all-time premium, Deebo would need to elevate his game to a whole new level. Inspired by SI’s list, DeMar showed Raptors fans and NBA fans alike, why you never mess with the kid from Compton.
Mr. “I Am Toronto” finds himself in somewhat uncharted territories following his 2016-17 season. Finishing in the top-5 in league scoring behind only Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas, and Anthony Davis, DeRozan became only the second Raptor in franchise history to do so (along with Vince Carter, who did it on two occasions). Not only did DeMar score more often than a year prior — his previous best season — by 3.8 PPG, he also scored more efficiently (by over 2%), in slightly fewer minutes per game. DeMar especially impressed while leading the Raptors through a long stretch without backcourt mate, Kyle Lowry, leading the team to a 15-7 record in the All-Star guard’s absence.
The Mid-range Messiah was the engine that fuelled Toronto this season, scoring 40+ points a whopping six times. DeMar also took home conference Player of the Week honours, a franchise-record four times in what may very well go down as the best individual season by a Toronto Raptor.
A few things were made very evident as the regular season progressed. One, DeMar learned a great deal from his exposure to other superstars at his time representing the U.S. Men’s National team at Rio. Two, DeMar tweaked his mindset, attacking the rim early and often with his unique mix of athleticism and touch that separates him from most in the league. Three, Instead of trying to conform to the modern NBA, DeMar played in his comfort zone, attempting fewer 3’s but also not relying as heavily from deep with the addition of a very reliable floater, and great footwork providing separation in the mid-range. The culmination of all this? Only the most efficient high-volume scoring season in franchise history, topping Vince Carter’s best season in Points per 36 Mins by nearly 3. If that’s not enough to impress his toughest critics, I compared DeRozan’s season — being his eighth season in the league — to Kobe Bryant’s eighth season. You guessed it, Deebo outscored Kobe (27.3 - 24), shooting a higher % (46.7% - 43.8%), in less minutes (35.4 - 37.6).
I’m not suggesting we should start dubbing Double-D, DeKobe DeBryant — though fans on Twitter have already gone ahead and done just that — but to be able to compare seasons to one of the greatest of all-time is no small accomplishment. For his efforts, he was named to his first ever All-NBA team, becoming only the fourth Raptor in franchise history to boast such an honour.
The Toronto Raptors came into the 2016-17 campaign with the stated goal of representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. As most NBA fans (and players) know by now, all roads through the East go through LeBron. James has made it to the big dance on six consecutive occasions, tied for the longest streak ever with long-time teammate James Jones a.k.a. the luckiest man on the planet. At this point, LeBron’s greatness is undeniable, but the King still feels he has something to prove, which is bad news for just about every Eastern Conference team with finals aspirations. Especially for the team who came up just short a year prior.
The bottom line, the DeRozan-led Raptors (even after new additions Ibaka and P.J. Tucker), were no match for LeBron. A four-game sweep to the King and his cavalry was not the outcome Masai Ujiri envisioned after the playoff successes of a year prior. Ultimately, though not entirely fairly, DeRozan’s ability to win at the highest level will now be further questioned. Looking deeper into some numbers, it’s not hard to see why. Despite DeMar outputting the most efficient playoff performance of his career, he averaged almost 5 points per game fewer, and shot over 3% worse from the field than he did in the regular season.
His playoff performances, in conjunction with Lowry’s have earned the Raptors a reputation of being a “regular season team.” (I swear, if I have to see one more Barney meme...) The reality is, this team can only go as far as their backcourt takes them, and come playoff time, the All-Star duo often has their best performances behind them.
In addition to some playoff woes, DeMar has an area of his game that still needs addressing. No, not the development of his 3-point shot (although Raps fans would certainly welcome that). It’s his play on the defensive end, leaving much to be desired. DeRozan was never a notably good defender. The Raptors knew this when they selected him 9th in the 2009 draft. His first two seasons saw him finish with a Defensive Rating of 115, which for those of you who don’t know, is atrocious. Since his sophomore year, he has seen his DRtg hover around 109 (still bad), and this season saw it drop to 110 (111 in the playoffs). With the amount of minutes DeMar is expected to play, his importance as a defender in a league where there are many talented scorers, has never been greater. DeMar possesses the lateral quickness and hands to be an effective NBA defender, and I believe it’s the next step his game must take.
The Grade: A
Looking back at the NBA’s season as a whole, there are few players who broke out in the way that DeRozan was able to. Coming off his best season in every regard, DeMar was able to prove to those guys over at SI why he deserves to be in the upper echelon of their annual list.
DeRozan used his criticisms as fuel, perhaps having the greatest season ever by a Toronto Raptor. Despite his inability to get over a King-sized hump, the dominance and fluidity DeRozan showed in his ability to score the basketball, alongside the consistency with which he performed should earn him a top-15 spot on next year’s list, and hopefully another playoff run for his Raptors.