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DeMar DeRozan and the limits of #ProveEm

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The Raptors season ended in disappointment, and left Toronto wondering about the limits of its franchise player, DeMar DeRozan.

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Like many Raptors fans, I think about the decision to draft Rafael Araujo over Andre Iguodala in 2004 all the time. For a franchise long prone to making bad decisions, this was an all-timer. In fact, it’s one of those rare, perplexing basketball decisions that even right then in the moment, the very second it happened, looked bad. Time only confirmed it.

Some context: Toronto was coming off a brutal 33-49 season, the lone year in which the team was coached by the screaming Kevin O’Neill. Vince Carter was still hanging around (and clearly hated that fact), along with Jalen Rose, Donyell Marshall, and a rookie Chris Bosh. (The team also saw “contributions” from players like Rod Strickland, Michael Curry, Jerome Williams, and Michael Bradley, his selection by Toronto in the 2001 Draft also ranking in the top 10 of bad Raptors decisions). The team’s decline that season got them the eighth pick, which they wasted on the aforementioned Araujo. Then they went out and had an identically brutal 2004-05 campaign, got the seventh pick, took Charlie Villaneuva, and, uh, got even worse.

What we know now for certain is that the Raptors should have taken Iguodala, who was, at 21 in his rookie season, already a far better player than Araujo could ever dream of becoming. That Andre is still in the league at 34 years old, and still hugely valuable to a championship-winning team is evidence enough of all that. (He’s missed the last two games for the Warriors, and both times they’ve lost.) Had Toronto been smart and just taken him, they would have had the young athletic wing they were trying so hard to find (and wouldn’t actually get for another decade and a half — hi OG!), instead of the duck-footed lug they got.

Except it wouldn’t have really solved the Raptors’ problems at the time. In fact it may have even made the situation worse. This is not Iguodala’s fault — he’s a talented player, with a specific skill set that is obviously useful (and seemingly getting more useful by the year). But it’s interesting to note that in his best years as a young player, as the de facto number one player on the Philadelphia 76ers from 2006 to 2012, his team never won more than 41 games. Again, this is not his fault. After trading Allen Iverson, Iguodala was the best player on those Sixers squads — teams filled with dudes like young Samuel Dalembert, Kyle Korver, and Lou Williams, and then saddled with old Elton Brand (and even older Iverson).

Iguodala was paid to be the top guy, he looked the part, and he did everything he could to get his team over the hump, averaging between 12 and just shy of 20 points, dishing 4-6 assists and grabbing 4-5 rebounds per game in those years. Toss in his well-honed defensive skills, and Iguodala was a very clear net positive for the Sixers, even if they only made it out of the first round of the playoffs once (beating a injury-decimated Bulls team in 2012). To be crystal clear here: this lack of results is not Iguodala’s fault. It’s just that, as has be born out over time, he’s at his best as a complementary piece on a good or great team. He was a good fit as part of the multi-faceted Denver attack, post-Carmelo trade, and he’s a tremendous fit in Golden State, playing behind four All-Stars and being asked to do all of the little things he’s be doing his entire career. Today, Iguodala has become the best version of himself, and found the best possible team on which to prove it.

Which brings us back to the Raptors and their most decorated and longest-tenured player: DeMar DeRozan.

Years after those disastrous mid-00 yeas, the Raptors are the best they’ve ever been. They just won 59 games by playing some of the most Fun and Good basketball we’ve seen since the literal turn of the century. But we’re all sitting here at the end of May feeling only crushing disappointment. We all know why — the Raptors got hammered by the Cleveland Cavaliers and once again had to face the fact that even their absolute best may not be good enough, that the players on the team may only find the best versions of themselves if they are somehow put in a different position or prove themselves to be more than what they are in time. It’s why many Toronto fans and NBA speculators are wondering about major trades for the Raptors, featuring one of those core pieces (and their biggest contracts).

And it’s also why DeRozan’s name keeps coming up. While the Cavs’ onslaught was ongoing, his shortcomings seemed most exposed in the playoffs. (And his trade value also happens to be at its highest). Throughout his post-season run, DeRozan gamely kept coming back to the idea that the Raptors have always responded best to adversity. It was a laudable sentiment (even if, uh, that has often not been the case). When pressed, DeRozan made it clear: if he was to go down, he was going to go down swinging. And, furthermore, if people doubted he could do something, he was determined to prove that he could.

Regardless of how it ended, this past season for DeRozan was definitively the best of his career. He was the best version of himself to date, posting all kinds of statistical achievements on his way to a berth on the All-NBA Second Team, cementing his spot as one of the 15 best players in the league for the past year. For what it’s worth now, the Raptors needed only to put the ball in DeRozan’s hands and more often than not he’d make the right play — be it to take a good high-percentage shot, or, as was increasingly the case this past season, make the correct read to an open teammate. In one sense, beyond all of his slick offensive moves, this is DeRozan’s defining trait: his ability to refine and add more elements to his game even when it has looked like he would not (or could not) do it. When coupled with the other improvements to the Raptors, we get to those 59 wins, the number one seed, and the best team in franchise history.

The problem now is that we may have reached the limits of DeRozan’s game. The steps left for him to take — becoming a better defender, learning to better move without the ball, evolving into a more efficient long-range shooter — may stray too far fundamentally from who DeRozan is as a player. And as has now been proven beyond any doubt, while DeRozan is very good at what he does (and it is admirable how hard he has worked to become as good as he is), it may not be in a team’s best interest to have him be the number one option, the guy with the ball in his hands all the time. There’s nothing wrong with DeRozan’s belief in himself, there’s nothing wrong with the team trying in the face of adversity — but where can this all go now?

The career of Iguodala, that player the Raptors passed on all those years ago, still so valuable albeit in a different way, is instructive in this case. If he had ended up in Toronto, we can envision a similar scenario: he’d get paid like the number one or two guy, be expected to carry a large offensive load, be, in effect, the chief creator and best defender, on a team trying to muscle its way through the playoffs. Much like the Raptors did in those Chris Bosh years, Toronto would have probably slammed into a hard ceiling and been forced to reevaluate their personnel (just as the Sixers were eventually forced to do). We likely would have gotten some better basketball to watch in that decade (which is not nothing), and the team wouldn’t have been laughed at for all time for drafting Araujo, but we’d all end up in the same place.

It’s the trap the Raptors find themselves in today — their best player has become the best version of himself, the team is the best it has ever been (we’ve even seen some tremendous basketball along the way!), and yet Toronto is not tops in the league. DeRozan is not, and cannot become Iguodala, their career arcs and history informing each other but never quite intersecting. And the Raptors still have one thing left to prove, even though it may just be impossible to do.