Like it or not, DeMar DeRozan is a max player

DeMar DeRozan (Matt Slocum/AP)

Shock. Disbelief. Outrage, even.

That seemed to be the immediate reaction from most Raptors fans when reports surfaced this weekend that swingman DeMar DeRozan will likely be pursuing a new contract for the league’s maximum amount when his current deal could expire next summer.

A more appropriate—and rational—reaction? A simple shrug of the shoulders would’ve sufficed.

That’s because not only is DeRozan clearly worth a max contract—but he’s going to get one, too. It’s just a matter of whether or not it’ll be the Raptors who offer it.
But first, a quick refresher:

DeRozan has two years left on his current contract (which he signed literally moments before the 2011-12 season started) that will see the one-time All-Star earn $9.5 million per season. However the final year is a player option, which DeRozan will surely decline next summer, making him a free agent.

And that’s when things get interesting. Because next summer, when the salary cap increases to north of $90 million—or as much as a 50% increase from this past season—there’ll be more cash flying around the NBA than a Dubai land deal.

Currently, the NBA’s maximum contract values are split into three tiers, based on the number of year’s a player has spent in the league.

Today those with six or fewer years tenured can make up to $15.8 million in the first year of a new contract, while someone with seven to nine years under their belt can earn $18.9 million. A ten-year vet can earn as much as $22.1 million in their first year.

But with the increased cap— a product of the NBA’s new $24 billion television deal that kicks in in time for the 2016-17 season—those figures are expected to reach $21, $25.3, and $29.5 million in each respective tier.

Needless to say, it will be an opportunistic period for NBA free agents, particularly ones with some combination of talent, potential, and pedigree.
Which brings us back to DeRozan.

At 25 years old, his best years are still ahead of him, which is saying a fair bit for a player with six seasons under his belt who’s averaged more than 21 points per game over the last two of them, and has earned both an all-star berth and gold medal in that span as well.

Year over year, as the stats demonstrate, DeRozan has improved virtually every aspect of his game, finding success in concert with the Raptors; while he’s gotten plenty of help, it’s not a coincidence that the franchise found its way back to the playoffs as DeRozan found his way to becoming an all-star level player.

The biggest knock against DeRozan’s max candidacy are the noticeable limitations still in his game, that he’s a below-average defender, ball-handler, and three-point shooter.

DeRozan is far from perfect, of course. But in case you haven’t noticed, NBA GMs are ready and willing to pay max money for imperfect players (see: Gay, Rudy). Just this summer, for instance, players like Greg Monroe, Tristan Thompson, Paul Millsap, Wesley Matthews, and Tobias Harris are expected to have a realistic shot at a max deal.

All fine players but, like DeRozan (and virtually every player not named LeBron) each have sizeable holes in their games.

Like, for instance DeAndre Jordan, another player who is all but a lock to receive a max contract in the coming weeks— an elite shotblocker and rebounder whose offensive game and inability to hit free throws is so poor his team often needs to take him off the floor in crunch time.

Is DeAndre Jordan really a better player than DeMar DeRozan? I’m not buying it for a second.

Again, in a perfect world only the best of the best would be privy to the kind of money that comes with being a max player. But that’s not the world the NBA is living in. That’s why GMs are ready to open their wallets for those who possess an elite skill or two, even if there are flaws elsewhere.

In the case of DeRozan, it seems as though people are far to willing, eager even, to point out what he takes off the table as opposed to highlighting what he brings to it. Apart from being a matchup nightmare due to his ability to work against opposing guards out of the high-post, DeRozan’s ability to draw contract and get to the free-throw line is elite, to put it mildly.

DeRozan finished 5th in the NBA in free throw attempts last season, averaging 7.2 per game, finishing just behind LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, Russell Westbrook, and league-leader James Harden. In fact, with the exception of Anthony Davis and Jimmy Butler (who will be getting their paydays shortly) DeRozan is the only player in the top 15 in the category who is currently not a max player.

The Raptors and GM Masai Ujiri have a decision to make when it comes to DeRozan. Trading him and his bargain-bin $9.5 million salary avoids having to debate the potential value of his next contract, but likely guarantees they won’t get a player of equal value—or talent—in return.

Letting his current contract expire and waiting until he declines his player option opens them up to losing him for nothing on what will be a competitive free agent market- one NBA player agent has told me that, even at $25 million, there’ll easily be four or five teams champing at the bit to offer DeRozan a long-term deal this time next year.
But if there’s one word that defines DeRozan to this point in his life, it’s ‘loyalty—there’s a reason it’s tattooed right there on his wrist— and you can bet he’ll make it a priority to try to return. That is, if the Raptors think he’s worth it.

Only time will tell. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of it.