The Toronto Raptors have seen much change over the past six seasons.
There have been changes in personnel, coaching changes, front office changes and – most recently – a change in the club’s fortunes.
However, amid all this turnover, there has been one constant: DeMar DeRozan suiting up and giving it his all.
Playing in his sixth season as a pro now, DeRozan has been one of the most durable players in the NBA since he first came into the league, only missing 11 games in his entire career.
After seeing DeRozan flailing his legs in agony with a left groin injury in the Raptors’ 106-102 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Friday, however, the 25-year-old will be forced to increase that total number of games missed.
Now that it seems that DeRozan will miss time, the Raptors should start thinking about life without their all-star. Friday’s contest gave us a small glimpse into what a DeRozan-less world may look like and while it isn’t ideal, it also isn’t horribly bad.
Even before he was forced out of the game, DeRozan struggled against the Mavericks, not scoring a single point on 0-for-8 shooting, so he already didn’t have it going. This gave an opportunity for Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams to play more minutes and they responded well – 14 points for Vasquez on 4-for-5 shooting from distance and 16 points for Williams.
Those two, along with stellar play from Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson down the stretch, brought the Raptors back and allowed them to make a real game out of an affair that the Mavericks looked like they had well in hand with 2:20 left in the fourth quarter.
Toronto’s depth has been a great mark of strength so far this season, and it will now be put to the test – something the team doesn’t seem to have an issue with.
“We gotta play, it's next man up,” Lowry told reporters after Friday’s tilt. “It's a team. It's not about one guy, it's about every individual. So if anybody goes down, the next guy has gotta step up.”
“It's some big shoes to fill,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “But the next guy has got to be ready to step up and take up the slack.”
“I think we've got one of the best – I say this in a humble way – benches in the league, so somebody else has to step up,” Vasquez said. “I don't see why Lou can't step in, or myself, or James [Johnson]. ... I think we are guys that can step up and do the job.”
Vasquez is right when he says he, Williams or James Johnson could all fill in as starters, but that brings up another interesting dilemma that Casey might have to wrestle with.
A big part of Toronto’s success has been their chemistry, and clear role definition. However, without DeRozan, Casey’s delicate rotation would suddenly be compromised.
So then, if you had to choose, Vasquez would likely be the best fitted to take an interim starting spot.
Williams is playing too well, is too comfortable and is too valuable in his role as sixth man just to move him into the starting lineup. Johnson’s defensive versatility could work well, but that level of energy is still best suited in a reserve role. Patrick Patterson is another possibility, but Casey prefers playing him at power forward.
Thus this leaves us with Vasquez, a player who has started in the past, has proven to be able to play very well with Lowry also on the court and is beginning to regain the form he showed last season shooting the ball after some early struggles with his stroke.
Another interesting storyline to follow is the progression of Terrence Ross. The third-year man out of Washington has been as inconsistent as ever, but could see a minutes spike – something that could possibly spark him.
Life without the Raptors’ leading scorer appears to be on the horizon. A loss of such magnitude would spell doom for most teams in the NBA. Judging by their confidence in their depth, however, the Eastern Conference leaders don’t see themselves as part of that group of teams.
From what we’ve seen, and with a record of 13-3, that assuredness isn’t without merit.