When DeMar DeRozan takes to the court on Sunday for a rematch between the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors, he will do so not just as an iconic Raptors alumnus, but as a lead architect of San Antonio’s attempt at a mid-season turnaround.
For the last 15 games, DeRozan has turned his rebuttal against three-point shooting into a master class on efficiency, averaging 26 points on 58.6 per cent shooting from the floor and 88.6 per cent from the free-throw line — six and five per cent higher than his season averages, respectively — while attempting just eight shots total from beyond the arc.
Never scoring from outside the three-point line is a forgivable sin, it turns out, if one learns to operate that surgically from within it.
“I always try to analyze myself as much as I can when things are going good and especially when things are going bad,” DeRozan said prior to last Sunday’s duel with Toronto. “…I always watch games where I can steal a move, wonder why a certain guy can get the free-throw line a certain amount of times or get a certain shot off, or whatever it may be.”
But even with DeRozan’s recent scorching shooting surge, the Spurs will welcome the Raptors to Texas having gone just 8-7 over those last 15 games.
It’s revealing that this has been, by and large, the Spurs’ best stretch of the season. And as the Feb. 6 trade deadline draws nearer, San Antonio faces the same dilemma Toronto once did: How far can a team led by the last of basketball’s mid-range heroes go?
The specifics when Toronto had to ask that question were different. There was no 22-year playoff streak at stake or surefire Hall of Fame coach on the sidelines to whom a competitive sendoff was owed north of the border. But the fundamental dilemma in question rhymes.
On the year overall, San Antonio is being outscored by almost 11 points per 100 possessions with DeRozan on the floor. That’s bad. So bad that it places those 1,503 minutes in the bottom-eighth percentile of all players in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass.
A significant portion of that stems from earlier in the season, before this stretch wherein LaMarcus Aldridge started making nearly half of his five three-point attempts per game — up from a lowly 1.7 attempts through his first 26 games — which unlocked more real estate for DeRozan to operate and, in turn, elevated San Antonio’s offensive ceiling.
Scoring more will always give a team slightly more breathing room for error on the defensive end. For the Spurs, though, the added breathing room they’ve gained by scoring the eighth-most points per game in the league this year has rarely translated into convincing victories. Among their eight wins during this offensive surge from DeRozan and Aldridge, only three have come by more than five points.
Not all the Spurs’ bottom-six defence falls on DeRozan’s shoulders, of course. But it’s a trend that started in Toronto and followed him to San Antonio, where his shortcomings on that end of the court have been exacerbated by the team having three competent, young perimeter players — Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker and Derrick White — who could positively fill some of DeRozan’s 34.3 minutes per night.
Still, while allowing as many points as the Spurs have with DeRozan on the court is sub-optimal at best, and a disaster-in-waiting at worst, landing the eighth-seed in the Western Conference appears to be easier than it’s been in recent years — currently, San Antonio sits in ninth with a sub-.500 record, just a half game back of the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies.
The trouble with being an eight-seed this year is that, if the playoffs were to begin today and all that changed in the standings was San Antonio trading places with Memphis, the Spurs would find themselves in a Round 1 matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers.
DeRozan’s Toronto years were filled with lessons. But the recurring, inescapable playoff truth was that if the path to the NBA Finals runs through LeBron James, the journey is one that will be cut short.
Historically, the Spurs have avoided making noise at the deadline. It’s likely this year won’t be different. The medley of DeRozan’s contractual uncertainty — should he opt out of his $27.7-million player option, he’s eligible to become a free agent this summer — and San Antonio’s playoff outlook, though, makes this deadline a revealing one.
Just like Masai Ujiri’s activity on Feb. 6 will shed light on how far he believes the defending NBA Champions can go, how Gregg Popovich and Co. navigate the day will say a lot about how DeRozan fits into their long- and short-term plans.
Losing him over the summer for nothing would mean San Antonio effectively traded Kawhi Leonard for two years of DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, while simultaneously failing to pick up any of Toronto’s burgeoning young talent in Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet or OG Anunoby to prepare for the future; keeping him offers no guarantees of even a playoff berth, much less a path to the Finals.
If San Antonio were to trade DeRozan, it would not be an indictment on his time there — just like his departure from Toronto did not render what he did for the Raptors any less meaningful. He has always given all he could. Sometimes, though, franchises need something different.
The Spurs have been good to very good at basketball for the last 22 years. That’s a long time. The NBA itself has only been around for 73. They have managed to remodel and renovate from their fundamental Tim Duncan foundation for long enough that an entire NBA-watching generation has never seen a Spurs-less post-season.
And now, more than there has been since Leonard’s Zaza Pachulia-induced ankle injury in 2017, there’s a faint outline of a blueprint for what San Antonio could redesign themselves as next.
Duncan has returned as a stabilizing force, this time as an assistant on the Spurs’ bench, and Becky Hammon appears both poised and ready to take the head coaching reins from Popovich once he retires — look no further than San Antonio’s game earlier this week against the Miami Heat, during which Hammon convinced Poppovich to challenge a late foul call on Jimmy Butler in what proved to be a game-defining moment.
Walker, White and Murray — though far less impactful than the trio of Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby — are a serviceable starting point to kick-off a rebuild.
There’s a premise in architecture that says anyone who designs a structure should give some thought as to how that structure will look as ruins.
With the playoffs a question mark, their franchise player’s long-term status unknown and their ability to be contenders with him in the fold no less certain, perhaps it’s time for the Spurs’ decision-makers who engineered a multi-decade playoff-making dynasty to consider the same thing; to follow Toronto’s example and embrace the opportunity to build something better through a bit of tearing down before the structure collapses altogether.