The San Antonio Spurs are lucky to have him. He proved it again on Saturday night in a Boxing Day clash against his old team that the Raptors dropped 119-114 to fall to 0-2 on the season.
Toronto surrendered a 9-0 run after a controversial offensive foul on Pascal Siakam with 1:20 to play, which proved to be the pivot point.
But DeRozan was a big reason the Spurs (2-0) got over the hump after the Raptors stalled out, as he scored 10 points on four shots in the final 4:35 and kept an offensive rebound alive that led to the Spurs' go-ahead basket by LaMarcus Aldridge with 30 seconds left.
DeRozan did a bit of everything to improve to 3-2 against the team he spent the first 10 years of his career with.
“He played his butt off. He pretty much won the game for them -- 27 points and eight assists and he kinda picked us apart,” said Kyle Lowry, his old teammate and close friend. “I think throughout the years I’ve known him, played with him, played against him in the last couple, I think he just continues [to grow] … he’s become more of a playmaker, and I think that’s his strength right now, is still being able to score but he’s able to play make for everybody else and make life easier for the other guys, like role players, and getting guys the ball where they need it and getting them open looks and giving them confidence to be good.”
Forget James Harden — the disgruntled Houston Rockets star that some corners of the Raptors fan base dream Toronto could somehow swing a deal for.
DeRozan would be a smoother fit on and off the floor and far cheaper to acquire, given he’s in the final season of his contract. Matching salaries might be a problem — DeRozan makes $27.7 million this year — so making a trade without surrendering one of Toronto’s core pieces would be nearly impossible.
If not an in-season trade maybe, DeRozan becomes a target in free agency. But the point stands: this version of DeRozan would fit the Raptors' needs well.
No regrets about trading him in the first place, obviously. The rules of engagement are such that a championship justifies the means, and dealing the Raptors' all-time leading scorer (not to mention Jacob Poeltl, who accompanied DeRozan to San Antonio) for Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2018 will never stop making sense as long as that banner hangs in the rafters of Scotiabank Arena.
But with Leonard taking off for the Los Angeles Clippers at first chance, and the championship core getting whittled away further this past summer with the departure of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors are trying to win with a roster that has some holes and some unfamiliar pieces.
“I think it's an adjustment for the new faces,” said Lowry, who finished with 16 points and 10 assists but missed a wide-open elbow jumper that would have put the Raptors ahead with 22 seconds left. “I think it's more than one thing. I think it's two games, [a short] pre-season, I think it's a lot of things that goes into that, everybody making adjustments trying to figure it out.
“Your defence should be a little bit more ahead of your offence right now, and we're just kind of even right now with everything, and it's a brand new situation for everybody, but we're 0-and-2 and I haven't been this record in a long [expletive] time ... so, we've got to figure it out sooner or later for our team.”
The Raptors struggle to get to the paint and struggle to get to the free-throw line and, as a result, they struggle at times to score in the half-court. Last season they ranked firmly in the middle of the pack in half-court offence, and it came back to haunt them when the Boston Celtics took away their No. 1-ranked transition offence in the second round of the playoffs.
DeRozan can play fast or he can play slow, and he showed his stuff early against his old team in a game that got off to a blazing pace.
By the time the track meet paused at the end of the first quarter, Toronto was leading 39-33 — but DeRozan had scored 16 points on seven shots while assisting on a pair of Spurs threes. He was able to access the Raptors' paint at will and either twist his way into an old-fashioned three-point play or rocket the ball out to the perimeter for open looks as he collapsed the defence.
The Raptors are hoping to get more similar savvy offence from, say, Pascal Siakam, who is showing signs. Siakam finished with 16 points, eight assists and 15 rebounds against San Antonio — but also five turnovers.
He’ll continue to improve in his second season as a primary option, and the Raptors have upside elsewhere: OG Anunoby chipped with some key triples in the second half, and late-blooming Chris Boucher showed the Raptors rewarding him with a $6.5 million contract for this season might have had merit as he exploded for 22 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocked shots, while Fred VanVleet led the Raptors with 27 points.
But this version of DeRozan is the finished product. He may not take threes, but he converts twos at a high rate – 51 per cent last season – because he’s learned how to back off on tough shots in the name of getting the ball to teammates for easier looks.
“I’ve been impressed with a couple of things,” Nurse said of DeRozan. “I think he goes to the basket with a lot more speed, I think he goes right and left much more equally distributed than he used to; he’s quick going left now too ... But I think that the other thing is he is a really good passer; he’s really become a better passer year in and year out so he doesn’t have settle for too many of those tough, tough mid-range shots, but he can score man. He’s always going to score 20-plus for a season, per game, and that’s not easy to do.”
DeRozan’s high-water mark as a scorer was the 2016-17 season, when he put up 27.3 points a game. His assist total jumped from 3.9 a game to 5.2 the next season (as his scoring average fell to 23 points a game) and then 6.2 in his first season in San Antonio.
He’s one of four players to average at least 22 points, five assists and five free throws made over the past three full seasons with 200 games played. The others are James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard.
“He should get a lot of credit for that, for being able to adapt and going from a guy, 27, 28 a game down to what, 22, 23ish range now, and getting that assists up there,” said VanVleet, who saw a potentially game-winning three rattle out with two seconds left.
VanVleet was a rookie when DeRozan put up 27.3 points per game – the second-highest in franchise history. “Some guys in the league you know you can send a lot of help 'cause they're not gonna pass unless they absolutely have to. DeMar is not one of those guys.”
The culture fit would be easy, too. Harden loves the nightlife and has put partying without masks ahead of his professional responsibilities twice already, getting himself fined and contributing to the postponement of a game — and the season isn’t even a week old.
DeRozan trained in Montana this past summer precisely because he didn’t know anyone there and had no parties to go to.
He helped set the tone for a culture the Raptors have continued to benefit from.
“He's one of those pivotal guys in my career, on and off the court,” VanVleet said. “Gave a lot of game and wisdom and tough love, and taught me a lot, just from watching him, watching him prepare every day, watching him practice every day, watching him work out every day, and then seeing him perform on a night-in, night-out basis. He's really, really, really high on my list, just as a friend and guy that I've grown close to over the last few years. Obviously, I've got a lot of respect for him.”
Anyone who’s ever met him does. And he can play, too, as he’s showing no sign of slowing down at age 31. On the contrary, his game is still evolving and even improving.