Masai Ujiri may be on the verge of answering a very difficult question: Can DeMar DeRozan’s transformation into a realistic MVP candidate overcome the Toronto Raptors' near non-existent production from the power forward position?
His conclusion may be futile come playoff time, with the Cleveland Cavaliers hardened into a domineering identity that isn’t going away, but Ujiri should continue to weigh how worthwhile it’d be to surrender long-term assets for a short-term gain. And does DeRozan evolving into an inextinguishable Roman candle mean that short-term gain is a trip to the Finals.
Maybe the situation resolves itself and regression dampens DeRozan’s hot start. If not, this is still what some might call a “very good” problem. In the first nine games of a massive five-year, $139 million contract, DeRozan has yet to alter how he hunts buckets or improve on the perceived weaknesses that caused his new deal to raise so many eyebrows. Instead, the 27-year-old (yes, he’s only 27) sharpened the very skills that vaulted him to two All-Star appearances over the last three years.
DeRozan leads the league in scoring. His 31.5 PER is up exactly 10 points from last season and his True Shooting percentage and usage rate are both career highs by a wide margin. Toronto’s offense averages 5.6 more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court—a stark contrast to last year’s 56-win team, which prospered all the same with DeRozan on the sidelines.
The guy currently lives on a different planet, but some skepticism is fair. DeRozan’s hot start doesn’t feel real to people who remember last year’s postseason, when he couldn’t finish at the rim, make jump shots or consistently draw fouls when it mattered most. DeRozan shot 39.4 percent on 398 shots, efficiency in its darkest day.
Throbbing thumb aside, that stretch warrants caution. A majority of DeRozan’s field goal attempts remain pull-up long twos, launched from the court’s very own desert wasteland. He doesn’t threaten defenses beyond the arc, which renders simple math his mortal enemy. Just over half of his league-leading mid-range attempts have gone in, and sustaining that accuracy at such a high volume would be unprecedented in recent times by anyone not named Dirk Nowitzki.
DeRozan is shooting 58.2 percent on jumpers with a defender between 2-4 feet away (aka “tight” coverage), and launching nearly nine per game! (Kevin Durant—a transcendent scorer—made 45.3 percent of these shots last season.) This makes up over 36 percent of his arsenal. It’s stigmatized Steph Curry-level craziness.
But not all DeRozan’s success is disorienting. No, we don’t know if the extremely-difficult-looking shots he’s draining today will fall in January, but the characteristics that make him effective won’t disappear overnight. DeRozan is huge (6’7) and has the interior footwork to bully almost every guard in the league down low.
He also possesses a devastating pump fake, which comes in handy against teams that size him up against larger swingmen. Leave your feet to contest DeRozan’s shot and risk sending him to the free-throw line. He finished third in free-throw attempts last season and only six players currently have more. All you can do is get a hand up and hope for the best.
The Raptors know this better than anyone and have mastered how to take advantage. On Friday night, Toronto exterminated the Charlotte Hornets by running two straight plays that put DeRozan on Marvin Williams. Here they are:
After he’s burned on that step back jumper with a minute to go, Williams reads the action and gambles for a steal on the second try. He’s a step too slow, though, and DeRozan ultimately makes him pay.
DeRozan’s all-around defense isn’t better, and despite running a ton of pick-and-rolls he doesn’t tally as many assists as he should. But when you’re averaging 34 points per game, shooting 52.8 percent from the floor, and your point guard is a tenacious All-Star, how much does that matter—especially when you do know how to find wide open teammates and are averaging over half a point per touch?
(The only guards to average at least 30 points and shoot over 50 percent for an entire season are George Gervin, Michael Jordan and Steph Curry.)
For the sake of argument, let’s assume all the hard work DeRozan put into his craft over the summer has made him a better basketball player, and that he’s as unstoppable inside the arc as Curry is behind it. DeRozan doesn’t evolve every year, so much as he relentlessly enhances what he’s already really good at. His career has been an annual step in the right direction.
That matters and it circles us back to the crux of this very article. Despite his flaws, the isolated nature in which he carries out his business and mostly one-dimensional aspect of his contribution, DeRozan shouldn’t be viewed as anything less than a pave-the-way superstar—think Paul George or Russell Westbrook—and the Raptors as a more serious threat to LeBron James’ throne.
Common thought heading into this season was that Toronto lacked upward mobility and was stuck at “good not great” unless Jonas Valanciunas made noticeable strides on defense and with the ball. But Fuego DeRozan recalculates this team’s trajectory. Toronto is coasting by on talent, continuity, and a favorable schedule right now. They’re a comfortable 6-2 with top-10 units on both side of the ball.
They had all that last year, too. They also struggled with Luis Scola as a starting power forward. This year that spot has been replaced by rookie Pascal Siakam and—maybe, possibly, eventually—Jared Sullinger, but Toronto’s starting lineup continues to post a negative point differential.
Unfortunately, it’s hard for Toronto to upgrade in any meaningful way via trade. They own two first-round picks in the upcoming draft (their own plus a lottery-protected selection from the Los Angeles Clippers), bargain contracts (Terrence Ross, Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, and Valanciunas—for any team that thinks the 24-year-old has yet to reach his full potential), and a few interesting rookies.
Can any combination of those assets pry a starting-caliber power forward from his current team? It’s hard to find a suitable partner. The Atlanta Hawks are good, so Paul Millsap’s expiring contract probably isn’t going anywhere. Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried are fun but don’t provide enough defense to nudge Toronto past Cleveland. Same with Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor.
Can the Utah Jazz be persuaded to think a blooming Trey Lyles—plus a bunch of tall, versatile wings—is a superior fit over Derrick Favors, beside Rudy Gobert?. The Phoenix Suns already booted Jared Dudley from their starting lineup, but his age/skill/salary might not be worth it.
The Spurs probably won’t trade LaMarcus Aldridge, sluggish start and all. A partner might not exist, in which case DeMarre Carroll’s ability to swing up and play the four will be critical—even though Toronto hasn’t really done it yet this season. Sullinger’s health: A scary factor.
For now the spotlight shines on DeRozan. What he’s done is not sustainable over a 300-game stretch, but this season may very well be special. He’s normalizing off-hand floaters and looking like a 28-year-old Dwyane Wade. Is that enough to topple the Cavaliers? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, he looks like the franchise player very few thought he’d ever be.