Even the most casual of NBA observers probably notice that something is a bit off about DeMar DeRozan in the playoffs. A top-10 scorer and an All-Star in the regular season, it wasn’t until a late first quarter rest for Paul George in Game 5 that DeRozan’s name was finally mentioned in a positive light. But despite easily ranking as one of the playoffs’ worst players thus far, there’s no way the Toronto swingman can be this bad.
DeMar DeRozan is an extremely gifted individual basketball talent. He’s among the league’s elite at drawing contact on his way to the bucket—a skill that despite being often stymied in the playoffs, is a virtue during the 82-game slog. He’s a creative scorer who’ll never struggle to find a shot, and his 55 percent true shooting rate is the highest since his rookie season (when his usage rate was 12.3 percentage points lower).
But even in an age where we have more publicly available data than ever, we still often overrate players because of buckets. Any reasonable NBA fan can look at 23.5 points per game on adequate efficiency and make the argument that he’s a talented player. But as we’ve already covered, individual talent doesn’t much matter in the context of a game that’s played by nine other people.
In that context DeRozan is, at best, nothing special. Obviously it’s cherry-picking to pull samples from a series where he’s defended almost exclusively by Paul George—a player who could ruin any offensive virtuoso’s night—but it’s how DeRozan’s handling himself against George that’s likely hampering the Raptors in this series. Not only are the shots not falling (he’s missed a nauseating 62 of his 93 shots in Round 1), but he’s done nothing else to make up for it.
On nights where the shot just won’t connect—it happens!—DeRozan simply could not be a more useless player. Though his jumper has improved over the years, it’s not respectable enough to where it helps his team’s spacing. He gives an honorable defensive effort, but takes the long way around screens and ranks 82nd out of 98 amongst shooting guards in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus. He’s a fine passer, but doesn’t have the vision suited for even a secondary playmaker. He rebounds well for a guard, I guess?
So what’s the answer for DeRozan when he’s off? He seems to think it’s just shoot more, which is becoming the undoing of these Raptors. Unlike his two-guard counterparts such as Klay Thompson or Bradley Beal, he’s not much of an off-ball threat on a night when he’s defended well or just a bit off. Paul George has sagged so far off him as DeRozan sits in the corner, that the 6’10” Pacers star nearly stalked the lane as a secondary rim protector. And on the nights where DeRozan is feeling it, his numbers aren’t anything to gawk at. Although coming in at eighth in points per game this season, DeRozan still placed 136th in league-wide true shooting percentage.
This rounds us back to why individual talent doesn’t always translate in the NBA, so long as a player can’t do what’s normally expected of his position. A shooting guard of DeRozan’s prominence would typically be expected to do (at least) one of the following: defend the opposing team’s wings, act as another playmaker, space the floor, etc. He’s failed to do any of this thus far, and Toronto—barely escaping to the next round—is reaping the consequences of dying on this hill.
The team could simply have him shoot less, but then why play him at all? Thus is the uncompromising nature of the NBA star who’s only effective with the ball in his hands. Your team will typically—apologies for the cliché—live and die by him.
Turning 27 years old this summer, DeRozan likely is what he is at this point. He’d be best suited in a sixth man role who can beat up on bench units, but why would he lower himself to that? With the booming cap coming and an excess of new money being injected into the league this summer, it’s almost a forgone conclusion that some team will hand him a four-year max deal on opening day of free agency.
Just pray that you’re team isn’t going to be that team.