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DeMar DeRozan has been clutch since joining the Spurs

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DeMar DeRozan has a bad reputation for choking down the stretch of games, but is it justified?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t think a close game goes by where I don’t hear somebody mention that DeMar DeRozan is not clutch and should not be the player with the ball in his hands down the stretch. I suppose we all have reasons for our beliefs, and we all have different definitions for what constitutes as clutch, but what do the numbers say about DeRozan’s ability to close out games?

We will look at this season’s numbers for a brief moment, but since we are still dealing with a small sample size, I will extend our search beyond this season to get a better feel for how DeRozan compares to both his teammates and other teams’ star players.

The NBA defines a clutch situation as any game where the teams are separated by five points or less with less than five minutes to go in the game. These parameters can be modified, but let’s start with their generic definition of “clutch.”

Spurs Clutch Stats for 2020-2021

Player FGM FGA FG% FTM FTA FT% AST TOV
Player FGM FGA FG% FTM FTA FT% AST TOV
DeMar DeRozan 11 26 42.3 10 11 90.9 2 0
Patty Mills 5 12 41.7 2 3 66.7 2 0
Dejounte Murray 4 10 40 0 0 0 3 3
Keldon Johnson 3 9 33.3 3 4 75 0 1
Rudy Gay 5 9 55.6 1 2 50 0 0

These statistics are still suffering from small sample size syndrome, but DeRozan’s field goal percentage is second best on the team in the clutch, and unlike somebody like Rudy Gay (who has been very efficient in his own right), DeRozan has the ability to distribute to teammates if needed. He’s also hit 10 of 11 free throws and has knocked down 2 of 6 shots from beyond the arc, which is already one more three pointer than he knocked down in the clutch during the entire 2019-2020 NBA season.

Dejounte Murray is a nice insurance policy as a secondary playmaker on offense, but his dribble and court awareness still isn’t where it needs to be in order to be trusted with the ball in his hands down the stretch. It’s perfectly fine if your belief is that trial by fire is how the Spurs should be approaching this season with the youngsters, but the Spurs are trying to make the playoffs, so a full on youth movement doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

Last years’ numbers are a better indicator of who should be handling the ball down the stretch of close games.

Spurs Clutch Stats for 2019-2020

Player FGM FGA FG% FTM FTA FT% AST TOV
Player FGM FGA FG% FTM FTA FT% AST TOV
DeMar DeRozan 48 96 50 34 48 70.8 26 4
LaMarcus Aldridge 21 44 47.7 19 26 73.1 6 3
Patty Mills 12 36 33.3 5 8 62.5 7 3
Bryn Forbes 12 32 37.5 6 7 85.7 3 5
Rudy Gay 16 27 59.3 4 4 100 3 1
Derrick White 6 25 24 7 10 70 11 5
Dejounte Murray 10 23 43.5 1 1 100 9 7

DeRozan connected on 50 percent of his shots last season and had an incredible 26-4 assist-to-turnover ratio. We will dig into how those numbers compare to his colleagues in a bit, but suffice to say those are fantastic numbers. He struggled at bit at the line last season, but when comparing it to his career, that seems like more of an outlier than an inability to connect on free throws down the stretch.

DeRozan’s biggest knock has been, and likely always will be, his inability to knock down shots from distance. This does have a negative effect on his true shooting percentage, but I don’t think it means the ball shouldn’t be in his hands down the stretch. The only time I get frustrated to see DeRozan with the ball is when the Spurs absolutely must have a three pointer. Defenses know he’s extremely unlikely to pull up into a three so they are able to play lanes when he drives to the rim knowing that he’s looking to pass. But beyond that corner case, he was pretty great for the Spurs last season.

To me Derrick White would be the obvious candidate to take over as the main ball-handler in the clutch, but he’s injured right now and struggled in this role last season, especially shooting the ball. His 11 assists in limited possessions is promising, but again, he’s not available for the Spurs at the moment.

There’s not a whole lot of negative things to say about DeRozan’s play last season, and that holds true even in close games. He did miss a few too many free throws for my liking, but his field goal percentage was fourth out of all players in the NBA who took at least 60 shots in clutch situations. His 26-4 assist-to-turnover ratio was easily best in the NBA. He only went 1 of 5 from distance the entire season, but we know this is a limitation.

NBA Clutch Stats in 2019-2020 (min 60 FGA)

Player FGM FGA FG% FTM FTA FT% AST TOV
Player FGM FGA FG% FTM FTA FT% AST TOV
Terry Rozier 36 66 54.5 26 32 81.3 8 9
Chris Paul 47 90 52.2 46 50 92 17 10
Nikola Jokic 52 102 51 38 46 82.6 27 10
DeMar DeRozan 48 96 50 34 48 70.8 26 4
Jayson Tatum 37 74 50 24 31 77.4 15 9
Ja Morant 30 61 49.2 24 34 70.6 19 17
Devin Booker 29 69 42 42 46 91.3 19 6
Donovan Mitchell 44 105 41.9 43 53 81.1 19 11
Devonte' Graham 27 66 40.9 32 36 88.9 27 16
Anthony Davis 25 62 40.3 34 44 77.3 2 3
Damian Lillard 36 90 40 36 44 81.8 29 6
Trae Young 37 94 39.4 37 46 80.4 14 13
Jamal Murray 28 71 39.4 19 23 82.6 20 6
Spencer Dinwiddie 31 79 39.2 40 53 75.5 25 16
Buddy Hield 25 64 39.1 17 19 89.5 4 4
Derrick Rose 24 62 38.7 6 7 85.7 11 12
Bradley Beal 25 68 36.8 26 29 89.7 11 11
Luka Doncic 30 83 36.1 20 31 64.5 29 15
James Harden 23 64 35.9 53 60 88.3 19 16
LeBron James 24 68 35.3 19 30 63.3 32 11
Brandon Ingram 22 66 33.3 21 29 72.4 8 9
Zach LaVine 30 91 33 33 37 89.2 4 6
Jimmy Butler 17 61 27.9 39 53 73.6 18 7

DeRozan has been an above-average player down the stretch of close games for the past four seasons and has continued to improve each season with the Spurs. DeRozan clearly outperformed many players down the stretch of games who are held in much higher regard around NBA circles than that of DeRozan. I’m not saying DeRozan is a better player than Luka Doncic or LeBron James, I just feel his game is worth defending against his many detractors.

DeRozan’s Career Clutch Stats

Year FG% Rank FT% Rank AST/TO Ratio Rank
Year FG% Rank FT% Rank AST/TO Ratio Rank
2019-2020 50 4 of 23 70.8 19 of 23 6.5 1 of 23
2018-2019 44 11 of 34 90.9 3 of 34 2.7 6 of 34
2017-2018 44.5 9 of 29 81.6 12 of 29 1.55 12 of 29
2016-2017 48.3 4 of 34 78 23 of 34 2.85 1 of 34
2015-2016 39 22 of 40 83.9 23 of 40 1.45 17 of 40
2014-2015 39.7 15 of 28 76.7 21 of 28 4 2 of 28

There’s no doubt that DeRozan used to be a high volume, low efficiency player, but he’s not the same player he once was. We’re all so enamored with seeing our youngsters improve upon their weaknesses that sometimes we forget vets still have the ability to improve as well. While I certainly enjoy watching players who can hit a step back 30-foot shot to win a game on the final possession, it’s a disservice to DeRozan to fault him for one aspect of his game that he’s yet to master. He’s still found ways to make winning plays for the Spurs, and last I checked, there’s nobody else on the Spurs’ roster at the moment capable of making such plays, at least not consistently.

Final thoughts

This notion that DeRozan is not clutch down the stretch of close games is, quite frankly, an outdated take that needs to be reevaluated. He has his limitations for sure, but he’s efficient inside the arc, is solid from the line, takes care of the ball better than almost anybody in the league, and his ability to find teammates has improved dramatically since joining the Spurs. His field goal percentages do drop as the game gets closer to its conclusion, but that’s true of almost every player in the NBA.

The majority of NBA games I watch involve the Spurs so it’s only natural that I’m more critical of the Spurs’ players. What I need to realize is if I’m seeing every play of the Spurs but I’m only watching the highlights of other teams, I’m not seeing the whole picture. I’m comparing apples to oranges.

Sometimes I like to think of it in terms of a golf tournament. They usually only show the players at the top of the leaderboard, and those players are on the top of their game for that particular week. I see player after player making 8 foot putts like it’s automatic, but then when I look at the stats, I see that PGA players only connect on putts of that length half of the time. If I watched those players all the time, including those times they are scrambling just to make the cut, I’d see that it’s not always automatic, even for those at the pinnacle of their particular sport. We’re all human after all.