The aftermath of the trade deadline is always a time for reflection, even for fans of teams that didn’t make big moves. Sometimes the trade a franchise doesn’t make is as important as the ones that make headlines.
In that sense, the fact that all the veterans, including DeMar DeRozan, are still around is the biggest takeaway when it comes to the Spurs. There reportedly was some interest in the older guys, but the front office kept everyone around, even the ball-dominant former All-Star wing.
There is a case to be made that if there was an offer on the table for DeRozan, the Spurs, overflowing as they are with perimeter talent, should have taken it. For anyone that wasn’t enamored with DeMar, it’s tempting to hammer that point. Yet there’s significant evidence that keeping him around was the best decision.
A large part of what makes a trade good or bad is timing. A winning streak or a few losses in a row can change a team’s circumstances enough to turn it from a buyer to a seller, especially in a short, atypical season. For the Spurs, timing made keeping their offensive engine necessary. The Silver and Black are at a crucial stage of the season in which they will either solidify themselves as a playoff team or fall beyond the 10 seed and a chance at a play-in game. The team’s overall defensive numbers have not improved since Jakob Poeltl took LaMarcus Aldridge’s minutes.
While Jakob Poeltl’s individual defensive numbers have been stellar, (and the team’s numbers with him on the court beat the pants off LMA’s) as a whole, the defense hasn’t improved any as this season has progressed — if anything, it has slipped.— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) March 27, 2021
h/t @JejeGomezNBA pic.twitter.com/8hKYZJOLDy
So any blow to the offense could be critical. Losing the top scorer and assists man on the team would have been disastrous on that end.
As DeRozan has excelled as the offensive centerpiece, others have not been forced to fill that role. Dejounte Murray doesn’t yet have the shot creation for it and Derrick White has not been consistent enough in his repeatedly interrupted season to ascend to that level. You never know what you are going to get from Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson doesn’t have the offensive arsenal to handle an increase in defensive attention. The bench is potent, but not dependable enough when it comes to shot creation. For now, this team needs DeRozan on offense for all the other pieces to make sense, and it needs him to take over late in games when the others are struggling to get a shot off.
Now, could someone coming back in a trade for DeRozan (like the rumored Evan Fournier) do 70 percent of what DeMar does? If the answer is yes, them moving him if another asset was included could have seemed smart. The problem is that the missing 30 percent would probably be the difference in the Spurs making the playoffs. The margin of error is razor thin this season for a team that is currently barely holding on to the eighth seed. As mentioned, the defense has not made the strides that were originally expected so the offense has to perform. Any downgrade could spell doom for the playoff hopes. Is a middling first rounder worth it? Considering the team owns all of its future firsts and has five players under 23 already on the roster, it doesn’t seem so.
But what about a high first rounder? For teams without championship aspirations, the option of tanking is always somewhat appealing. Trading DeRozan would have potentially helped in that regard. The problem is that it’s too late. If the Spurs do fall in the standings, they won’t get low enough to secure a top five pick. The Rockets and Timberwolves and the bottom of the East are too bad to allow San Antonio to catch up, especially considering the Silver and Black would still have enough talent to avoid a complete disaster in the second half of the season. They could have still improved their lottery odds, but likely not enough to make a tanking effort worth it. As soon as the team exceeded expectations early in the year, bottoming out for a top pick became practically impossible.
If the incoming assets were not going to be franchise-changing and the chances of making the playoffs would actually decrease without DeRozan, the only other argument for moving him is that it would be a mistake to let him go for nothing. He is, after all, the main return from the Kawhi Leonard trade. The problem with that thinking is that the Spurs wouldn’t be losing him for nothing if he walks in the offseason. They would have gotten potentially two playoff appearances out of him, priceless leadership for the developing youngsters, plus ample cap space with which to re-form their roster. Even if they can’t sign a star with their max salary slot, they could get complementary pieces that fit the young core or rent the room for extra assets. Cap flexibility is valuable and going into next season, the Spurs will have as much as any team in the league.
There’s plenty of room to debate whether it was a good idea to bring DeRozan to San Antonio in the first place, and there’s a case to be made that it was sensible to move him and Aldridge last off-season. But at this point, trading him mainly just to formally end the Aldridge-DeRozan era simply didn’t make much sense.
There will be another debate over DeRozan’s future in San Antonio soon, and it may be hard to land on the side that wants him around as he gets minutes and touches over the younger players. But for now, it’s a good thing that the Spurs have kept the veteran for at least few more months.