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DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs’ offseason

This summer is integral for PATFO, but the DeMar DeRozan decision reigns supreme.

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Play-In Tournament Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

San Antonio’s season came to a heartbreaking end after they fell to the Grizzlies in the NBA’s play-in tournament. And while some may place the blame solely on DeMar DeRozan, basketball is an incredibly nuanced team sport. It only takes a single look at his 5-of-21 line from the field to see the four-time All-Star underachieved on Wednesday night. But he wasn’t the only player who had an atrocious shooting performance for the Spurs.

San Antonio shot 35.1% with Rudy Gay, Dejounte Murray, and Lonnie Walker going 8-of-21, 4-of-17, and 2-of-8, respectively — so why give DeRozan so much flack? Most of the criticism is because DeMar is the team’s undisputed star. When you’re the go-to guy, there will be criticism when you flounder, and hell to pay after do-or-die games.

That said, he was unquestionably worse than any of his teammates. His lackluster three rebounds and three assists in nearly 38 minutes fell well short of his season averages. Most of all, as has been the case for most of his tenure in San Antonio, DeRozan’s subpar defense couldn’t be masked — the ball watching, late rotations, ill-advised swipes, and halfhearted closeouts were undeniable, despite holding opponents to 5-of-15 shooting when designated as the primary defender.

DeMar’s fundamental defensive flaws are why he hurts the Spurs so much when he can’t get going as a scorer or facilitator. According to FiveThirtyEight, DeRozan ranked 238th in Defensive RAPTOR out of the 251 players who logged at least 1000 minutes this season, and that’s disastrous.

Defense isn’t the only place DeRozan is a detriment when playing off-ball. DeMar scored just 16 points and ranked in the bottom 4.4th percentile as a cutter this season. He also landed in the 50.4th percentile as a spot-up shooter, with 64.5% of those points coming from midrange.

Nailing a measly 35 triples in 206 games with San Antonio, the six-seven swingman is a non-threat from three-point land. And his inefficiency (22.7%) and reluctance to let it fly from the outside has opponents more than happy to leave him wide open, effectively shrinking the court.

While DeRozan knows how to get to his spots better than almost anyone in the league, pull-up, turnaround, and contested jumpers are tough shots to make. Yet he led all high-volume isolation scorers in field goal percentage (54.7%) and points per possession (1.2) this season. And that stunning efficiency despite opting for sub-optimal looks is a testament to his skill, and few players match his mixture of footwork, physicality, and touch.

But as we saw on Wednesday, the payoff for these types of attempts can be astonishingly low. And while it would be disingenuous to gloss over how perfectly Dillon Brooks covered DeRozan throughout the evening, the Spurs nonetheless suffered the consequences of directing their offense through someone with such a volatile and precarious shot selection.

There’s a ton of nightly variability in basketball, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think Memphis caught DeMar on one of his increasingly rare off nights. While DeRozan was a pillar of consistency during the regular season, it’s impossible to ignore his postseason resumé. Including the latest play-in loss, DeMar is 5-10 in elimination games, shooting 116-of-285 (40.7%) over those contests.

Facing a frontrunning LeBron James in three of those instances certainly explains some of his early playoff exits. However, shooting 29.7% with a 2-9 record across 11 postseason openers, DeMar’s slow starts have often put his team in a hole, even when 8 of those games were played on his home court.

While DeRozan hasn’t lived up to expectations in the playoffs, he carried the Spurs in crunch time, recording the third-most clutch points (140) in the league behind Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal. So why does everything fall apart for DeRozan once the regular season ends?

The methodical pace and raised competition of the playoffs make it progressively more complicated to replicate regular-season success. And when your game is heavily dependent on your ability to knock down low-percentage jumpers, opponents are better equipped to slow you down as you advance from round to round.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for midrange specialists in the NBA. A year ago, Jimmy Butler, a 24.4% three-point shooter, led the Heat to the Finals. But he’s a four-time All-Defense honoree playing alongside another All-Star in Bam Adebayo, surrounded by long-range marksmen.

DeRozan isn’t close to matching Butler as a defender, and San Antonio didn’t have the personnel to line the perimeter with deadeyes. The Spurs finished last in three-point attempts (28.4) and 24th in percentage (35%), which isn’t too shocking with Patty and Rudy leading the way from beyond the arc.

The Compton, California native is an awkward fit as a go-to option for any organization in the pace-and-space era. Plus, his glaring imperfections make him an easy target for casual fans, but it isn’t as though he has zero value to a ball club in pursuit of a ring.

DeMar has come a long way from being the unpolished 20-year-old who entered the league with a 38.5-inch vertical. The savvy veteran remains an exceptional athlete, but his evolution from a slasher into a deadly one-on-one scorer into a fringe elite distributor deserves recognition.

The former ninth overall pick of the 2009 Draft transformed himself into an All-Star in Toronto. And though he doesn’t own a single All-Star nod in three seasons with the Spurs, that says more about the ludicrous depth of the Western Conference than it does about his level of play.

DeMar should have three more All-Star appearances to his name. Not only has he seen his efficiency spike in San Antonio, but he became the second player in NBA history to average at least 20 points and six assists while committing less than two turnovers per game this season.

DeRozan has steadily become a de facto floor general while lowering his turnovers every year, generating a whopping 35.3% of San Antonio’s points and accounting for 14.5% of their giveaways. He might not be the engine of a championship offense, but where would the Spurs be without him?

At the very least, DeMar has kept them afloat. Peaking at the seventh seed in his first go-round, the Silver and Black haven’t made a meaningful playoff run behind DeRozan. And following their play-in loss, San Antonio has now missed the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time 45 seasons.

Unless one or more of the young core makes a gigantic leap into superstardom, the Spurs will be too good to tank for a top pick in the coming seasons, but not good enough to sniff title contention anytime soon. At least that’s the case as long as DeMar remains the best player in San Antonio.

But with his contract expiring this offseason, PATFO are at a crossroads, and how they handle his impending free agency could decide where this franchise is heading. Do they bring him back, do they let him walk, or can they work out a sign-and-trade?

How PATFO approached the 2021 trade deadline only leads to more questions. Why haven’t the two sides agreed to an extension? If they weren’t interested in re-signing DeRozan, why didn’t they ship him away for any half-decent package? And what is he worth on the open market?

Let’s start with DeMar’s value. A couple of months away from turning 32, this contract will probably be DeRozan’s last significant payday. But how much are teams willing to spend on an aging midrange specialist and defensive liability who needs the ball in his hands to be productive?

The aging part should be a critical factor in how the Spurs approach this decision. Most players begin declining after their 30th birthday. And while DeMar has rounded out his repertoire with the Spurs, nobody’s impervious to the effects of father time.

A year ago, DeMar DeRozan became the first player to average at least 22 points per game while shooting better than 53% from the floor since Michael Jordan. As mentioned earlier, he also had a historic campaign this season, but his 3.6% dip in field goal percentage was a bit alarming.

The principal culprit behind this drop-off was his shooting around the rim. DeMar converted 70.1% of his attempts from that zone in 2020 and just 61% in 2021, going from the fourth-best high-volume guard in the restricted area to 3.1 percentage points below league average.

Extensive roster turnover, widespread injury woes, a coronavirus-induced hiatus, and an absurdly compacted schedule likely played a role in DeRozan’s decline as a finisher. An incredible amount of wear and tear come from 940 games and 32,249 minutes for a professional athlete.

Before we continue, let’s take into consideration San Antonio will have a projected league-leading $51M in cap space this summer, so re-signing DeMar doesn’t mean they can’t make a run at another big name. The better question is, will anyone be deserving of max or near-max money?

Since Kawhi Leonard making a reunion with the Spurs is about as probable as me dunking a ball for the first time, that leaves restricted free agents Lauri Markkanen and John Collins as the most sensible fits for San Antonio. Would they improve the Spurs? Sure, though neither moves the needle enough in tandem with DeRozan for PATFO to enter a bidding war for their services.

Circling back to DeMar, it’s virtually impossible to to expect him to be the best player on a title team. He’s a bona fide All-Star, a tremendous human being, and has been an extraordinary leader for this young Spurs squad, but San Antonio needs to choose a definitive direction.

Drafting and signing complementary players would only be part of the solution if the Silver and Black ran it back with DeRozan. This group desperately needs a foundational building block, and they’re more than a piece away from seriously rejoining the championship discussion.

The Silver and Black have a promising young core, but they lack a genuine franchise player. While late-round success stories exist, not every player who walks into San Antonio’s system is going to become a Hall of Famer. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard are shining examples of the Spurs’ exemplary scouting and developmental program. But they’re historical outliers, and the odds of finding the next Giannis or Jokic are slim.

Losing is never fun for the players, coaches, front office, or fanbase. And intentionally tanking is something I can’t endorse. Yet trying to win with a dysfunctional roster has brought San Antonio nothing but a first-round exit and back-to-back trips to the bottom of the lottery.

Without DeMar DeRozan, the Spurs as constructed should remain competitive even if they don’t make the playoffs, and anyone worried about what losing might do to the organizational culture, there are plenty of scenarios worse than a chance at a top-five pick.

Spurs fans rightfully idolize Duncan, Robinson, and Popovich for the championships they won, but it seems many are quick to forget that San Antonio acquired the Twin Towers through a bunch of losses and the lucky bounce of a few ping pong balls.

The difference between San Antonio and a team like the Timberwolves starts in the front office. The values Gregg Popovich has instilled in his players, staff, and executives permeate everything they do. And another losing season won’t erase 25 years of groundwork.

For all DeRozan’s growth as a passer, proficiency as a scorer, and regular-season heroics, the Spurs are destined for mediocrity with a playbook centered around him. That doesn’t mean he can’t contribute to a contender, but San Antonio can’t expect to compete for hardware while asking him to shoulder the load of an MVP candidate.

Perhaps DeMar’s next stop will provide him the infrastructure to play second fiddle to a legitimate superstar and change the narrative surrounding his career. Maybe his departure will give the young core the touches to facilitate a breakout. Regardless of what happens once he’s gone, a split is what’s best for both parties.