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Taking DeMar DeRozan at face value — He’s likely done in San Antonio

DeRozan didn’t say it outright and it’s so early in the offseason that things could change, but it seems like DeMar hinted that he has played his last game in Silver and Black.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

DeMar DeRozan made headlines recently by talking about his impending free agency. In an interview with Shannon Sharpe, the star wing talked about how his priority at this point is winning a championship while also saying that a return to his native Los Angeles would be something he’d enjoy.

In the aftermath of those statements, we heard from Marc Spears that San Antonio is still in the running to re-sign him, but it’s really hard to feel bullish about the possibility of DeRozan wearing Silver and Black in 2021/22 at this point.

First, let’s examine the part about going home. For many, that’s a clear sign that DeRozan is determined to play for the Lakers or the Clippers next season. Spurs fans in particular will be sensitive to the topic, since Kawhi Leonard recently forced his way out of San Antonio and, eventually, back to LA. Yet that part should be the least worrisome for the contingent that wants DeRozan back.

Neither the Lakers nor the Clippers have the money to sign DeRozan outright, and while DeMar made it sound like money is not as important to him now, he’s not likely to sign for a cap exception. A sign-and-trade is possible, but the LA teams don’t have a lot to offer the Spurs without dismantling their roster, since both lack control of their future picks because they included them in the trades that made them contenders. DeRozan might want to return to his hometown, and those two teams might be interested, but making it happen would be hard. Surely all parties know it, so DeRozan might just be saying the right things while also creating some leverage by stating a preferred landing spot.

The more concerning statement for the Spurs fans who want him back should be the one about how important competing for a championship is. When it comes to money, the Spurs have an edge over everyone else, including the LA teams, by virtue of having his Bird Rights. They can offer him a bigger contract, and that matters. After a great follow-up by Sharpe to DeRozan’s ”it’s all about winning,” DeMar admits that ideally he’d like to find a balance between contending and getting paid, which is good news for San Antonio, in case the franchise wants him back. What the Spurs simply will not be able to offer at all is a chance at winning a championship.

We’ve already seen what the ceiling for a “DeRozan + the young guys” Spurs team is, and it isn’t high. Even if when projecting internal development, the Spurs would probably top out as a low seed — and that’s assuming a playoff team falls off and other young squads like the Pelicans don’t leapfrog them. A big addition is not completely out of the question, but this free agency class is not great, and if DeRozan re-signs for a sizable number, the Spurs’ potential cap space shrinks. Even if they somehow land a player like John Collins, it’s hard to see that version of San Antonio being better than the Suns, Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets and Clippers. There could be a trade after a big signing in which the Spurs package a couple of their young pieces for a veteran, but is there anyone available that would truly move the needle? And would a completely new team have enough chemistry to contend right out of the gate? The answer to all those questions is “probably not.”

The tension between the Spurs’ timeline and DeRozan’s was there from the beginning, but it seems like now that DeMar has autonomy, things are coming to a head. He mentioned his age in the interview in part to signal that he doesn’t have many years to wait for an opportunity to get a ring, and with the Spurs, he’d be forced to. Even if DeRozan believes that San Antonio has the makings of a potential championship core, he also surely knows it’s unlikely to reach that level in the next two years, which would likely be the last of his prime. As for San Antonio, making the type of hyper aggressive win-now moves described above would make sense if they had a true superstar, but DeRozan, as good as he is, is not a top 10 player in the league. Undoing all the work they did in their rebuilding effort for an outside chance at a conference finals appearance would make no sense.

Considering all the circumstances, it’s hard to see a scenario in which DeRozan returns. Even if the market for him is bad, both in terms of money and interest from contenders, DeRozan will have better options to accomplish his goal of competing for a championship elsewhere. It might not be in LA, but some established playoff team with money to spend or assets to offer in a sign-and-trade will surely be interested in adding a durable scorer/creator.

It’s still too early in the offseason to make any definitive conclusions, but it appears that DeRozan has essentially said that he’s moving on. If that’s the case, hopefully the Spurs will explore ways to make that happen while benefiting, because in the end, an amicable divorce might be the best for both parties.