The Finals are underway. The draft is coming soon. In a month’s time, free agency will be here. A crucial offseason is just around the corner for the San Antonio Spurs, one in which they will need to answer a lot of important questions about the direction of the franchise.
Among the most salient ones is the future of DeMar DeRozan. The star wing will enter unrestricted free agency after failing to agree to an extension with the Spurs and could unilaterally decide to leave, which seems likely, unless the franchise makes him a huge offer.
They should under no circumstances do that. It’s time to move on from a player that did all he could to help the Spurs but was never the right man for the job.
Let’s first look at DeRozan as a player, because the issues start there. The common misconception with DeRozan criticism is that is based on his predilection for mid-range jumpers. The reality is that DeRozan, just like any other star who is good at making those in-between shots, should take them. The actual problem with his offense is not that he does that, but that he doesn’t also take threes. It’s a gigantic issue because he can be completely ignored off the ball, since he also doesn’t cut consistently like, for example, Dwyane Wade used to do. As a result, DeRozan has to be the lead ball handler to be effective and not hurt spacing. For comparison, he posted a similar average seconds per touch last season as Russell Westbrook and a similar average number of dribbles per touch as James Harden. Those numbers led the team by a mile.
Now, DeRozan being the lead ball handler is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of wing stars are, and the Spurs scored at a top 10 level with him on the court last season and fell apart without him. He’s also not selfish and will try to make the right pass. It is viable to build an attack around him; it just takes the right pieces, and the Spurs never had them. The ideal point guard to pair DeRozan with is a Kyle Lowry type who can play on and off the ball. Dejounte Murray is not that guy. Murray can do some damage on the offensive glass, but he’s not a shooter, a cutter or a screener. The ideal wing to pair DeRozan with is someone who has the size to guard both wing spots, is a dead eye shooter, and doesn’t need the ball in his hands. No one on the roster fit that bill during his time with the franchise.
The Spurs tried to make things work by moving DeRozan to small forward and starting Bryn Forbes to at least cover the dead eye shooter role, but that killed the defense in 2019/20 because DeRozan is also largely a minus on that end. He’s always lacked focus and effort in the defensive side, which to a degree is understandable because of the heavy offensive burden he carries, but also makes him hard to build around. This past season, the Spurs tried to work around DeRozan’s limitations by starting two plus perimeter defenders next to him in Derrick White and Murray, plus a small ball power forward in Keldon Johnson, to make the defense switchable and the spacing better for him. Catering the team to DeRozan worked for the player — he had one of the most efficient years of his career — but it proved to result in a low ceiling at a team level, which is not surprising. DeRozan, as good as he is, can’t carry a team as the only star.
Now, saying DeRozan is flawed and needs a specific type of supporting cast to elevate teams is nothing new. It’s been the assessment people have made about him for years, and frankly it doesn’t mean he’s not a star. Even though he is almost exclusively a one-way player who needs the ball in his hands, he does a good job of getting buckets and assists at a high level, at least in the regular season. The problem is that not only did the Spurs lack the right supporting cast, but he’s also not ideal to surround with a group of young players on a rebuilding team. To find any kind of success on a DeRozan-led squad, everyone else has to adjust, and that’s what they did.
Can Murray be a more traditional playmaking point guard? Probably not, but he never got the chance to try. White has had to transition to an off-ball role to fit in the starting lineup. Lonnie Walker has had some of his best performances when DeRozan was out, in part because he got more touches. Johnson has gotten almost no reps at small forward because DeMar needs to be hidden there. The Spurs are now young, athletic and bad at spacing the floor, so they should have been trying to push the ball, but they instead had to slow down to DeRozan preferred pace.
The problems don’t stop on offense, as it’s been hard to establish a defensive identity when the team’s star is a minus on that end. Again, this is not a criticism of DeRozan as a player — he was undeniably great for long stretches — as much as it is an acknowledgement that his fit with the Spurs simply wasn’t great at any level. DeRozan helps others be better by allowing them to have smaller, defined roles in a rigid half court system, but that’s not what a rebuilding team brimming with young talent should want.
To be clear, San Antonio was better off, in terms of wins and losses, for having DeRozan around these past three years. They made the playoffs his first season and were on the brink the next two. Had they traded Kawhi Leonard for picks instead, they would have bottomed out, which is not something the franchise wanted to do. But there were trade-offs to the front office’s decision. The young players didn’t get as much freedom to develop, the team struggled to find a new identity, and the picks they got didn’t come at the top of the draft. Whether those trade-offs were worth it, considering the middling success of the team, will depend on who you ask, but it certainly seems like at this point, it’s time to move on. If the Spurs are to be mediocre for a while longer, it would be much better to do so while actually empowering the young guys they’ve picked and developed.
We don’t really know how this young core would look without DeRozan, but we should be eager to find out. If White and Murray can create enough from the perimeter in the half court, Walker becomes a little more consistent, and the team adds a forward with at least some shot creating ability, the offense should be around the same level it was last season. More minutes for Devin Vassell should improve the defense, while moving Johnson to small forward, at least for stretches, could free up playing time for Luka Samanic. Some of the role changes and rotation adjustments can be done with DeRozan on board, but going for half measures when the Spurs need a real shakeup is no longer justifiable. The team might take a step back next season, but if it means figuring out whether the pieces fit, it would be worth it.
DeRozan is a good player, a master of footwork who can rise to the occasion late in games. He’s also by all accounts a fantastic person and teammate. Normally teams should do all they can to hold on to guys like that, but not teams that are in he middle of a rebuilding process. Maybe DeRozan helped at some point, but that time is over.
Eventually the Spurs will have to accept that keeping the training wheels on isn’t helping the young guys. They have to figure out if their core is actually any good, and they have to do it soon. Moving on from DeRozan is arguably the most important step on that process, so hopefully they’ll be ready to go through it.