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Farewell to DeMar DeRozan, undeniably flawed and unquantifiably a great Spurs star

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DeRozan’s time in San Antonio comes to an end, his three years defined by ample criticism and middling success. To appreciate his contributions, words must do what numbers can’t.

San Antonio Spurs v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Another era of Spurs basketball is over, if the past three years even count as one. I’m not sure what classifies something as epochal beyond the amount of time that slowly passes and how it differs from what came before it, but I’m not pressed to define these last few seasons for their uncharacteristic lack of winning and the faces and names most associated with it. Anyway, DeMar DeRozan is now a Bull.

No Spurs fan was calling for DeRozan back in 2018 and, to be fair, he didn’t ask to be one, either. The move from his adopted home north of the border was collateral damage, the result of another star’s power play that left three parties—team, fanbase and the newly displaced DeRozan—trying to find new footing.

Two of the three seemed to accomplish that, for stretches at least. The Spurs extended their playoff run one more year and got their future center plus the pick that became a future Olympian, while DeRozan transformed himself into the playmaking fulcrum of a well-tuned offense and willing face of a new franchise. From my time in the locker room I saw a star who embraced his new surrounds and responsibilities, who treated reporters with deserved respect while answering their questions with undeserved candor. I asked him early on if he and the Spurs were looking to show up those who doubted a team that embraced the midrange in the age of analytics. His response: “Hell yeah.” They went 48-34 and snagged the 7th seed.

But if DeRozan had been a greater, more complete star, he may not have found himself on the wrong end of a Leonard trade to begin with, having to watch a few months later as the seemingly-exiled Leonard did in Toronto what he couldn’t. And few NBA players have felt as caveated by his shortcomings — the defensive lapses, relatively low advanced metrics and, oh, the lack of a three-point shot! Are you kidding me, why doesn’t this guy practice them??? — and that discourse mostly intensified through the end of last season, a second consecutive outside of the playoffs, in spite of improvements in other areas. I could cite the 21, 5 and 6 he averaged as a Spur and one could rightly point to his less impressive on-off numbers or their 113-112 record over three seasons.

The knocks on DeRozan’s defense have long been fair and, if anything, muted compared to the stylistic critiques surrounding his offensive game. We can thank the league’s sea change and the rise of analytics for fandom that is both broadly smarter and less imaginative analysis than ever. It’s easy to look up the points per possession on a 16-foot elbow jumper, less so to determine the value in the breakdown that that same post-up at the elbow may cause to produce a corner three two passes later, and the 2021 version of DeRozan demands you try and consolidate both.

The league’s evolution has also made it impossible for some to appreciate DeRozan’s craft, which turns the aesthetics of basketball into what I vaguely understand is what people like about boxing: all footwork and balance and counters at relatively close quarters and no small amount of confidence tying it together. Watch any game of his and you’re likely to see a completely original combination of feints, pivots and pumpfakes, or a 360 spin into a finger roll worth two points not three.

Two decades of title contention can lead you to demand your NBA fan experience come in absolutes — seasons should end in May or June (in non-plague years) and a team’s leaders should push the boundaries of stardom. It’s easy for that lens to see DeRozan’s talents and tenure as something less than whole.

It’s with that pursuit of something better in mind that drives Tuesday’s move, sending the 31-year-old up to Chicago with a newly inked contract for Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu, and three picks, the main one conveying in the next presidential term. Jesus is probably right that it’s a win all around: DeRozan moves on, newly minted and joining a team on the rise, while the Spurs get back some capable, more malleable vets and a few more draft picks down the line. I’m not sure either side moves any closer to their idea of absolution — the Bulls are still a few rungs down the league’s hierarchy, and the Spurs are back to the drawing board in many ways — but the two do get to take their next step on their terms: something they were both denied three years ago.