The DeRozan para­dox

Toronto Rap­tors can’t progress un­less old-school star adapts to the times

Northumberland Today - - SPORTS - SCOTT STINSON

TORONTO — Dur­ing the firstround of last sea­son’s NBA play­offs, as the Toronto Rap­tors were yet again strug­gling to put away a weaker op­po­nent, I had a con­ver­sa­tion with a mem­ber of the bas­ket­ball op­er­a­tions team.

He was con­fi­dent that the Rap­tors would still beat the Mil­wau­kee Bucks, and re­lieved that Toronto hadn’t drawn In­di­ana, where Paul Ge­orge loomed. Against the Bucks, he said, the Rap­tors sim­ply had to play smart. Pass out of dou­ble-teams and traps, and make the Bucks pay for their ag­gres­sive­ness.

The name DeMar DeRozan was not men­tioned, but it didn’t need to be. The Rap­tors’ star shoot­ing guard has long been one of the big­gest rea­sons for the team’s suc­cess while at the same time ex­pos­ing its lim­i­ta­tions. And, as a new Sports

Il­lus­trated player rank­ing — 36th in the NBA, up from 46 last year — both ran­kled DeRozan and kicked off an­other round of de­bate over his value, it’s worth not­ing that Toronto’s off­sea­son re­tool­ing hinges very much on whether the 27-year-old can be some­thing other than the very good player he has proven to be so far.

First, a word about rank­ings: Silly. They ex­ist en­tirely to kick off the squab­bles that they inevitably kick off, so there’s lit­tle point in fight­ing over where DeRozan should be on

Sports Il­lus­trated’s list. He is, as the pub­li­ca­tion noted, an im­pres­sive scorer who has draw­backs to his game, par­tic­u­larly on de­fence.

But what makes DeRozan “po­lar­iz­ing,” to use Sports Il­lus­trated’s word, is that he is an old-style star in a new-style era. To­day’s NBA is one where play­ers earn the most praise for shoot­ing from three­p­oint range and for pass­ing ef­fec­tively within a ball-move­ment sys­tem. DeRozan doesn’t do much of any of that, and as a re­sult his team doesn’t. Golden State and Bos­ton, the top seeds in each con­fer­ence last sea­son, had the high­est per­cent­age of as­sisted bas­kets. Toronto was last in the NBA.

One can un­der­stand DeRozan’s frus­tra­tion: He’s out here tak­ing a ton of shots (3rd in the league), scor­ing a lot of points (5th) and draw­ing a pile of fouls (5th), the epit­ome of the kind of player the league once li­on­ized, and the fancy-stats crowd all but rolls its eyes at his pro­duc­tion. That’s of par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance in the NBA, where ad­vanced stats have won the day. DeRozan may have of­ten heard M-V-P chants at the Air Canada Cen­tre last sea­son, but he re­ceived ex­actly one vote in that race, a fifth-place one at that.

None of th­ese are new de­vel­op­ments. When the Rap­tors gave DeRozan a five-year, US$139mil­lion con­tract two off­sea­sons ago, they were com­mit­ting them­selves to try­ing to win in the mod­ern NBA with a key player whose game was de­cid­edly Amish.

De­spite the sum­mer ros­ter over­haul, that is still the plan. Or, at least, the hope is DeRozan can be less Amish. Con­sider that dis­cus­sion from last spring. The team was wor­ried about In­di­ana, be­cause Ge­orge had been an ef­fec­tive DeRozan-stop­per a year ear­lier. And it was frus­trated early by Mil­wau­kee be­cause the Bucks were sti­fling Toronto’s half-court of­fence. Both of those things have to change if the Rap­tors are go­ing to be­come more than a very good reg­u­lar-sea­son team that ekes out play­off wins over low seeds in the early rounds. They can’t run an of­fence that is so vul­ner­a­ble to an ex­cel­lent one-on-one de­fender like Ge­orge, and they can’t run an of­fence that lacks the ball move­ment that is the hall­mark of the league’s best teams. Be­cause DeRozan gets so many plays — 3rd in the league in us­age rate — much of that will come down to him. Can he get oth­ers in­volved when the de­fence keys on him? Will he pass up in­ef­fi­cient shots in favour of get­ting his team­mates ef­fi­cient ones? It would, ob­vi­ously, also help the Rap­tors tremen­dously if he has spent the sum­mer learn­ing how to ef­fec­tively shoot three­p­oint­ers.

Team pres­i­dent Ma­sai Ujiri threw down some kind of gaunt­let when he vowed at sea­son’s end that the Rap­tors would change their ways, since it was clear that what they were do­ing wasn’t good enough. But hav­ing brought back the team’s three big­gest un­cer­tain­ties this off­sea­son — coach Dwane Casey, plus Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka — it is ev­i­dent that if change is com­ing, it is com­ing in a sig­nif­i­cant way from the guys who were al­ready here.

Can DeRozan be a part of that change? I am re­minded of the 2016 play­offs when, mired in a shoot­ing slump, DeRozan kept fir­ing away with long two-point at­tempts, even as they weren’t fall­ing. He was proud of his will­ing­ness to keep gun­ning.

It’s that in­stinct that he will have to fight this sea­son. Long two-point at­tempts have made DeRozan an All-Star, and a very rich man. But they aren’t go­ing to make the Rap­tors any bet­ter.

This is just the lat­est chal­lenge for a player who has a his­tory of ex­ceed­ing ex­pec­ta­tions. But if he can adapt, the Rap­tors should change with him. And he might even get a cou­ple more MVP votes, and some love from a cer­tain mag­a­zine’s player rank­ings.

VAUGHN RI­D­LEY/GETTY IMAGES

DeMar DeRozan dunks in Game 5 of the 2016-17 quar­ter­fi­nals against the Mil­wau­kee Bucks. DeRozan’s spot in a Sports Il­lus­trated NBA player rank­ing is caus­ing con­tro­versy and rais­ing ques­tions about DeRozan’s abil­ity to adapt to the cur­rent NBA.

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