An NBA Riddle: Making Sense of DeMar DeRozan’s Divisive Status

Last season, there was an NBA player who had:

  • More points than sharp-shooting Stephen Curry
  • More rebounds than motor-man Amir Johnson
  • More assists than offensive-initiator Tony Parker
  • More steals than defensive force Andre Iguodala

This sounds like the perfect player, right? A jack of all trades who you can plug at any position. Maybe someone like LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard.

Well, it’s not.

It’s DeMar DeRozan.

DeRozan has been an offensive force for some time now. He is seventh in total points scored over the last five seasons, over which time he’s averaging 22.3 per game. During this same span, he has increased his rebounding and assist numbers, while simultaneously boosting his steals and reducing his fouls on the defensive end. Basically, he’s improved from year to year and still drops 20 points almost every night.

And yet, a chasm exists between fans and analysts concerning how good DDR really is.

The criticisms are innumerable. He can’t shoot the deep ball; he’s a career 28.1 percent marksman from long range. He struggles mightily on the defensive end; he has never once in his career rated positively in defensive points saved. But arguably DeRozan’s biggest flaw is that he seemingly disappears in the playoffs. During the 2016-17 campaign, he was in the 83.8 percentile of TPA during the regular season. That number fell all the way to the 15.3 percentile in the postseason, and his offensive points added dipped below zero, to minus-8.68.

Yet, despite all this, he’s a three-time All-Star and a Third Team All-NBA guard. He is a nasty mid-range sniper, shooting an incredible 49.3 percent between 10 and 16 feet last season. Once he gets to his spot, there’s no stopping him:

Tony Snell is a solid defender, and this shot was in the clutch. Mister Mid-Range made it look easy, even without a screen or action to get him open.

But you should give him a screen.

Per our Play-Type Profiles, DeRozan rated in the 83.2 percentile as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. The Raptors frequently put him in high-screen situations to try getting him open looks from his favorite spots, and it worked. In this clip, Lucas Nogueira frees him up with a screen, and he gets just enough space to shoot from his favorite spot:

This kind of shot is what makes him so dangerous. Mid-rangers are among the worst shots in basketball, statistically, but when you’re required to guard a player no matter where he is inside the arc, it transforms the whole offense by creating space.

Take what happens here for Cory Joseph. Two defenders are afraid of DeRozan getting the ball in his sweet spot, so they stay glued to him, and Joseph gets a free cut to the rim as a result:

Without a credible three-point shot, many players struggle to stretch the floor.

DeRozan is an exception.

But speaking of the deep ball, let’s look at DeRozan’s shooting ability from long range—or rather, his relative inability. His career high knockdown rate is 33.8 percent, and he shot a dismal 26.6 percent last year, good for 340th in the entire league. Teams leave him open because they know he’s a non-threat, even from the corners:

Seriously, he’s that open, and he still can’t hit:

That does not bode well for a modern guard. Even though his mid-range mastery spaces the floor, his inability to knock it down from deep limits his ceiling on offense. If he had shot 35 percent from three-point land last season, closer to the league average, DeRozan would have notched almost half a point per game more and finished sixth in total points.

His defense also leaves a lot to be desired.

His career-high defensive points saved is minus-40.39. Career. High. That is hard to make up for, even given his offensive firepower. In 2016-17, DeRozan ranked 456th in the league in DPS out of 486 eligible players. So…yeah, saying he struggles on that end of the floor is being nice.

He is often matched up against the opposing team’s worst offensive wing, and he still can’t stop anyone. In this segment, Evan Fournier blows by him with ease, and it leads to an and-1:

A simple crossover left DeRozan in the dust. He ranked in the 43rd percentile on isolations, per our Play-Type Profiles, and it really showed. The Raptors were forced to give up two second-round picks in exchange for P.J. Tucker in an attempt to cover for him on the wing defensively.

And his off-ball prevention? Forget about it. He doesn’t seem to have defensive instincts in the slightest. He sometimes forgets the basics. Here, he completely loses his assignment, Klay Thompson, and ends up in no-man’s land. Thompson finds himself with a wide-open three while DeRozan watches from the other side of the floor:

Thompson isn’t a guy you can just lose, yet somehow he does.

The transition game represents the third facet of defense with which he struggles. Below, he completely leaves his assignment to stop a guy 75 feet from the basket, which leads to a dunk at the other end:

DeRozan doesn’t communicate with his teammates and, as a result, tries to stop the ball. His decision to leave T.J. Warren on the break lets him get right to the rim for a bucket.

But for every lay-in DeRozan coughed-up, he scored two. He shot a blistering 62.3 percent inside five feet of the hoop, good for ninth in the league among guards with 150 attempts. That computes to an insanely efficient 1.246 points per shot. To match that from three-point land, DeRozan would need to shoot 41.5 percent—a top-30 mark. That level of efficiency is hard to maintain.

More impressive still, among guards with 100 attempts from five to nine feet, DeRozan posted the fifth-best shooting percentage. Once he got close to the rim, he was almost impossible to deter, no matter who was guarding him. He’s 6’7″, which makes it easier for him to score with bigger guys clouding his view. Look how he gets this one to go with the whole Golden State Warriors team clamping down on him:

JaVale McGee and Draymond Green are rim-protectors, but when you finish as well as DeRozan does at the basket, you can go at good-to-great defenders like those two. His size also allows him to take advantage of smaller matchups he gets on a nightly basis. Poor Treveon Graham just has no chance on this one, as DDR uses his strength and stature to get a shot over him at the iron:

Good luck stopping that, especially when you have to make a conscious effort not to foul him.

DeRozan shot 84.2 percent from the line last season, good for 48th in the league for players with over 100 attempts. Two DeRozan free throws yielded 1.684 points per possession last season, whereas a shot from inside five feet produced 1.246 points. Over 0.4 points per possession is a huge incentive for defenders to keep him off the charity stripe, but that makes it so much harder to contain him around the paint.

So far we’ve seen that DeRozan can score in a variety of ways inside the three-point line but struggles from outside of it. He leveraged his strengths inside the arc all the way to the 21st-most offensive win shares in the entire league last year, more than making up for his bad defense, and he used his deadly mid-range scoring to space the floor without an iota of shooting ability from long range. Given all of this evidence, it seems obvious that DeRozan is, in fact, a great player—albeit an unorthodox one.

But we’ve only talked about the regular season. The playoffs are a whole different monster, and this monster is still giving DDR nightmares.

It bears repeating: Last year, he was in the 83.8 percentile of TPA during the regular season, but only the 15.3 percentile in the postseason. For reference, the 15.3 percentile during the regular season lands very close to players like Andrew Harrison and Tim Frazier. This level of production isn’t ideal, and it stands out even more in the playoffs.

When the postseason rolls around, DeRozan’s shooting percentage plummets. Remember that 49.3 percent shooting between 10 and 16 feet from the regular season? It fell all the way to 36 percent in the playoffs, and he shot just 43.4 percent overall from the field.

Oh, and he shot 6.7 percent from three. Six. Point. Seven. That’s good for 0.201 points per shot—more than a half-point worse than an average Andre Drummond trip to the free-throw line.

All the gravity he has spacing the floor with his mid-range jumper goes away when he can’t knock down any shot. His regular season offensive rating of 110.2 falls all the way to 98.6 in the playoffs. A 12-points-per-100-possessions drop isn’t just stalling an offense; it’s the difference between winning and losing.

And putting a magnifying glass up to DeRozan’s postseason makes it even more clear why his failures are so scrutinized. When he shot 50 percent or better from the field in the 2016-17 playoffs, the Raps went 4-1. When he shot under 50 percent? 0-5. They needed him to show up, and he simply didn’t.

The last criticism of DDR is more complex and longstanding. His teams appear to play better with him on the bench. Last season, with DeRozan on the court, the Raptors had a net rating of just 3.3. When he sat, that number jumped up to 8.3. That five-point gap is the difference between the Houston Rockets and Charlotte Hornets.

You can view this however you want: small-sample theater (though it has happened for five consecutive seasons), a testament to how good Kyle Lowry is at carrying a bench unit, proof that DeRozan plays against starters and his sub doesn’t, etc. But this years-long trend gives many people pause about DeRozan’s true value. If his statistical impact cannot exceed that of Tucker, Terrence Ross, Norman Powell or whoever else spells him, is he really that good?

That question is difficult to answer.  DeMar DeRozan is obviously a good basketball player.  Wing-sized guards who score 27 points every night and turn the ball over on fewer than 10 percent of their touches don’t grow on trees.

In fact, they hardly exist at all.  DeRozan was the only guard to do that this past season, and thoughout history, only four other guys have joined the club. Their names? George Gervin, Vince Carter and two no-name guys: Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.  The Raptors 2-guard has many flaws, some of which are glaring, but he is an offensive force night in and night out during the regular season. If he can continue to improve in non-shooting areas like he has over the last five years, while also continuing to dominate the court 16 feet and in, his stock will only climb.

Plus, he’s now going to show up to training camp with a chip on his shoulder after ESPN ranked him as the league’s 39th-best player. If he can play his usual 75-plus games and score 20 or more points every night, he may end up making them eat their words. But if his flaws become even more apparent, and he struggles in the playoffs yet again, that ranking may look more accurate than ever. As the eye test vs. analytics debate rages on, the “How good is DeMar DeRozan?” question may never get a universal answer.

One thing’s for sure, though.

DeRozan is going to get buckets.

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