When DeMar DeRozan comes to court on Sunday for a rematch between the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors, he will not only do so as a legendary Raptors alumnus, but as the chief architect of San Antonio’s attempt to become a Mid-Raptors To fight. Season turnaround.
In the last 15 games, DeRozan has turned his rejection of three-point shooting into a master class for efficiency. The average is 26 points when 58.6 percent are shot from the ground and 88.6 percent from the free throw line, each five percent higher than its seasonal average – with a total attempt of only eight shots from a distance.
Never hitting from outside the three-point line is a futile sin, it turns out when you learn to do it surgically from the inside.
"I always try to analyze myself as best I can when things are going well, especially when things are going bad," DeRozan said before the Toronto duel last Sunday. "… I always watch games where I can steal a train, wonder why a certain guy can get the free-throw line or get a certain shot a certain number of times, or whatever."
But even with DeRozan's recent scorching shootout, the Spurs will welcome the Raptors to Texas, who have lost 8-7 in the last 15 games.
It turns out that this was by and large the best route of the season. And as the February 6 trading deadline approaches, San Antonio faces the same dilemma that Toronto once had: how far can a team led by the last heroes of the middle class basketball go?
San Antonio Spurs star DeMar DeRozan warming up before a game against the Toronto Raptors. (Alex D’Addese / Sportsnet)
The specifics when Toronto had to ask this question were different. There was no 22-year-old playoff series on the game or a surefire Hall of Fame coach on the sidelines who was awarded a competitive game north of the border. But the basic dilemma rhymes.
Throughout the year, San Antonio with DeRozan is surpassed by almost 11 points per 100 possessions. This is bad. So bad that, according to Cleaning the Glass, these 1,503 minutes are in the bottom eighth percentile of all players in the NBA.
A significant portion of this comes from earlier seasons prior to this route, in which LaMarcus Aldridge attempted almost half of his five three-point attempts per game – from only 1.7 attempts in his first 26 games – to operate the more unlocked properties for DeRozan and raised the ceiling of the San Antonio offensive.
If you score more points, your team always has a little more scope for mistakes on the defensive. For the Spurs, the additional scope they gained by scoring eight points per game in the league this year has rarely resulted in convincing victories. Of the eight victories that DeRozan and Aldridge achieved on this offensive, only three were more than five points.
Of course, the entire lower six defense of the Spurs doesn't fall on DeRozan's shoulders. But it's a trend that started in Toronto and followed it to San Antonio, where its shortcomings at this end of the square were compounded by the team with three competent, young perimeter players – Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker and Derrick White You do some of DeRozan's 34.3 minutes a night.
Although it is sub-optimal at best to leave as many points as the Spurs with DeRozan on the court, and at worst a disaster is imminent, it seems easier to land the eighth seed in the Western Conference than it is has been in recent years – currently San Antonio is ninth with a record less than 500, half a game behind eighth in Memphis Grizzlies.
The difficulty of being an eight-seed this year is that the Spurs would find themselves in a first-round match against the United States if the playoffs start today and only the San Antonio trading venues in the overall ranking would change against Memphis Los Angeles Lakers.
DeRozan's Toronto years were full of lessons. But the recurring, inescapable truth was that if LeBron James made the way to the NBA final, the trip would be broken off.
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The Spurs have been good to very good in basketball for 22 years. That's a long time. The NBA itself has only been around for 73 years. They have managed to redesign and renovate their basic Tim Duncan foundation so long that a whole generation of NBA observers has never had a sporeless post-season.
And now, more than since Leonard's Zaza Pachulia-induced ankle injury in 2017, there's a faint outline of a blueprint for what San Antonio could do next himself.
Duncan has returned as a stabilizing force, this time as an assistant on the Spurs bench, and Becky Hammon seems ready to take the head reins off Popovich after his resignation this week against the Miami Heat, where Hammon persuaded Poppovich, one questioning late foul play against Jimmy Butler at a crucial moment for the game.
Walker, White and Murray are far less effective than the trios of Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby – but they are a useful starting point for the beginning of a reconstruction.
There is a premise in architecture that anyone who designs a structure should think about how that structure will look like a ruin.
Since the playoffs have a question mark, their franchise player's long-term status is unknown, and their ability to compete with them is no less certain, it may be time for Spurs makers to develop a multi-decade playoff – make the dynasty look at the same thing; Follow Toronto's example and take the opportunity to build something better by tearing it down before the structure breaks down.