There might not much of a place in the NBA for DeMar DeRozan’s midrange game anymore, but there is a time when it is lethal. DeRozan was the closer in Toronto, and now has relieved LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay of jobs they were never as qualified to perform in San Antonio. The longer a game stays tight, the more gladiatorial DeRozan becomes,, turning back time with 18-footers and fadeaways. DeRozan opted for a midrange jump shot to end Monday night’s game against Dallas; up 101-102 in the final 16 seconds of the fourth quarter, he took Wesley Matthews from the perimeter to the top of the key, shook him off with a spin move, and let it fly. He’s a hero, and dammit, he’s going hero ball.
DeRozan missed. The game eventually went to overtime, when he was once again trusted to close, up three with 12 seconds left. This time, he took a step-back J from 20 feet out. And this time, it went in. “I said if I got the opportunity again,” DeRozan said after the 113-108 Spurs win, “I wasn’t going to miss a big shot later in the game, and I didn’t.” Hero.
San Antonio didn’t have that character last season. It took a village to win without Kawhi Leonard, and though Aldridge was a star in a bounce-back season, he was never meant to be cast as the lead. That was supposed to be Leonard, the Spurs superstar who finished third in MVP voting the year before. DeRozan isn’t Leonard, but he’s starting to fill some of that void. The former Raptor was occasionally mentioned in the MVP race for Toronto—but only after a handful of qualifiers: a potential, outside, wouldn’t-that-be-fun, longest-of-long-shots candidate.
A player can’t build an MVP case around scoring alone. San Antonio is the only team to go 4-0 in games when the score was within five with fewer than five minutes left, and DeRozan takes (and makes) more than double the shots every other Spur does in those moments. He often did that for the Raptors, too, but his role as pure power-scorer limited his effect on the game. Toronto encouraged DeRozan to develop his playmaking skills, but San Antonio has DeRozan’s fingerprints on nearly everything the Spurs do on offense, including the old-school scoring he does best.
On the same night when, elsewhere in the league, the all-time record for most 3-pointers in a game was broken (in three quarters), the Spurs put their faith in the least efficient type of field goal—twice. DeRozan is the Spurs’ best shot, even if his shot isn’t basketball’s best shot. It’s an approach that fits in San Antonio perhaps better than it could anywhere else, with a coach who’s at once a mastermind and a truther about the way offense is trending.
“You just don’t take 3s because somebody else takes 3s,” Gregg Popovich said before Monday’s game. “You have to have the shooters to take that many 3s. We do it when it’s appropriate and we understand the value of it. I hate 3s. I don’t like them. But I have to do it. Statistically and analytically, it’s obvious.” (The Spurs shot 9-for-20 from behind the arc against the Mavericks.)
Popovich has long been a 3-point curmudgeon, but he also understands the players he has. His philosophy and his personnel aligned when he traded Leonard for DeRozan. On any team, Leonard would be a more automatic fit. Not only is he a 3-and-D wing, one of the most sought-after positions in the league, he’s one of the best. The Raptors tried to push DeRozan toward that mold. Last season he shot the most 3s he ever had (3.6 per game) and made them at a slightly higher clip (31 percent) than his career average. It seemed like a big deal that he was shooting more … until his shots consistently plunked off the rim. DeRozan was an exceptional player in Toronto, but one whose weakness was in the area the NBA values most.
The Spurs honed his playmaking, rather than his long shooting. DeRozan is no longer a perimeter subtenant, returning to his average 1.8 attempts, but is now creating those shots more often for his teammates. “DeMar’s already an All-Star,” Popovich said in September. “He’s played a certain way. There will be some things we’ll try to add to his game, if he’s willing. I’m not going to jump on him the way I did [Aldridge]. I tried to turn L.A. into John Havlicek. I think it confused him.”
DeRozan was working on being a better facilitator the same summer he worked on 3-point shooting in Toronto, and that stuck. San Antonio is leaning on him in a playmaking role with starting point guard Dejounte Murray out and Tony Parker gone. It adheres to DeRozan’s game more naturally because he’s already in a position to create shots. DeRozan might have one defender hanging with him on the drive—Matthews, for example—but there are four other sets of eyes are closing in on him, giving DeRozan’s teammate in space enough time to collect his dish-out and get an open shot. Six games in, DeRozan is averaging 28.3 points, eight assists, and six rebounds—all career highs.
It’s the most well-rounded DeRozan has been in his prime. On a team that could sustain its 47-win run from last season, he’s a superstar leading his team to the playoffs. He is, acknowledging Anthony Davis and Steph Curry and the other elite starts that rank above DeRozan’s, a true dark-horse MVP candidate. Seeing DeRozan miss 3s last season in Toronto made his game seem limited—but there is more than one way for him to be unleashed.