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Is Evolution Enough for DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors?

Toronto enters its second-round series against the Cavaliers better equipped to challenge LeBron James than ever before. Yet it still feels like a long shot—and its window to rise atop the Eastern Conference is closing quickly.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Toronto Raptors enter the second round of the playoffs with the highest expectations they’ve ever had. This feels at once obvious and overlooked, as from the perspective of wins alone, the 2018 regular season is the franchise’s high point. The Raps have never been deeper or better equipped to challenge the greatest player on the planet. But from a 40,000-foot view, it’d be easy to mistake them for the same old Raptors, a not-quite-top-tier contender in a conference stocked with burgeoning supersquads.

Nobody on the Raptors looks simultaneously familiar and reinvented to the extent of DeMar DeRozan, finally option 1A on the only NBA team for which he’s ever played. DeRozan, long maligned for being the model of guard that the NBA has left behind, emerged as a fringe MVP candidate this season on a team that, personnel-wise, closely resembles the squad that seemed primed for a rebuild as recently as last spring. Over the past few months, the 28-year-old has attained a level of significance that previously eluded him, both for his on-court endeavors and his off-court openness, the latter of which sparked a dialogue about mental health that was long overdue in the sports world.

For DeRozan and the Raptors, facing Cleveland in the second round, the heart predicts triumph and the head imagines doom. The Cavs have squashed Toronto’s dreams of playoff glory in each of the past two seasons, and though this iteration of LeBron and the Pips is weaker than usual, a win for Toronto would be cathartic, a sign that things can change.

Of course, that’s the first question on everybody’s lips during these playoffs: Can things really change? Are the Warriors really vulnerable? Will LeBron really slip up before the Finals? Is DeRozan really more than a Kobe clone in the wrong era? Is Toronto not, in fact, Toronto anymore?

Perhaps the status quo will hold and the mechanics of the league will play out predictably, as they have of late. Surprises have been in short supply. And a deep Raptors run, despite what their record may indicate, would be just that. DeRozan and Toronto are hiding in plain sight.

The way that DeMar DeRozan plays basketball is frustratingly beautiful. He’s an old soul, a ball-dominant shooting guard in an illicit love affair with the midrange. This season, he improved his passing and his shooting accuracy from deep, the two attributes that most held him back in an efficient, ball-movement-obsessed league. His assists per game average jumped to 5.2, easily the highest of his career, and his 3-point percentage climbed to 31.2, a step up from his dreadful 26.6 percent clip last season. Still, more than a third of his shot attempts were midrange jumpers. DeRozan is the best player on the Eastern Conference’s top seed, and yet it seems like wishful thinking to believe that he could be the leader of a championship squad.

The ball-dominant superstar who can’t shoot 3s is going extinct for a reason: He represents a double-edged sword. His team lives and dies with his jump shot in the land of inefficiency. DeRozan has been one of the best players in the league this season because he’s made incremental adjustments, like doubling his 3-point attempts, that have fit into a modernized Raptors system that strives for the efficiency that was once its antithesis. Yet evolution doesn’t happen in one fell swoop.

The Wizards-Raptors first-round series wasn’t about DeRozan, at least not totally. It was a showcase of Toronto’s versatility, a display of how far this team has come. But DeRozan was the series’s standout player, recording three 30-plus-point outings while shooting a remarkable (for him) 38.5 percent from deep. He went 3-for-4 from behind the arc to fuel a 32-point showing in Game 5, a 108-98 win that tipped in the scales in the Raps’ favor.

Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards -  Game Four Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Previous versions of the Raptors were defined by stubborn naivete, a reliance on DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and old-world offense. But in 2017-18 head coach Dwane Casey has adapted his approach, and Toronto’s players have bought in. The Raptors now run their star guards out separately with platoons of trusted role players, embracing a more balanced charge that affords them additional rest. Toronto’s rotation goes more than 10 deep, with Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka shouldering some of the scoring, and young players like OG Anunoby providing defensive relief against opposing wings. This has allowed DeRozan to drop his minutes to the lowest mark since his rookie season and enjoy more time on the court handling the ball. And balance means that more than two players need to feel comfortable in the cockpit.

Occasionally, role players seize control of the offense. In Game 5 against Washington, Delon Wright ripped a tight contest from the Wizards’ jaws, nailing a ballsy 31-footer with under four minutes left in regulation, and scoring on two of the team’s next three possessions as part of a 7-0 run that effectively guaranteed the victory. DeRozan had the game-high 32 points, but with the contest hanging in the balance, he trusted his teammates to power themselves to the finish. Wright’s 3 came on a DeRozan assist. So did Wright’s next bucket: After a missed John Wall layup, the Raptors flew out in transition with DeRozan in control. In a two-on-two race to the rim, DeRozan picked his head up when in the past he may have started to gather speed and barrel to the basket. In this case, he threw a half-court lob to a streaking Wright.

Of course, every adjustment requires compromise. DeRozan is improving, but he’ll never be able to abandon who he was. The no-man’s-land fadeaways still exist, as do the occasional bad 3-point misses. In games 3 and 4 against the Wiz, he went 20-for-51 from the field and 2-for-7 from deep. In Game 6, a series-clinching 102-92 win, he went 6-for-18 overall and 0-for-4 from 3.

As my colleague Danny Chau wrote of DeRozan in March: “He’s gone from being an anachronism to a wing with a 2018 starter kit of skills without betraying the identity he’s cultivated over the past decade. He still thrives in the midrange, but the head of steam he can now take into a play has opened up avenues he’d never seen in the past.”

DeRozan is a sparkling mess. He’s the tyrannosaurus in Toronto’s Megazord, but not the type of basketball player you’d create in a lab. He’s entered a new realm of success, but failure seems to hang, ominously, over his head. DeMar DeRozan is not frame-perfect. Neither are the Raptors, but they’re getting closer.

The series between the Raptors and Wizards felt like a warped rerun of the 2015 postseason. Both teams had the same cores as they did in their matchup three seasons ago, and Toronto, once again, had home-court advantage. This was technically a one-versus-eight matchup, but it felt like the four-versus-five series it once was. And why not? How far has either team really come over the past three years?

Both Toronto and Washington are in NBA limbo. They are not shooting through the stratosphere like the Sixers, they are not watching their fuel supply run dry like the Cavaliers, and they are not exploring the depths of the Mariana Trench like the Suns or the Mavericks. The Wizards were good, and the Raptors are better, talented enough to be competitive in a night-to-night sense. But neither is structured to be a true Finals contender in the past, present, or future. That feels strange in Toronto’s case, given that it entered the playoffs with the NBA’s second-best record. In a wide-open East, the Raps were the team that caught the regular-season bouquet.

Yet they’re not as promising as their fellow Eastern Conference survivors. They don’t look like the Young Thunder; they don’t have LeBron. In these playoffs, the Raptors might have a more favorable position than Boston, but that advantage is marred by a massive injury asterisk.

The state of the Raptors is, well, unclear. In Cleveland, they face the conference’s fourth seed and also their most noteworthy tormentor. The Cavaliers have booted the Raptors from the postseason in each of the past two years, and last season’s series was an embarrassing sweep—Toronto’s smallest margin of defeat in a game was seven points. But now things are different. Kyrie Irving is gone, and in his place a handful of oversized fourth-graders are being propped up by the greatest player on earth. The Raptors should have the edge, as they boast superior depth and have a mismatch at nearly every position. Yet their position seems tenuous, and if they fall to LeBron again this year, the East’s ascendant squads will pass them by.

It’s hard to ignore the parallels between this year’s Toronto team and the 2014-15 Hawks, another group that emerged from the middle of the East to win 60 games and secure the conference’s top seed. That team, anchored by Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver, didn’t get a boost from any flashy personnel additions. The players began to properly execute head coach Mike Budenholzer’s scheme, moving the ball and embracing the strength of the unit. Four Hawks played in the 2015 All-Star Game. They outpaced the field. Then, in the conference finals against Cleveland, they went splat. Their win totals dropped over the next two seasons, the team’s core dissipated, and now Atlanta is fully committed to the tankathon.

It’s hard to tell if the title window is opening or closing for the Raptors, or if it was ever truly open at all. This is DeRozan’s ninth season in Toronto. It’s the sixth for Lowry and Valanciunas. This experiment is hitting its apex, and it already feels played out. Maybe the Raps are resilient, and maybe they’re foolish. Either way, for now, they’re here.