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In Focus: DeMar DeRozan

With the Spurs’ Big Three era officially over, San Antonio will have to turn to its brightest star to make sense of the roster. But no matter how he performs next season, he’ll have to operate in the shadow of the greats before him.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2018-19 NBA season is closer than you may think. To prepare, we’re taking a hard look at some of the more interesting players and situations across the league.

Manu Ginobili’s retirement announcement Monday closed the loop on a historic run by a trio of legendary Spurs who have defined the franchise for the past two-plus decades. But as one shooting guard exits, another one enters. DeMar DeRozan didn’t ask to be in San Antonio; he didn’t plan to be, either. But it’s his reality now, after Kawhi Leonard, who was supposed to be the next San Antonio great, started charting a path elsewhere. Now it’s DeRozan who will have to carry the burden of being the franchise’s lead option following dynastic success. Before DeRozan even steps on the court, there’s pressure to fill not just the void of the player he was traded for—Kawhi Leonard—but also that of the past Spurs greats like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Ginobili himself. It’s an impossible hill to climb.

They don’t make players like DeRozan anymore. These days, perimeter players come into the league knowing exactly what they need to develop first and foremost: 3-point accuracy. The Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, who was a midrange specialist at both the high school and college levels, turned himself into a 43 percent shooter from behind the arc for Boston as a rookie last season. But changes take a bit more time for the previous generation of NBA wings. Last year, in DeRozan’s ninth season in the league, he shot a career-high 3.6 3s per game but made just 31 percent of them. It’s not an indictment; it’s a matter of fact. This is who DeRozan is, a proficient scorer in spite of the revolution around him. Now that he finds himself in San Antonio, it might just be the most Spurs thing about him.

If any team has been able to thrive by focusing on the midrange, it’s San Antonio. Last season, the team won 47 games by taking the fourth-fewest 3s per game in the league and the third-most midrange attempts. This season, however, the Spurs will lose three of their best 3-point shooters with at least three attempts per game—Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Ginobili.

Without any of their cornerstones, the Spurs will have to find a way to build and enhance the roster around DeRozan—who is the closest they have to a star. It’s a different world, one where DeRozan is their best player, and the rest of the team surrounding him won’t do him and his style any favors. Gregg Popovich’s first order of business will be to juggle LaMarcus Aldridge’s role in conjunction with DeRozan’s. The latter thrives in pick-and-rolls and will need to use Aldridge’s screening and spacing talents to his benefit. This will put Aldridge, who is still an offensive force in the post who can average 20 points per game, in a position to be a cog more so than a feature. Giving them both the best opportunity to thrive will be paramount to their chemistry and success.

Running down the roster, it’s clear that this will be DeRozan’s team, for better or for worse. Pau Gasol has turned himself into a 42.3 percent 3-point shooter since 2014-15, but he’s also 38 years old; Rudy Gay can still offer go-to scoring for short spurts, but he’s never been a reliable shooter, and, at 32, his days as a fringe star are likely behind him. With Pop on the bench, it wouldn’t be shocking if the team winds up more cohesive from the jump than we expect, or if one of its young players—Dejounte Murray, Davis Bertans, Derrick White, or even rookie Lonnie Walker IV—makes a significant leap. But even on a Popovich team, you’re only as good as your best player. And that extends to both sides of the court. For roughly two decades, the Spurs remained an elite defense despite all the moving parts in that span. It helped when their anchor was always their best player. Defense was easy when Duncan was on the back line and when Leonard was at the point of attack. But the Spurs enter uncharted territory with DeRozan as their one-sided primary option, and it will take some real Popovich magic to maintain the integrity of the team’s defense.

Over the past few years, San Antonio and Popovich adjusted for Kawhi’s transcendence by letting him override their system. In his MVP-caliber season, Kawhi took over games in a way that San Antonio hadn’t seen from a perimeter player since prime Ginobili. Though DeRozan’s style mimics that of the game’s best closers, his actual performance hasn’t always reached their heights. Still, he occasionally shows flashes of it:

DeRozan’s approach is a reminder that even though the math may work against him, sometimes math isn’t everything. There are always workarounds. The question is how long it’ll take for Pop to find them. DeRozan may not quite reach his predecessor’s level on either end of the court, but, still, he’ll give the Spurs their best shot at renewal for the time being. The catch is that even if DeRozan succeeds, even if working with the Spurs’ coaches nets him a better 3-point shot, he’ll be overshadowed both by the Spurs legends that came before him and the fact it’ll be easy to praise Pop and the Spurs’ system for making something memorable from a less-than-ideal roster. That’s just what they do. And it’s why, despite all this player turnover, it’s impossible to doubt Pop even when the Spurs’ ceiling seems clear.