Evaluating the fit of DeMar DeRozan on the San Antonio Spurs

In a BleacherReport article published by Adam Wells on March 14th, 2020, Wells cites Jabari Young of ESPN Radio for saying that multiyear all-star DeMar DeRozan was “not happy” as a San Antonio Spur. Since the NBA has postponed games amid the COVID-19 health pandemic, the Spurs currently sit with a lackluster record of 27-36 (12th in the Western Conference) and on the outside looking in for the 2020 Playoffs. According to Wells, DeRozan is in the final guaranteed year of his 5-year $139 million deal. With a player option for the 2020-2021 season and an unimpressive free-agent market lineup mostly dominated by restricted free agents, it’s highly conceivable for DeRozan to exercise his player option and opt-out this upcoming free agency. Looking at traditional box scores, Basketball Reference has DeRozan averaging 22.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game — a fairly robust state line. However, it was only more than a month ago that Adrian Wojnarowski reported in a segment of Woj and Lowe that the Spurs “considered liquidating everybody”(ESPN). Therefore, it’s uncertain whether San Antonio still covets DeRozan as the primary star of the organization.

gregg-popovich-confers-with-demar-derozan-1040x572Image: https://www.sportsnet.ca/basketball/nba/demar-derozan-records-first-career-triple-double-raptors/

Strengths

Offense

Looking at traditional box scores, Basketball Reference has DeRozan averaging 22.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game — a fairly robust state line. Out of all the Spurs players this year, Coach Popovich in late-game scenarios has often funneled most actions through DeMar DeRozan – whether it be late clock isolations, post-ups, or five-out pick and rolls. Simply put, DeRozan is a dangerous option on the ball due to his offensive versatility. The dual-threat of his drives and pull-up shooting in the mid-range puts tremendous pressure on opposing centers, especially going downhill. 

In their homestand against the Magic, Popovich primarily relied on a DeRozan pick and roll during crunch time. This predictable, but more risk-averse style was adopted over their motion offense or set plays that involved a large number of passes.

image3The spread pick and roll would occur with the best three-point shooters on the court -Trey Lyles and Bryn Forbes – exchanging on the weak side to prevent help from coming. Rudy Gay would then set a UCLA screen to get DeRozan going downhill against Vucevic. This play eventually led to a DeRozan pull up makeover the slower Vucevic. 

While some plays did not directly lead to a score or assist for DeRozan, the threat of DeRozan’s drives put Orlando’s defense in scramble mode. DeRozan was able to punish this as he supplements his deadly arsenal of scoring moves with good vision on the move. 

image2To demonstrate his ability to synthesize scoring and passing, DeRozan takes the ball up in a one-point game with 3:30 to go and runs a five out PnR. In this wrinkle of the play, Rudy Gay does not set the screen and instead pops up to the top of the key. DeRozan’s explosive first step gets him by Fournier — who is expecting a screen — and downhill against Vucevic. 

image5The play develops with Vucevic and Fournier both gravitating towards the DeRozan drive. DeRozan is then able to instantly recognize Gay popping to the top of the key before turning and firing the pass to Gay. In this possession, DeRozan was able to turn a pick and pop into a wide-open three for a teammate, demonstrating his ability to operate his passing and scoring game in unison.

In isolation, DeRozan has also become a dangerous option because of his versatility. While “versatile” has not often been associated with DeRozan, likely due to his limited function as an outside shooter, his bevy of countermoves against defenders of any position stands out. According to NBA Stats, DeRozan Isolation yields a spectacular return of 1.11 points per possession, which slots him at the 89th percentile out of qualifying players. As outlined earlier, DeRozan going downhill is a fearful sight for opposing centers, as he can pull-up, hit a floater, or finish through contact. Additionally, DeRozan also presents a similar challenge to guards as he has increased his post up frequency. According to NBA stats, DeRozan is in the 81st percentile in points per possessions on post-ups; he scores a robust average of 1.02 points every time he shoots the ball in the post. Because of his size, DeRozan can often force his way into the paint and shoot a turnaround or floater over a smaller defender

image4In this possession, DeRozan was able to dribble the ball down against the smaller Tim Frazier. DeRozan got into the paint before turning around and making a jumper over the smaller defender. A single coverage against a tall, versatile guard like DeRozan is trouble for most defenses. If DeRozan is doubled, which often is the case, he also has the vision to fire passes towards the weak side and create open threes. 

image7In this possession, DeRozan takes advantage of Frazier in the 3-2 zone by the Pistons. He drives baseline against the smaller Frazier to avoid help coming up top from Drummond and Galloway. 

image6This causes an instant reaction from both Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond with both Pistons reacting to the drive to plug the leak. DeRozan is able to see this in advance and has his pick of passes to Aldridge on the wing or Gay in the corner.

image9DeRozan passes to Gay, the higher percentage shooter in this scenario, who drains the open corner three.

In the Spurs 2019-2020 season, DeMar DeRozan stands out as the unequivocal best shot creator and individual scorer on the team. His vast array of scoring moves combined with his vision to punish help is a handful for opposing defenses to deal with. 

Defense

Aside from offering strong on-ball creation, DeRozan is valuable on the defensive end in certain scenarios. DeRozan’s greatest asset on the defensive end is his size for a guard. Standing at 6-6 according to Basketball-Reference, DeRozan is able to switch most ball screens and is willing to guard bigger forwards in the post. This is a skill that most guards on the Spurs like Patty Mills, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White simply do not possess, lacking the same combination of strength and height. When guarding a point of attack pick and roll player, DeRozan is valuable as he can simply switch assignments with Aldridge or Poeltl, which prevents the Spurs from having to play a drop coverage that has the center dropping near the paint and the guard playing over the screen. While this coverage protects slower footed big men from having to guard in space, it often gives up open mid-ranges. 

image8In their game against Dallas, the Mavericks exploited this coverage continuously. The drop coverage did prevent guards from easily getting to the rim or simply shooting over the defender going under the screen. However, it did also give opposing guard Luka Doncic a downhill attack or open mid-range/floater. If DeRozan was in these spots, it would give the Spurs the flexibility to switch against the roll or pop man. Thus, DeRozan adds value on the defensive end, primarily due to his versatility to switch against post players. This ability to switch against opposing post players was on display in their homestand against the LA Lakers in which DeRozan was tasked with defending LeBron James. In late-game scenarios, Coach Vogel often defaulted to a James-Davis pick and roll. In response to this, Coach Popovich had DeRozan switch with Rudy Gay because the pick and roll did not yield a substantial mismatch for the Spurs.

In this possession, a LeBron pick and roll against traditional Spurs coverage would result in a deep drop by the big man due to Lebron’s ability to pressure the rim and Anthony Davis’ lob finishing in space. As Dwight Howard is in the vicinity, Aldridge is not in position to bump Davis on the roll, giving DeRozan and Gay the green light to switch.

image10Gay switches and plays up on Lebron, who initially entertained the idea of shooting a three. The ball gets back to Lebron on the reversal and he hits Davis in the post against DeRozan.

image11With the help of Aldridge rotating from the weak side, forces a miss from a great post scorer. A switch from other Spurs guards would not have been as effective in comparison to DeRozan.

Additionally, DeRozan’s versatility is also demonstrated in help situations off the ball, especially when defending against opposing post players. 

image13In this play, DeRozan helps off his man Tony Snell (#17 in the corner) to deter Drummond’s move to the middle of the lane. Drummond initially drives to the middle of the floor but fakes the ball after seeing DeRozan help and shoots a hook over his shoulder. Drummond did end up making the shot; nonetheless, DeRozan’s presence as a help defender forced a lower quality shot.

image14In this game against Orlando, Lyles is matched up against one of the better post scorers in the NBA, Nikola Vucevic. While Lyles attempts to deny the pass to the post, DeRozan expertly rotates to the baseline to take away Vucevic’s spin to the baseline. This essentially takes away one of the Magic’s bread and butter plays. 

DeRozan’s value on defense primarily stems from his versatility due to his size and strength. Coach Popovich is confident enough in DeRozan’s post defense to match up against strong post players like Anthony Davis, although questions remain regarding his ability to match up against bruising post monsters like Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic. Furthermore, DeRozan’s size also makes him one of the stronger weak side guard defenders on the team. On a team starved of versatile guards, DeRozan stands out as a weak side rotation option that offers more deterrence.

Limitations

Offense

DeMar DeRozan’s primary weakness on offense is his lack of scalable skill sets that would scale away from the ball. The concept of “scalability” was popularized by Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball, and it refers to the attribute in certain skills that allows it to retain or increase in value next to more talent. “Scalable” skill sets primarily compose of off-ball finishing, defense, spacing, and off-ball passing, and it would not be a stretch to say that DeRozan is already lacking in two of those skills. 

First and foremost, DeRozan lacks off-ball gravity as a floor spacer. In aggregate, DeRozan has shot 26.7% from three in 61 games this season and averaged 28.3% from three for his career (Basketball-Reference). Efficiency like this is simply not going to pull on the defense as the return would be an uninspiring 0.801 points per possession. Being on the ball would mitigate these problems as DeRozan’s defender must be aware of the vast arsenal of scoring moves outlined earlier. Nevertheless, when he is off the ball, he simply does not offer any pull on the defense from behind the three-point line.

image15In this instance, DeRozan was able to get a switch in a pick and roll, switching Drummond on to him. Despite being behind the three point line, Andre Drummond does not even perceive DeRozan as a threat out there and can stymie a drive by Bryn Forbes who has the ball.

image16Here is further evidence of how a lack of shooting could compound the spacing issue. In this possession, an Aldridge post up is blunted as poor shooting DeRozan and Murray with Dorian Finney-Smith zoning. Even so, the Spurs players are one pass away, yet Finney Smith is well inside the three-point line. Off-ball zoning like this can truly strangle other actions that do not involve DeRozan as the primary ball-handler. 

To combat this type of coverage, DeRozan can cut into the defense off the ball and leverage his superior finishing and passing vision to create openings for teammates. However, his off-ball offensive awareness is jarring relative to his on-ball brilliance as an initiator.

image17The play above shows how poor offensive awareness from DeRozan can hinder plays for his teammates. Hardaway knows DeRozan is a poor floor spacer and will set up in the driving lane of Aldridge. This already takes away Aldridge’s hook going into the middle of the lane. Hence, Aldridge is left with nothing else to do but to fade over his shoulder for a suboptimal return. Instead, DeRozan could have set up closer to the wing. Hardaway would obviously be emboldened to double the post, but DeRozan can punish this behavior by cutting to the middle and receiving a quick dump-off from Aldridge for the layup. DeRozan’s athleticism and strength would make him a dangerous cutter in these spots, yet he lacks the awareness to leverage his strengths in these situations. In many plays, there is little evidence of DeRozan cutting to the basket or screening for teammates to compensate for his lack of spacing ability.

image18In this possession against the Jazz, DeRozan spends the entirety of the possession standing at the wing, which allows the Jazz to bring DeMar’s defender into the fray and take away the two-man game between Aldridge and Murray. While Forbes and Lyles also do not move much during this possession, their ability to shoot pulls their defenders much closer to them. Because DeRozan does not cut, his weakness as a non-shooter is magnified in the eyes of the defense.

Defense

DeMar DeRozan probably remains one of the stronger guard defenders at his position in San Antonio. Looking at the film, his strengths are optimized in most scenarios and his weaknesses are primarily hidden. These weaknesses primarily consist of a lack of motor to pursue shooters around screens. However, he is rarely put in these scenarios as he is matched up against stationary, off-ball players most of the time. Against the Jazz, DeRozan guarded Royce O’Neale and vs. the Pistons he was matched up against Tony Snell. These were not players that would typically punish off-ball defenders by cutting to the basket or running off screens. This is likely a function of Coach Popovich wanting DeRozan to be in help situations. Hence, the film suggests that DeRozan should be considered a plus on defense; however, his role is also fairly small and impinges his ability to bolster the Spurs defensive game plan even more.

 

Verdict

The idea of a double-edged sword best summarizes DeMar DeRozan’s stint in San Antonio. DeMar DeRozan is by far the strongest and most effective on-ball creator on the Spurs as of this moment. However, his weak off-ball instincts and inability to space the basketball court makes him a burden when he is off the ball. Top-down impact metrics are mostly impartial to his impact on the court, Basketball Reference’s BPM has him at 1.6 and ESPN’s RPM has him at -1.42 (386th in the league). DeRozan’s Box Plus-Minus score of 1.6 is adequate, as BPM is more sensitive to volume shot takers and creators. On the other hand, ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus is extremely negative on his impact due to RPM taking into account DeRozan’s role on the Spurs. Thus, these metrics are somewhat in agreement with the conclusions of the film study regarding DeRozan’s production as a whole. On the ball, DeRozan is a breathtakingly effective volume creator and scorer. On the opposite spectrum, when DeMar is required to play off the ball in the Spurs motion offense, he can be considered a hindrance. This is wildly antithetical to the Spurs motion offense, which emphasizes a symphony of cutting, movement, and shooting to get the best shot. While Coach Popovich has begun to run DeRozan off double screens to get the ball on top, it is only in crunch time or when Coach Popovich resorts to a more risk-averse approach that DeRozan truly shines. With those moments so few and far between, it’s logical to question his fit in San Antonio. Therefore, it is not too difficult to imagine DeRozan in another jersey by the time the 2020-2021 NBA season kicks off.

 

References

ESPN. “Spurs have considered ‘liquidating everybody,’ but could also push for playoffs – Woj | Woj & Lowe.” YouTube video. March 14th, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiQAEF3WdYQ

https://stats.nba.com/players/isolation/

https://stats.nba.com/players/playtype-post-up/?sort=PTS&dir=1

Sports Reference LLC “DeMar DeRozan.” Basketball-Reference.com – Basketball Statistics and History. https://www.basketball-reference.com/. 03/17/2020

Taylor, Ben. Thinking Basketball. Ben Taylor, 2016.

Wells, Adam. “DeMar DeRozan Rumors: Star SG ‘Not Happy in San Antonio’ Amid Opt-Out Buzz.” Bleacher Report, Bleacher Report, 14 Mar. 2020, bleacherreport.com/articles/2880900-demar-derozan-rumors-star-sg-not-happy-in-san-antonio-amid-opt-out-buzz.

 

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