After breaking a franchise record with 56 wins in the regular season, Toronto has looked completely out of sorts in the playoffs. They needed 7 games to finish off an overmatched Pacers team in the first round. In the next round, Toronto needed the full 7 games once more, even against a Miami squad who lost their only rim-protector in Game 3. But at least they managed to advance. That has to count for something, right?
Following a 31 point drubbing in the Eastern Finals opener, it’s unclear whether simply making it there means much. The Raptors will most likely bow out in 4 or 5 games, even if Jonas Valanciunas returns in good form. This upcoming offseason is a crucial one for Toronto. DeMar DeRozan will assuredly decline his player option, making him an unrestricted free agent. The Raptors have his bird rights, and with it the carrot of an extra year, and larger pay bumps from year to year. If they really want to retain him, it will not be an issue. Rather, the debate ought to be whether or not they should bring him back for another run.
Much of the Raptors (limited) playoff success this season has been in spite of DeRozan. He's been an unabashed gunner, yet refuses to shoot threes. Instead he happily fires away from midrange, the most inefficient shot in basketball. He struggled to penetrate against Paul George in the first round, but forced shots nonetheless. DeRozan finished the series with a ghastly 40.3% true shooting, despite having a 30.2% usage rate. His counting stats were no better. Over the entire series, he was merely 3-18 on threes. Despite starting on the winning team, his net rating was -8.9. And that cannot be entirely attributed to Dwayne Casey's strange starting lineups. Backcourt mate Kyle Lowry’s net rating was only -0.4.
Against Miami, DeRozan’s struggles continued. Never a supremely efficient offensive player, he compensates for his lack of shooting by angling into the paint for layups, and to draw fouls. Yet in this series, he was flustered by the perimeter defense from Luol Deng and Justise Winslow. His forays into the paint were rare and ineffective. DeRozan shot just 8-21 (38%) from within the restricted area. He was 15-43 (35%) from within the paint (non-RA). Juxtapose that with his 35-84 mark from 2-point attempts from outside the paint, and one can envision his iso-heavy approach to the series.
Many viewers (including myself) found the Toronto - Miami series appalling to watch. DeRozan had no small hand in that. He often held the ball for several seconds before initiating any offense. Just 13 of his 59 made FGs in the series were assisted (22%). Even James Harden, the paragon of an iso-heavy player, had 24% of his FGs assisted in these playoffs. DeRozan’s inability to draw fouls has compounded his shooting woes. His FT attempts are down to just 6.0 per game, many of them coming in late-game intentional foul situations.
It has only been 15 games for DeRozan in the playoffs, but they have served as an exhibition of his weaknesses. Things are unlikely to improve against Cleveland, who can use LeBron on him if needed. DeRozan is not the quickest or most agile with the ball, two traits that could exploit a slightly older, slower LeBron. In fact, DeMar’s best strengths are easily countered by LeBron, who has the size and strength advantage. For Toronto to even make this series respectable, they will need to rely heavily on Kyle Lowry’s shooting and skills as a facilitator. Unfortunately, DeRozan struggles off the ball. He has little gravity as a shooter, and is loath to set screens.
One can attribute DeRozan’s awful postseason to bad matchup luck. But that absolves him of far too much. His high usage, low efficiency, midrange heavy play style does not contribute to winning. The shot chart below (data via StatMuse) emphatically displays his midrange fetish and inefficient performance. He has regressed from a solid (if overrated) regular season. And despite his athletic, lanky 6’7’’ frame, he is not a plus defender. Regardless of how Toronto finishes the postseason, GM Masai Ujiri should seriously contemplate whether DeRozan ought to be retained or not.
Toronto has limited cap room for the upcoming offseason. Operating under the projected cap of $92 million, they already have $70 million in guaranteed contracts for 2016. Factoring in the cap holds of DeRozan, Bismack Biyombo, and Luis Scola, there will be precious little room to work with. They can free up more space by renouncing Scola, or by trying to move Terrence Ross’ deal.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, their stretch of peak surplus value has already come and gone. Both Ross and Valanciunas have extensions kicking in before next season. Biyombo was a home run for the room exception, but his next deal will probably be worth over $13 million annually. And to re-sign him, they will have to use cap space. Even if they renounce Scola, DeRozan’s cap hold makes any major deal unlikely. They would only have about $8 million in space, in a market where over 20 teams have max money to spend.
Toronto’s best course of action could be a sign-and-trade for DeRozan. That would free up room to offer max money to a potential replacement (Evan Fournier). They could also re-sign Biyombo, or go after another backup rim protector (Cole Aldrich, Roy Hibbert, etc). While this route seems unlikely, it would be feasible if there is genuine interest for DeRozan. He has long been linked to his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, who have said they will offer him a max contract this summer.
Losing him for nothing would not necessarily be the worst thing in the world, unless the timing is off. If his cap hold restricts the team from offering on other free agents, only for him to leave after the moratorium, then Toronto will be in a bind. A shorter moratorium could remedy the situation, but the same worry would still exist. The Raptors could also use the 9th overall pick (via the Knicks) to land a replacement for Biyombo or DeRozan, whether it be by draft or trade.
It just seems like Toronto is headed down a path of modest success, and nothing more. That’s a fine outcome for teams like Atlanta and Memphis, who possess weak fan bases and cannot lure free agents. Toronto does not fit that mold. It’s a huge market with rabid fans who willingly stand for hours in the cold to cheer them on. They are blessed to have an owner who invests in the franchise, and who recently opened a state-of-the-art practice facility. But if the Raptors want to contend for a title with this core (and they can), DeRozan should not be a part of it. At least not for max money. It took a nightmarish playoffs to magnify this issue, but the symptoms of a poor fit have long existed. Toronto should pursue a knockdown shooter with off-ball prowess at the 2, and try to maximize Lowry’s prime.
When the Raptors have been down this postseason, he has often answered the bell. Like DeRozan, Lowry too was mired in a brutal slump for the entire first round, and parts of the second. But he regained his composure, and delivered marvelous performances in Games 5, 6 and 7 against Miami. Lowry, not DeRozan is the guy that makes every successful Toronto lineup work. Lowry, not DeRozan is the guy who teammates hitch their wagons to. And Lowry, not DeRozan is the guy who Toronto should build around.