While the new offensive system has had its challenges (most notably concerning three-point shooting), it has also led to some tangible improvements. One of these improvements is the passing, which has led to the Toronto Raptors playing some of the most beautiful basketball in franchise history.
Last year, the Raptors were 30th in the league in assists, making 18.5 per game and mostly standing around and watching as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan played isolation basketball. This year, they’ve bumped themselves up to 14th in the league, averaging 23.2 dimes per game.
After a horrific loss to the Los Angeles Clippers last night, the Raps’ six-game winning streak has come to an end. During the streak, however, the team was third in the league in assists (26.2), trailing only the Golden State Warriors and the New Orleans Pelicans.
Yes, improved passing has led to Toronto sitting pretty with the league’s fourth-best offense, and none has ameliorated their overall game better than one DeMar DeRozan.
If you’ll recall, many (including myself) were dubious about how well DeRozan would adapt to the new system. The thought was not that he couldn’t figure it out, but that it would probably take him a while to figure out and therefore greatly impact the Raptors’ offense in the meantime. DeRozan’s iso-heavy, midrange-happy game of the past several seasons doesn’t jump out as a hallmark for a modern NBA offense.
But lo and behold, DeRozan has, as he is wont to do, worked his game relentlessly to improve in all facets while still keeping his midrange game very much alive. When DeRozan is coming down the floor with a mindset to pass, he doesn’t necessarily need to be a three-point threat. He creates space by waltzing his way to at least the free throw line and then whipping out a pass to whoever is left open as opponents move to collapse on him. As such, he’s found his own method of peaking within the offense without having to totally alter his game to become something he simply isn’t.
Over his last seven games, DeRozan is 11th in the league in assists, averaging 7.1 per game, per NBA.com. There are just nine players in the entire NBA who are posting at least 20 points, four rebounds, and five assists this season. DeRozan is one—his company includes the likes of James Harden, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant. Not bad.
DeRozan’s newfound level of passing comes in a myriad of ways. There is, of course, the example I mentioned above, in which DeRozan works in the half court by penetrating and then expertly kicking out to the wide open man.
The Raptors shooting guard has also been great in the pick and roll as the ball handler, working with a plethora of bigs who are adept at scoring rumbling towards the rim. DeRozan is the ball handler in pick and roll situations at a 41.6 per cent frequency this season (Lowry has only been ball handler at a 28.1 per cent frequency), and finds himself in the 81st percentile playing that role.
In transition, DeRozan is more deadly than he has ever been. While he has always been a serious threat to score, he now makes much better reads on the fly and, if there’s a teammate who will have a wide-open look, he almost always finds him.
The new offense requires a lot of off-ball movement to be successful, and when guys make intelligent cuts, things become easy. OG Anunoby (isn’t he just the greatest?) is good at this—like, 96th percentile good at this. DeRozan has developed an eagle eye for noticing when his teammates have broken loose and are headed towards the rim.
DeRozan’s confidence offensively is off the charts right now. His stellar passing seems to have awoken him to how best score himself. He is better at picking his spots and choosing when to attack, and when he decides to score at the basket he can do so at will—he’s shooting 64.9 per cent within three feet of the hoop. His overall true shooting percentage is sitting at a career-high 56.5 per cent.
This is the sort of refinement and attitude that can have a real effect for DeRozan come playoff time. If he continues to play this way, there is simply no way to shut down his game entirely. A more well-rounded player, he can find ways to leave an imprint on the game without necessarily having to drop an insane amount of points.
So keeping dropping dimes, DeMar. It only makes the Raptors richer.