The DeMar DeRozan Experiment

Ed’s Note: Please welcome Shyam Baskaran to the Raptors Republic team. He’ll be hanging around for a while.

4.3 seconds left. Tied at 95. The play, as it’s drawn up, is for DeMar to flash up and off of an elbow-screen and iso on the left logo to get his shot off. In a not-so-pivotal clash with the Orlando Magic that January night in 2013, with a 15-27 record under their belt, the Toronto Raptors had little to no hope of salvaging their season. With a starting lineup on that night featuring Ed Davis (remember him?), no clutch performers, and a disgruntled Lowry coming off the bench for Jose Calderon (seriously, how long ago does this feel already), the team’s highs were few and far between. One consistent glimmer of hope though, was the one offered by DeMar DeRozan, who that night, hit a game winner.

Fading away with almost no hope of a basket, DeRozan lifted off in that corner, draped amongst two defenders, and drained what appeared to be (and probably might have been) the biggest fluke of his career. And as fans, let’s be honest – we took it. We took that moment of instant gratification like it was nobody’s business.

What seemed like the world-record for most 1-3 point losses was actually the 2012-2013 campaign for the Raps, a team that started slow, lost closely, lost often, and never really caught steam. That team however, featured should-have-been Slam Dunk Contest champ and freshly signed DeMar DeRozan, playing in the first year of a 4 year, $38 million contract. Going in, the contract seemed expensive, risky and yet another one of Colangelo’s draft-choice-justification moves. But 3 years later in retrospect, I think Raptor fans can all agree that Colangelo’s signing of DeMar in 2012 and Amir Johnson in 2010 were 2 of the shrewdest moves made by the 2005 and 2007 Executive of the Year.

The reality of that situation was that the Raptors franchise (one that has featured the likes of Carter and McGrady in times of hope in the past) had a fan base that was absolutely starved. Starved for a real franchise player; preferably a wing, that could take a game over, shut down opposing wings, score 35+ on occasion, make clutch shots, and take this team to the promised land, or at least to the team’s second franchise playoff series victory. Enter DeMar. Selected as the 9th overall draft pick in 2009, the USC product was young, athletic (to the say the goddamn least), coachable and ideal franchise player material – right? And whether it was fair or not, we built expectations. But clearly, the Raptors team as it was structured around DeRozan, was headed nowhere.

Certainly the 13/14 and 14/15 seasons proved to be a completely different story for the team under the Ujiri era, but the question to ask was – why? We as fans, once again needed to point the finger to a franchise player – and we did. His name was Kyle Lowry. Snubs aside, DeMar was an all-star in 2014, the team’s leading scorer, a counted-upon free throw shooter in clutch moments, and still viewed as the 1A “franchise player”. With an injury costing him the majority of the 14/15 season, and Lowry making the all-star game, the question, however, continued to arise – did this team need DeMar DeRozan as bad as they thought? Was he the franchise player? Could he be that wing we were starved for? With a slow start, injury, rust, and a great end to the regular season, the question remained unanswered last season. And with the stakes the way they are coming into this season, the imaginary magnifying glass on DeRozan will be bigger than ever.

Masai Ujiri has proven two things in his tenure so far in Toronto – he’s not afraid to make a move, and when he does, he’s not going to settle for anything less than his asset’s complete worth. And in the case of the Bargnani deal, nothing less than five times his worth.

With a stellar track record of decisions, Ujiri’s recent signings of JV and DeMarre Carroll, both at annual levels well above DeMar’s annual damage of around $9.5 million, have basically given us as fans a blank slate for expectations. We have no idea if these signings will blow up in Ujiri’s face, or in 3 years, look just as good as the DeMar and Amir signings of the Colangelo era. Having inherited a starting lineup that took this team to the playoffs and division titles in consecutive years, in many ways, this will be the first season that Masai will truly be judged – on a team that he actually has a footprint on. And yet, likely the most intriguing and important decision in Ujiri’s Raptors tenure is yet to come.

One thing, however, is for sure. It’s clear that the NBA’s version of inflation has settled in this past summer heading into the gargantuan spike in salary caps slated to begin in 2016. With the likes of Enes Kanter scheduled to make in excess of $16M this year (sorry Enes, yes, again), it’s clear that we don’t live in 2010 free-agent land anymore. The new way is money – and lots of it.

If it seemed like there was an elephant in the room on Media Day this past Monday, it was certainly DeRozan’s contract situation heading into 2016. Expected to decline his player option, DeMar will almost certainly be seeking a max-level deal, in the ballpark of around $25M next summer. To put things in perspective, that would be about $10.5M more than LeBron claimed in Miami after “The Decision”. Granted that was 5 years ago and a clear sacrifice to win a ring, but to the earlier point, it’s clear that times have changed.

The way that Masai, this past week, shrugged off questions with an outright statement that DeMar’s contract will not be discussed during the year, really makes you think. The old Masai, or even a younger GM, may have remained ultra-politically correct with a statement that would buy more time rather than nipping the questions at the bud. Outright denying the possibility of it seemed like a preemptive avoidance of the issue altogether. A good sign if you want DeMar gone? Probably.

What it boils Down to:

So what’s going to decide what DeMar gets next summer? And for how long? No way to know everything that’s going to be going through Masai’s head, but here are some starting points:

1) Winning

Probably a no-brainer, but after a 49-win season, it’s kind of hard for DeMar to prove his worth through regular season wins, unless we win many more games, get better seeding (maybe), or most convincing of all, if DeMar plays a pivotal role in at least one playoff series win.

2) Defense (consistently)

We saw shades of DeMar’s defensive abilities last year, and in Casey’s help-heavy defensive lineups that lacked any actual defensive talent, DeMar stood out on many nights as the second best starting defender next to Amir. But it was nowhere near consistent, and not often enough against the likes of James Harden, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler – and in April, Otto Porter.

3) 3-point shot (again, consistently):

Again, on occasion we saw shades, but the hair over 28% that he shot last year is not going to cut it, anywhere. As KG would put it – not in Preschool, Little League, YMCA, or the Raptors. The reality is that at his position, as a potentially max-level player, he has got to learn to keep defenders honest with a long-range threat, especially if Casey follows through on plans of playing any kind of small ball. If he could somehow do this at even a 33% rate consistently, the impact could be amazing.

4) 4th quarter and clutch performances:

After only posting that one shot in Orlando in 2013, in 2014/2015, DeMar arrived as a consistent clutch scorer.

More of these types of games, where DeMar is the clear marquee player on the court, will add to his perceived leadership potential. Teams want a winner who is willing to take on the scoring load on tough nights, late in games. Further, it would exhibit his overall capability on a grander stage (especially in the playoffs). This will ultimately play one of the biggest factors in whether the Raps place the faith in him to be a max player.

5) Market factors

One word: Durant.

The somewhat intriguing reality of this situation is that it’s truly a coin toss as to how DeMar will react to the inevitable distraction from the media and the pressure of playing in a contract year. Early in the 2012-2013 season, we almost wrote Lowry off and cast him away to New York, only to later offer him $48 million over 4 years that summer. The point is, DeMar could rise dramatically to the occasion, or crash and burn.

I think most fans would agree that DeMar at least has the occasional ability of a max-level player. The questions are simply consistency and health across an 82-game season and into the playoffs. And with the way NBA salaries are trending, if the Raps don’t offer him max money, he almost certainly will receive offers elsewhere. Granted DeMar is one of the truest to Toronto that you’ll ever find, but money is money. Amir Johnson would probably agree.

The DeMar DeRozan experiment will answer itself in due time. See you on Canada Day.

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