Change is hard. This isn’t a terribly deep statement, it’s something that we’ve all encountered at some point in our lives, and it’s true universally. Even harder is changing something that’s worked in the past, something that’s brought you success.
When the Raptors came into this past summer talking about a culture change, about moving to a passing-based offense that looked for better shots, it was easy to be skeptical. They hadn’t shown much in terms of ability to change to that point, and the isolation based offense had brought the team to the Eastern Conference Finals, won them three playoff series, brought Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan three All-Star berths and an All-NBA nod each. With that behind them playing the old style, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if those two players had come into the season resistant to the change.
DeRozan in particular seemed unlikely to go away from the past style. After all, Lowry is a natural spot-up shooter, and playing in an offense with more passing would get him more of those shots and perhaps even improve his scoring numbers. DeMar gets his best offense with the ball in his hands though, whether through isolations or as the ball handler in the pick and roll, where he can get moving downhill with the ball for shots inside the arc and opportunities to get to the foul line. The fit just didn’t seem to add up, taking the ball out of his hands would have to reduce his scoring due to the nature of his game.
Then the season started, and the opposite somehow happened. Lowry struggled, looking like he couldn’t find his rhythm offensively and was off his game defensively, not looking as engaged as fans had come to expect from him. On the other hand, DeRozan excelled. He attacked with ease as expected, but also took the passing lanes given to create easy baskets for teammates, helping Jonas Valanciunas’ 23-point effort to open the season.
DeMar is also making quicker decisions on offense. He’s not dribbling the life out of the basketball running down the shot clock before taking a shot one-on-one, he’s making quicker moves, and that’s paying off. It creates looks for himself against defenses that haven’t had time to set for his attack, and also allows for further movement to create good shots after he makes the pass.
At the other end of the floor, DeRozan also was more engaged. While DeMar doesn’t have the instincts to ever truly be a lockdown defender, a portion of his issues there has always simply been engagement, not being in the play when he doesn’t have to guard on the ball. Already this year he’s been not just one of the Raptors’ best defenders off the ball, creating chaos in the passing lanes with frequent steals, but also he’s been holding his teammates accountable. It’s not unusual to see him calling out switches when other guys miss rotations. This isn’t to start a campaign for him to be on the All-Defensive team, but it’s frequently enough that he’s not a liability at that end of the floor.
It’s not perfect, and it is early in the season. When things get tough, we all revert to who we truly are, and that was clearly visible in the fourth quarter at Oracle Arena, when the Raptors reverted to full isolation offense, with possessions frequently not including a single pass in the frontcourt while the two Toronto All-Stars traded off attacking great defensive players and creating tough contested shots. This tendency appeared again last night in Denver, when the team looked tired as this tough road trip gets close to it’s end, and the offense again wasn’t working for shots, taking frequently the ones the defense wanted them to shoot instead of working for the shots they wanted. At the same time as the offense regressed, in both instances the defense also did, with DeMar returning to his play of years past, letting his man drive past and disengaging with the play once he didn’t have a man in front of him.
Those signs exist, and can’t completely be ignored. Maybe that’s who the Raptors always will be. On the other hand, the other team, the one that passes and creates good open shots, is also there, and is full of great signs for the future. As DeRozan passes more and more when faced with a tough defensive front, it reduces the frequency of those double teams coming. The defense has to account for his passing ability suddenly, something they didn’t have to look for in years past, and that means if he sticks with the new offense it should make him a far more dangerous scorer as well.
Last year DeMar came out of the gates with dominant scoring game after game. During the first month of the season it seemed like he could drop 30 on any defense on any night with ease. This year, those numbers aren’t there. He’s only made it to thirty points once, an absurdly efficient 30 on eight of twelve shooting against Philadelphia in the second game of the season, but I’ll take this DeMar over last year’s any day. This DeMar makes the whole team more dangerous, forces the defense to account for his teammates even when he’s driving to the basket, and if he can be this player in tough games and moments as the season goes on, it can move the ceiling of a Raptors team that many thought had already found theirs.