This has, by all accounts, been a banner season for the Toronto Raptors.
They are cruising towards their best record in franchise history, they are third in offense and fourth on defense (per Cleaning the Glass), haven’t lost to a team under .500 in 2018, and sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference for the first time ever in late March.
The fulcrum of this upward trend on the court is none other than Mr. “I am Toronto” himself, DeMar DeRozan.
His development since arriving in the league is nothing short of remarkable. A self-made superstar, DeRozan has gone from athletic slasher to modern day floor general and scoring assassin in one. Ranked 46th by Sports Illustrated two years ago and upped to 35th last year, it seems hard to imagine he lands out of the top 15 now. Member of the All-NBA Third Team a year ago, he appears a lock for this year’s second team at the very least. First team? It’s tight.
Who are the other candidates?
James Harden is a lock, we know that. It wouldn’t even surprise me if he won unanimous MVP, although the only thing that may prevent that from happening is reluctance from voters to do so again after what LeBron did in the face of Curry winning the first ever unanimous award a couple of seasons ago.
To digress for a minute, LeBron will undoubtedly be selected once again, and I’d probably pick Kevin Durant ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo (though I can easily see the opposite happening). It’s hard to see anyone but Anthony Davis taking the center spot.
Back to where we were. One guard spot. That’s all DeRozan can fight for. Battling him for that lone place is Steph Curry and Damian Lillard. Cases can be made for Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook as well, so I’ll include them for argument’s sake. Just so it’s clear, I’m only leaving out Chris Paul because he can — at best — play 64 games and I think that will be too few to validate both members of Houston’s backcourt in the first team.
Credit: Basketball Reference.
The stats above are per 36 minutes, and it’s evident here that if the number of games played isn’t a factor, Steph Curry is a lock for the spot. His numbers are comparable to that of his 2015-16 season, and the shooting efficiency is unrivalled. There are reports Tuesday indicating that he should be available to return to game action on Friday against the Atlanta Hawks, and playing all their remaining games would give him 61 for the season.
As a point of reference, Anthony Davis averaged 24.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.3 steals per 36 minutes in 2015-16 and didn’t make any of the All-NBA teams in a year where DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond did. Davis played 61 games while the others played 77, 65 and 81 respectively. Perhaps voters felt OK about leaving Davis off after voting him to the first-team in 2014-15 when he played 68 games. It’s also possible the Pelicans drop off from 45 wins to 30 was just too hard to ignore.
Going back over the past decade of All-NBA First Teams, not a single player has made the All-NBA First Team missing over a quarter of a season. Chris Paul comes closest, having played 62 games in the 2013-14 season and made it. He averaged 19.1 points, 10.7 assists (which led the league), 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals.
The point is the list is short, so there is enough reason to believe that 21 missed games (at best) for Curry could cost him. It may even come down to what happens with the forward spots. It seems ludicrous to think none of the Golden State Warriors make the first team, so voters’ individual choices between Durant and Antetokounmpo may have a carryover effect.
Based on just raw numbers, if Curry is out, it appears both Irving and Lillard are ahead. Irving’s scoring efficiency has been incredible, and he is the best player on a team that not many figured to be second-best in the East after the injury to Gordon Hayward on opening night.
Lillard has been unstoppable for over a month now, and some of the three-point blitzes he’s hit teams with as of late — if you haven’t seen what he did to the Los Angeles Lakers just a week ago you need to watch it now — have been nothing short of heroic.
This is where we start to get into the next line of thinking that matters when it comes to these awards/selections.
Sometimes, it’s not about how you start, but rather, how you finish. Boston’s 16-game winning streak at the beginning of the season took over the entire NBA news cycle, and everything from Irving’s vegan diet to Jayson Tatum being too good to trade for Anthony Davis consumed the Twitter timelines.
Irving’s 10 missed games are a non-factor for now, but they have lost eight of their last 10 games against +.500 teams and have fallen a notch below Toronto in terms of both storyline and expectation.
Yes, it seems hard to believe, but both DeRozan’s individual and team narratives are as good as any. Written off before the season began after Toronto brought back the same old gang, the changed offense has breathed new life into everyone who has watched them this season. They’re fun to watch and the man from Compton is a big reason why.
He has collected a franchise record nine Player of the Week awards now, five of which have come this season, and is the only East player to snag a Player of the Month away from LeBron James this season. They wanted threes, he’s giving it to them. They wanted better passing, he’s doing that. Less of those analytically despicable long twos? His attempts from between 16 feet and the three-point line are down 13 percent.
This is all while dealing with depression knowing his mother is battling lupus everyday and his father is coping with potentially life-threatening kidney issues.
Sometimes, to make the top tier, you need those signature moments. He and Toronto made their biggest statement of the season in a win over the league-leading Houston Rockets. With under two minutes remaining and old friend Harden defending him, he hit a right baseline fadeaway to give the Raptors the lead. Then, with the team needing a stop on the league’s future MVP, DeRozan locked up Harden and slapped the ball away to cause a turnover and hammer in the final nail in the coffin.
Of course, he’s got the dunk on Detroit on national television, too:
DeRozan is the best player on the best team in the East. That has pull.
It mattered less last season with someone like Isaiah Thomas who was arguably the worst defender in the league by all defensive metrics, but also largely due to the stupendous seasons that both Harden and Westbrook had. There is only one guard with that body of work this time around.
As impressive as Westbrook’s numbers are this season, his efficiency is down, and the sheen of the triple-double has worn off. The success of Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter in their new homes has also shown the reigning MVP had more to work with than the on/off numbers suggested a year ago, and those factors will likely go against him. There’s also the fact that the Thunder are on pace to win only three more games than last season despite the additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.
Lillard can’t be ignored. Just as Kyrie’s narrative is fading, his is surging as a result of Portland’s 13-game win streak. Since Feb. 1, he is averaging 30.3 points, 6.4 assists and a steal while shooting 38.3 percent on 9.5 three-point attempts a game. It feels as though DeRozan needs one final outburst to really be in business.
Credit: Basketball Reference.
Again, if there is anyone that has a case to make the first team with just 61 games played, it’s Curry. The 67.5 percent true shooting puts him at the top of the league in the category and he is tied at plus-14.7 for the league lead in individual net rating with none other than the point god Fred VanVleet.
DeRozan is a plus-7.4, Westbrook is at plus-5.6, Irving plus-5.2 and Lillard plus-4.6. It has to be said that DeRozan’s box plus-minus seems low at just plus-3.0. This is where the efficiency of the shots he produces when he moves the ball is underrated. The majority of his passes have led to threes and easy shots at the rim, and that’s something the box score doesn’t individually credit.
He turns the ball over less than anyone else in this group and gets to the line more often. Upping those rebound and assist numbers next season will help him puff out his chest a bit more.
His win shares are right there with everyone not named Lillard. He has more points in the clutch than any guard in the league and has more free-throw attempts than anyone. Since Feb. 1, Toronto has posted a 9-3 record in clutch games (within five points or fewer with under five minutes remaining) and DeRozan has been a plus-5.4.
Again, it’s that man Lillard who has been off the charts. He is a plus-46.9 since Feb. 1 in those scenarios and Portland is 7-1 with an offensive rating of 127.2.
Though this is primarily an individual assessment, I genuinely believe this could come down to who finishes with the better record between Toronto and Golden State.
Lillard has a great case as we’ve seen, but his team’s record just seems too far behind to move ahead of either Curry and DeRozan.
If Curry returns and the Warriors are flying high again, it’s his to lose. If the Raptors — currently just a half-game behind — finish higher with DeRozan playing at least 80 games (has played every game thus far), give me Toronto’s No.10.
DeMar DeRozan – First Team All-NBA does have a nice ring to it.