The general consensus among Raptors fans and media going into this summer is that things are going to have to change around the organization, because the way the playoff run ended, compared to other teams’ level of success against the Cleveland Cavaliers this postseason, is an indicator of a structural problem within the makeup of the team. The nature of that problem is hard to diagnose, but at the end of every debate on the topic you inevitably end up at the parts that have changed the least, and with the departure of Dwane Casey earlier in the summer, that leaves you with the core of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas, the members of the team that Masai Ujiri inherited upon his arrival in Toronto that he’s kept thus far throughout his tenure.
Each of the three has definitely succeeded and contributed to the success of the team through this sustained stretch of success for the franchise, and each of the three players has their notable flaws as well, but the purpose here isn’t to compare them or pit them against each other, as often comes to pass, because that’s not really helpful, the goal is to find solutions to help the Raptors move forward, not place blame for the failures. At the same time, though, with the growth of the younger core coming up, with OG Anunoby, Fred Van Vleet, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl all showing the potential to take on larger roles within the franchise in the not-to-distant future, there’s questions of where you find room in the Raptors offense for those players to come into their own.
Fitting a new player into an existing offense is a difficult thing to do, though, with shots being a finite resource within a game, and the methods to creating those shots limited as well. There’s really only two paths to finding a shot for an offense, in that a player can either create their own shot or have a shot created for them, and among the three mainstays for the Raptors, all three of those players can create their own shot, whether that’s through Valanciunas’ proficiency in the post, Lowry’s ability to pull-up from long distance or find a shot off the dribble, whether creating space inside the arc or getting to the rim, or DeRozan using his superior footwork and reads to find space to get a shot off on the attack. Where the three differ, however, is in having shots created for them, which is one of the few offensive limitations of DeRozan, an otherwise spectacular offensive talent.
This is where I’ve needed to acknowledge in the past that I’ve underestimated DeMar, in that in past years, the Raptors required his shot creation. It’s easy to criticize his efficiency, which has never been better than league average, and say that the team could find more efficient shots by instead distributing those shots to other players who were above average in terms of efficiency, but that doesn’t account for the fact that someone has to create the space for those players to shoot, and many of the role players around DeRozan in past seasons weren’t players capable of creating, instead relying on him to make that space available and then find them in position to score. This allowed DeMar to both be the creator that his game is suited to being, as well as to keep the surrounding players in situations that used their offensive abilities to their highest level. Because of this, a lot of the criticisms in past seasons have been unfair to DeMar, a player simply succeeding in a role the Raptors needed him to perform and, despite his own inefficiencies, the team wouldn’t have found the success they did without him, because they couldn’t replace his shot creation. He took massive strides this year as well in creating for other players, frequently throughout the season making better reads against a defense and choosing correctly whether to find a way to score himself or go to a teammate who had a better opportunity to score, and the team’s offense took strides forward due to his increased ability to create shots for teammates.
There is a limitation here though, in that DeMar has to be creating all of these shots, whether he’s scoring himself or creating for another player, because he simply isn’t a great catch and shoot player, and opposing defenses have noticed. Against Cleveland, when the ball wasn’t in his hands, the Cavaliers tended to focus their defense entirely away from him, allowing them to add another defender elsewhere and pressure the ball, and closing off space for other Raptors ballhandlers. DeMar has attempted to improve his efficiency from behind the arc, and while there have been signs of incremental improvements, he’ll also be 29 going into next season, and it’s probably reasonable to expect that he simply won’t become the type of knockdown shooter he’d have to be in order to be a respected off-ball threat, and that means that in order for him to have the offensive impact that Raptors fans have expected him to have, he needs to have the ball in his hands. This hasn’t been an issue in years past, because the Raptors have needed his creation, but in order for the team to build a better roster, they also have to find more varied offensive threats to attack playoff defenses.
This creates a natural conflict, in that in order to get to this point, they needed DeMar as a shot creator, but those other offensive threats that the team has developed internally also now need space to improve their offensive games. Anunoby is an awesome talent who showed the ability to be an impact defender, as well as shooting better than expected from outside and being great on the cut, whether making a second pass to find a shot for a teammate or scoring for himself once he found space between defenders to receive the pass. However, playing with the starters, there just weren’t often opportunities for him to create off the dribble. Defenses had the ability to crowd the paint when he did have the ball in his hands, and those opportunities were rare enough. It’s not yet clear exactly how much growth there is in the 20-year old’s game, but it’s obvious that he has the mental makeup of a potential star, and the Raptors may want to find space for him to explore his game and find exactly how much growth there is there. As well, in Fred VanVleet(assuming he’s retained), Delon Wright and even Pascal Siakam, the team has other young players who’ve impressed handling the ball, and who the franchise might look to expand their offensive game and would need space in order to do so.
It’s not really fair to DeMar to say that he’s the problem in the organization, because that ignores that he’s been the solution for so long. His offensive dominance allowed them to bring in players who couldn’t perform the role that he did, but filled in a lot of the blanks around him to help the team build a roster that’s found an unprecedented level of success for the franchise across the past several seasons, and at the same time, DeRozan has been the best ambassador for the team the franchise could ask for, and that’s something that can be undervalued in a strictly basketball conversation. His offensive talent is real, and he is among the best in the league at reading a defense to find the seams to create a shot. But building a championship contender can be a cruel game, and the simple truth is that his game isn’t built to be a second option or a third one, the ball being in his hands will always be the best option for a team with him on the court, because the court gets smaller when it isn’t. Often-times the case for trading DeRozan is made based on his defensive limitations, which exist as well, and the reality is that perimeter defense is becoming consistently more valuable in the NBA.
Make no mistake, if the Raptors do choose to move on from DeMar, nothing is guaranteed. There’s certainly a lot of room for things to go wrong, and replacing his offensive dominance will be a challenge and require players to take steps that we don’t know they can take. While DeMar is on the roster, however, there’s no easy path to finding out if those players have that in them. The best fit for his game is a team that needs players who can create opportunities on offense, even at times when it’s not efficient, because they lack other methods of finding those shots on their roster. The Raptors might not be that team anymore, and finding out if they can take that next step might require moving on from one of the best players the franchise has ever had.