When do you stop putting your best player in the positions on the court that suit them best?
If DeMar Derozan is not the Toronto Raptors's best player - if such a classification matters - he is the second best behind only Kyle Lowry. And for as long as Lowry has been out (he has missed the last 14 games with a wrist injury), Derozan has been the clear-cut best player.
Even if not their best all-around player, Derozan is certainly the Raptors's leading scorer. His 27.0 points per game total ranks not only first on the team (Lowry is second at 22.8), but also fifth in the entire league, behind only Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Davis.
However, DeRozan scores his points in a very unique way that makes fitting his individual talents into an optimal offensive system quite the challenge.
For all of those points scored, DeRozan takes up a lot of the ball to do it. All scorers take up a lot of the ball to do so, of course - DeRozan's usage rate is fifth highest in the league, but then so is his scoring average, and one behoves the other. But DeRozan's share of the ball comes in a more complex manner than those of his peers.
For comparison's sake, look at those peers in leading scorer list, and their playing styles. Thomas, Harden and Westbrook are the primary ball handlers on their team, doing more of the ball handling and half court creating than the rest of their teams do combined. Davis, meanwhile, is the ultimate finisher. A creator too, of course, but be it at the basket, from mid-range, in the pick-and-roll or occasionally from further out, he finds spots, is always a threat to shoot, and can make anything.
DeRozan, however, has to pair with Lowry. This is far from a reluctant or troubled pairing - it is a beautiful one that has propelled the Raptors to a level never before seen in their franchise's history. Better than any Vince Carter season, and certainly better than anything before or after his era. It has however a nuanced one that is hard to replicate with any backup.
For the most part, the duo works. Lowry collapses the defense and does all of the outside shooting that DeRozan does not, while DeRozan emulates Kobe Bryant better than anyone and exposes the defensive weaknesses in between. The duo score about 50 points on any given night, and even when it is known what is coming - Lowry attacking half a seam off the dribble, or just raising up even when contested; DeRozan spinning and jerking from the mid-range and post areas - the shots go in anyway. The duo are seriously good.
But it is Lowry doing the Hardenian bits. It is he handling the ball more and taking the first wave of pressure. When Lowry is out, as he has been, a far greater defensive pressure thus falls upon DeRozan. He responded well initially, scoring 33.8 points per game in the first five games of Lowry's absence. But then against the Milwaukee Bucks, DeRozan shot only 5-13 with one foul shot on his way to 11 points. This is directly to the Bucks' credit.
Since taking over in Milwaukee, Jason Kidd has used the long smothering limbs of the players on his roster to play a denial defense, stifling offensive teams and not just contesting shots well, but also figuring out which ones they want to prevent opponents from even shooting at all. DeRozan was the recipient of this targeted treatment. For him to have shot only 13 field goals attempts in a Lowry-less game speaks to the good job that Milwaukee did of preventing DeRozan from getting the ball in his preferred spots on the floor.
The Bucks did this with pressure, communication and team work. They send doubles and blitzes to DeRozan when he was in the post, and although they did not stymie the isolations from the top of the key in the same way (even to a player as good at them as DeRozan, isolations from 20 something feet away are still a good percentage play for a defense to allow), allowing them to be shot does not mean giving up on them. DeRozan faced quicker, sharper blitzes than usual, and the effects of that were evident in his stat line.
That game also had a hangover effect. After that Bucks game came a series of down nights. In the next seven games, DeRozan surpassed that 27 point per game total only once - a 28 point outing versus Atlanta in which he took 30 shots - and averaged only 19.1 points over that eight game stretch, Bucks game included. The rot stopped only with a 42 point night against the Chicago Bulls in Toronto's most recent game, but even then, he took 44 minutes and 38 shots to do it. DeRozan's assist totals did improve to 4.6apg over that span, but that is not a meaningful amount.
What is meaningful is that Kidd's strategy was noted and immediately copied, hence the down streak. And when faced with increased defensive pressure, and different defensive pressures, DeRozan struggles.
There are things DeRozan can do about it. The facing of the automatic double is a new problem to have, and one that will almost certainly not last beyond Lowry's return - nevertheless, reading the situation more quickly, improving both his vision and skill at passing out of the double, and doing more work off the ball and around screens without needing to isolate and post so much, will all alleviate the pressure he now faces. Not only does DeRozan not want to pass much, but he is also not very good at it, missing good angles and throwing the ball outside of shooter's pockets. This new found pressure heightens the importance of him learning to do so.
Similarly, contributing in other ways would also be a big help. Still not a three point shooter (Anthony Davis takes more three pointers than him, and hits them at a higher percentage), DeRozan has never expanded this one obvious shortcoming to his game. He has to his credit developed diligently at being able to get to his spots on the floor so that he need not cast up from three so often, yet it benefits the spacing of his team to be able to make shots from outside of those comfort areas as well.
And then, of course, there is the defensive end, to which DeRozan pays less and less attention. Recent acquisition P.J. Tucker alluded to DeRozan's minimal defensive impact in his post game interview after the Raptors's recent win versus the Detroit Pistons - Tucker, it must be remembered, was brought in to play wing defense partly because DeRozan could not or would not do it.
Ultimately, though, that will all take time. For the right now, Toronto is about to enter the playoffs as a high seed with a legitimate chance of making the NBA Finals. They will do so almost certainly with a full-or fullish-strength Kyle Lowry back in tow, flanked by DeRozan, their dynamic duo with each component part made far more difficult to shackle by the presence of the other. The question for the right now is not how can DeRozan develop his game throughout and for the remainder of his career, but about how Toronto can take what it has and try and win it all.
If DeRozan continues to receive these high traps and these doubles outside of the paint, the rest of the team needs to be able to make the shots that are availed by this defensive imbalance. DeRozan needs to be able to make them pay with his overall presence on the court, not just his own points. But the wider problem is Toronto's inability to flank DeRozan without Lowry's help.
DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas are not drawing much defensive respect outside of the paint, while Patrick Patterson is not making enough shots this season to capitalise. Although somewhat effective, backup point guard Cory Joseph is not the scoring counterpart of DeRozan in the same way Lowry is, while Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet are not NBA calibre primary playmakers at this time. And while Serge Ibaka has become one of the better stretch bigs in the game, he is not creating looks with or without the ball so much as just taking what crops up. DeRozan is at his best as the first or second scoring option in a two-option line-up, but without Lowry, Toronto has thus far only had one.
No team wins without their strongest units available for the majority of the time, of course, and you cannot take a team's best all-around player away and then blame their team for being imbalanced. Teams are supposed to complement the best players, after all. In Toronto's case, however, having their leading scorer also be their primary playmaker is not working on account of how tough it is to compliment a player who thrives on the shots that the rest of the league has spurned.
Putting DeRozan in his favourite positions without having Lowry there to support him is often times putting Toronto's offense in inopportune situations, partly due to DeRozan's own limitations and inexperience in manipulating the adjusted defenses this brings about, but also because the Raptors are not making shots. Having him force it is not going to work - contested mid-range or post shots are not the way forward, and DeRozan's 39% success rate on these shots since the All-Star break is not going to be good enough.
With all this in mind, then, it is time for the next intermediate stage of his development to come some with immediacy. DeRozan learned how to exploit his favourite areas like Kobe Bryant. Now it is time to learn to be a decoy like a late career Michael Jordan. Kobe himself never did this, partly he never needed to, and partly because he never wanted to. DeRozan needs to, however, and the Raptors' coaching staff must work within the environment his limitations provide. Teams will throw these doubles; DeRozan now needs to throw them back out.