Have the San Antonio Spurs Cracked the DeMar DeRozan Code?

DeMar DeRozan is a four-time All-Star and a two-time All-NBA selection. Despite those accolades, DeRozan arrived in San Antonio with a reputation as a player whose production doesn’t translate into success for his team. In his season and a half with the Spurs, that reputation has been further cemented. 

In DeRozan’s 11 seasons in the NBA, his teams have played worse with him on the court in all but one of those seasons. The six times he has played in the postseason, his teams have been worse with him on the court all six times. Last season, the Spurs were 5.0 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the court during the regular season and 25.8 points worse during the playoffs. This season, the Spurs are 4.9 points worse with DeRozan on the court as they languish in the tenth seed in the Western Conference.

Truth be told, plus-minus numbers aren’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to determining whether an NBA player is a good player or a bad player. Circumstances play a large, yet difficult to quantify, role. While DeRozan is and always will be a sub par defender, he’s talented enough offensively that he shouldn’t be a millstone tied around his team’s neck. While DeRozan certainly deserves blame for his unsightly resume as a positive difference-maker, his coaches also deserve some criticism for not figuring out how to optimally utilize him.

Thankfully for DeRozan and the Spurs, there have recently been signs that head coach Gregg Popovich has started to crack the code for what to do with DeRozan in order to maximize his talents.

What Turned Around the Season for DeMar DeRozan

Twenty-eight games in the 2019-20 season, DeRozan was worse than ever in terms of negatively impacting the play on the court. While his counting statistics looked satisfactory (20.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists in 33.8 minutes per game), the Spurs were a staggering 15.7 points per 100 possessions worse with DeRozan on the court. Not only was San Antonio better defensively with the 30-year-old on the bench, they were better offensively with him on the sidelines, too.

However, after the Spurs were embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers 134-109 on Dec. 21, Popovich made two adjustments. First of all, he repositioned Aldridge from the mid-range to beyond the three-point line and implored the big man to shoot threes. Secondly, Pop started playing DeRozan much more at power forward. He did so by lowering Rudy Gay’s playing time by about five minutes per night and going away from playing Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl together.

Aldridge has responded well to his repositioning, increasing his three-pointers attempted per 36 minutes from 1.8 to 4.5 and his three-point percentage from 31.8% to 44.6%. But the real winner has been DeRozan. With Aldridge spacing the floor and no longer fighting him for mid-range real estate, DeRozan has found the driving lanes to be much less congested and has taken advantage of being the focus of the offensive attack.

In the 24 games DeRozan has played in since Pop’s pair of adjustments, he’s averaging 25.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists, while shooting a blistering 57.3% from the field and attempting 8.0 free throw per game (up 40% compared to prior to the adjustments). With the additional freedom and spacing, DeRozan has been better able to attack the rim, as he’s more often going against a single defender. His playmaking has also gotten better, as he’s finding it easier to spot help defenders coming his way and the resulting open teammate.

On the other side of the court, Pop’s other adjustment appears to be paying dividends, as the stats say DeRozan has been much better on D when playing power forward. According to 82games, the Spurs allow 116.3 points per 48 minutes when DeRozan is at small forward. At power forward, that number drops to 113.9 points. Also, opposing small forwards have a PER of 19.9 against DeRozan, while power forwards have a 13.0 PER.

With DeRozan seeing more room to operate on offense and more minutes at power forward defensively, his plus-minus numbers have turned around completely. Since that Clippers game, the Spurs have outscored opponents by 8.7 points per 100 possessions when DeRozan has been on the court. That’s the highest mark on the team over that stretch of time by a substantial amount. 

Should the Spurs Give DeMar DeRozan a Contract Extension?

It’s impossible to discuss DeRozan without addressing the looming question of his contractual status. The Spurs can give him a contract extension at any point this season. If San Antonio doesn’t, DeRozan can opt out of his contract in the offseason and sign with another team as an unrestricted free agent.

While the recent signs are positive regarding DeRozan’s ability to help a basketball team and the potential discovery of a blueprint that allows him to do so, it’s too early to make any rash decisions. The Spurs should take a wait and see approach while keeping the purse strings tight. The 23-31 Spurs aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire and even with DeRozan playing very well in the last couple months, San Antonio is still just 11-13 in those 24 games.

Several questions will be answered in the season’s final 28 games. Will DeRozan’s production sustain after his field goal percentage regresses to a sustainable level? Will Aldridge continue to be willing to be stationed beyond the three-point arc when he hits an inevitable cold spell? Can DeRozan’s body hold up to playing minutes at power forward? Will the Spurs be able to make a legitimate push for the eighth seed in the West?

If DeRozan keeps playing well, his production continues to translate into positive value for San Antonio and the Spurs are able to make a successful playoff run, then an extension of between $20-25 million per season for one or two years could enter the discussion, especially if the alternative is losing him in free agency. 

In any other scenario, the Spurs should not even put an extension on the table. The chances of another team offering DeRozan enough money for him to opt out of his $27.7 million salary for next season are slim. If the Spurs or DeRozan stumble to the season’s finish line, it’d be substantially less likely.

Pop may have figured out how to make DeRozan an asset for his team. Maybe he hasn’t. But for one of the rare times in DeRozan’s career, it looks to be a possibility.