Will DeMar DeRozan's Old-School Game Be a Problem in San Antonio?

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistJuly 29, 2018

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 26:  DeMar DeRozan #35 of the United States talks with head coach Gregg Popovich during a practice session at the 2018 USA Basketball Men's National Team minicamp at the Mendenhall Center at UNLV on July 26, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When it comes to how DeMar DeRozan will fare in his new gig with the San Antonio Spurs, there will doubtless be strong opinions on both sides, but to be overly emphatic either way is to not look at the complete picture. In truth, how DeRozan will do in San Antonio is as genuine of a question as we have from this offseason.

DeRozan has always been a bucket-getter, albeit in an old-school manner that's easy to criticize—overcriticize, even. His game is predicated on the mid-range post-ups and step-backs. It's more 2000s than 2010s, more Kobe Bryant than Stephen Curry.

It's not overly efficient, either. Last year, he was one of 28 players who averaged at least 20 points per game. But 22 of them had a higher true shooting percentage than DeRozan, which makes it easy to find fault, especially when you consider his 55.5 percent was a career high.

There is a place for DeRozan in the league, particularly if he's surrounded by players who can stretch the court and give him even a modicum of space to operate in. The Toronto Raptors provided that for him last year while sinking the fourth-most threes in the league.

The Spurs, however, are almost at the opposite extreme. Not only were they third-to-last in threes, but they were also 20th in free throws and 25th in restricted-area field goals, according to NBA.com. In other words, they were bad at just about every efficient way of scoring.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Yet, they still managed to finish 17th in offensive rating, mostly because of LaMarcus Aldridge's effectiveness from the mid-range.

And therein lies the problem. Three players averaged at least 10 shots between the semicircles last year: Two of them are Aldridge (11.2) and DeRozan (10.0).

Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney puts it this way: "Both Aldridge and DeRozan are more versatile than they're given credit, but both gravitate toward scoring in the same, static style from the same, static spaces."

Mahoney continued:

"They're not just spatially redundant, but functionally so. The pick-and-roll gives DeRozan and Aldridge some means of direct interaction, but without the kind of divergence that makes that play so effective. Ball screens are at their most effective when they make a defense account for two forces moving in opposite directions. DeRozan stepping into a pull-up jumper while Aldridge pops for a mid-range jumper not a few feet away hardly qualifies."

We end up talking about an offense built around the pick-and-roll between two players who occupy the same spots. It's more like square dancing than basketball. So, there's an argument to be made that this can't work.

But if there's anyone who can make this work, it's Gregg Popovich.

Let's take a moment to remember a few things. The last time Popovich coached the preseason and missed the postseason was never. And the Spurs have missed the playoffs just once since 1989, which means they've missed the postseason only once in DeRozan's lifetime.

In other words, this organization and coach have earned the benefit of the doubt. They didn't win 50 games for the first time in this millennium last season, but adding DeRozan to a team that won 47 isn't likely to make them worse.

Sure they don't have Kawhi Leonard, but they basically didn't have him last year, either. He missed all but nine games in 2017-18, and San Antonio was only 5-4 when he played.

DeRozan becomes the best offensive player on a team that needed offense; now all the Spurs need is one of the greatest coaches in history to figure out how to utilize him.

They could use more motion. DeRozan did have a career-high 5.2 assists last season. The Spurs don't have a lot of deadly shooters, but they do have scorers like Rudy Gay and Pau Gasol who can do fine with secondary actions off the ball.

Alternatively, they could try to pound the ball, slow the game down and force the opponent to play their brand of basketball. The Spurs were 28th in pace last year, so that wouldn't be a stretch for them.

If the Spurs can force opponents to play their brand of basketball—with two of the best mid-range shooters in the league—they could win 50 games.

There could be some concern that DeRozan won't be happy in San Antonio. He wasn't thrilled about the trade and says he's "done" with the Raptors president.

However, while DeRozan is close with Kyle Lowry, he also maintains a strong friendship with Gay, who was a teammate of his in Toronto in 2013.

DeRozan told ESPN.com's Chris Haynes that he contacted Gay about the trade right after it happened: 

"I'm still in shock. Second person I talked to that night, that I'm close friends with, was Rudy Gay. I was upset. And I called him, like, 'Man, dude's just traded me.' Rudy was like, 'What? To who?' And I was like, 'To y'all.' He started laughing. He said, 'Look, I don't mean to lie, but I got my boy back. You gon' be aight, man. Don't worry about it.' I was like, 'Man, I shouldn't have called you. I should have waited until it came out and you called me.' It was cool to be able to call somebody that's close in my life that's on the Spurs too. So he made it easy."

It's easy to take the analytics approach and just say "Too many long twos!" and assume there's no way DeRozan and Aldridge can work together. For 29 out of 30 teams in the NBA, that might be true. But this one is coached by Popovich, and this one is stocked with veteran NBA talent that has gone through wars playing that kind of game.

As the league's defenses move more and more toward defending the stretchiness of the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, there's a place for a team predicated on slowing things down and posting players up. Granted, that will only get them so far, but it will be enough to keep their playoff run going and let Pop live out what seem to be the final years of his coaching tenure in peace.

                

Stats via NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. 

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