PORTLAND, Ore. — For the longest time, the San Antonio Spurs and DeMar DeRozan have been defined by their steadiness. Now, after a chaotic offseason, they are beginning to navigate their next chapters together.
The Spurs have made the postseason every year since drafting Tim Duncan in 1997, always with the same faces leading the way. DeRozan, meanwhile, has gotten better in each of his nine seasons in the NBA and become one of the defining figures of the previously small-time Toronto Raptors. All of that turned upside down this summer as the Spurs saw more high-level turnover than they ever have.
If Duncan's 2016 retirement was the beginning of the end of the Spurs' nearly unprecedented two-decade run, this offseason represented tearing off the Band-Aid. Tony Parker left for Charlotte following 17 years in silver and black. Manu Ginobili retired after his 16th season. The bizarre, drawn-out cold war between the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard ended with the 2014 Finals MVP being dealt to Toronto in the trade that brought in DeRozan. The longest-tenured Spur is backup point guard Patty Mills, who joined the team all the way back in...2012.
Like the Spurs, DeRozan is adjusting to a new reality that wasn't of his choosing. He spent nine seasons with the Raptors, making four All-Star teams and two All-NBA teams and becoming the face of pro basketball in Canada during the most successful years in franchise history. He chose to forgo free-agent meetings in 2016 and quickly signed a five-year deal to stay in Toronto, fully believing he would join the likes of Duncan and Ginobili on the ever-shrinking list of stars who spent their whole careers with one team.
Instead, he found himself blindsided by the mid-July trade to San Antonio, forced to reinvent himself and learn a new city, team and culture. In Toronto, DeRozan was instrumental in shaping the best years of an organization that hadn't accomplished much before he got there. Along with team president Masai Ujiri, longtime point guard Kyle Lowry and coach Dwane Casey, he was one of the catalysts for the Raptors becoming legitimate.
The Spurs organization and legendary coach Gregg Popovich, on the other hand, have a well-established way of doing things that existed 20 years before DeRozan's arrival and will be in place long after he's gone. It's a big adjustment in role and mindset, but DeRozan has embraced it.
"It's going well," DeRozan said after a recent 121-108 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. "My teammates help me out a lot to make things comfortable. For me, every single time we get a chance to practice, go over things, put something new in, go out there and play, it definitely helps us out to find more of a comfort level."
DeRozan has looked comfortable early on in his Spurs career. He scored 28 points in each of the first two games, shooting the ball efficiently from the floor—10-of-21 in the season-opening win over the Minnesota Timberwolves and 11-of-22 in the loss to the Blazers. He got to the foul line 11 times in the opener and racked up nine assists in Portland.
"He's absorbed everything that we've given him so far," Popovich said Saturday. "We know full well that it's a new system and it'll take some time for him to get fully comfortable. But he's highly intelligent. It's the NBA, it's not rocket science. He's picking it up pretty quickly."
How DeRozan fits next to the Spurs' other go-to scorer, LaMarcus Aldridge, will be crucial to their success. Both have long-established track records as potent scorers who have no doubt they'll eventually be able to make each other better.
"Whenever we run screen-and-roll, you've got to make a decision," DeRozan said. "Big guys don't want to switch on me, small guys don't want to switch on [Aldridge]. He's able to knock down a shot. Once we get it rolling, it's going to make us even more dangerous to be guarded."
The Aldridge-DeRozan tandem is at odds with the direction of the league. Both thrive in the mid-range but aren't known as perimeter threats. With analytics-driven front offices placing a premium on spacing and efficiency, can the long two be a recipe for sustained success?
"Everybody needs to use their strengths," Popovich said. "[DeRozan]'s got a good mid-range game. He's a fantastic passer, which I don't think people give him credit for. He really understands the movement that we try to employ. Whether it's attacking with the ball or moving without the ball, he does it really well. He fits into what we do really well."
DeRozan's new teammates are raving about his playmaking as well. In nine seasons in Toronto, DeRozan established himself as one of the best scoring guards in the NBA but also developed a reputation as a black hole on offense. On paper, his isolation-heavy game appears an odd fit with the movement-heavy style Popovich preaches. But DeRozan has always had good court vision, and his assist numbers have steadily gone up as the years have gone by.
"From the early parts of playing with him, his best characteristic is he makes teammates better," Mills said. "He's a willing passer. Gets everyone involved. That's something you're excited about when you step on the floor with him. So I think he's fitting in well."
The new-look Spurs are still a work in progress, and they're beginning the year short-handed as they fight to keep a 21-year playoff streak alive in a loaded Western Conference. Third-year point guard Dejounte Murray, the presumptive starter poised for a breakout year, is out for the season after tearing his right ACL during training camp. The Spurs' other young point guard, Derrick White, is expected to miss several weeks with a heel injury. And the team's highly touted rookie, No. 18 overall pick Lonnie Walker IV, underwent knee surgery in early October.
They have their work cut out for them to keep pace against stiff competition. Changes this drastic, both for DeRozan and the Spurs, will take time to fully grow into. But the early returns are positive.
"Me personally, I feel like I've got a lot of growth I still can make and will make," DeRozan said. "Understanding defensively and offensively. We're all a new group. We're all trying to figure it out and get better every single day. And we all understand that. We're going to be all right."