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DeMar DeRozan Is Calling Game

Last August, as DeMar DeRozan was on his way out of San Antonio, rumors swirled that he would be willing to take a pay cut to go home and play for the Los Angeles Lakers or join his former Toronto Raptors teammate Kyle Lowry on the Miami Heat. Instead, the Chicago Bulls sent Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu and three draft picks (including a first-rounder) to the Spurs in exchange for the now-32-year-old DeRozan, who was signed to a three-year, $85 million pact as part of the transaction. 

The deal was met with immediate criticism in some circles, and a poll of league scouts and executives conducted by ESPN’s Tim Bontemps identified it as one of the worst moves of the offseason. “Giving up another first-rounder to overpay [DeRozan] was the worst over-the-top move to get behind,” one exec told Bontemps. “I like the fit on the court,” a scout said. “But they’d better win, because if you don’t, you’re an expensive, bad team that can’t rebuild.”

Nearly halfway through the season, the Bulls are indeed winning. With DeRozan’s fellow newcomers Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso joining a strong returning cast, their 25-10 record is best in the Eastern Conference and fourth-best in the NBA. DeRozan, meanwhile, is not only fitting in, but putting together the best season of his career.

That’s not an exaggeration. In 35.3 minutes a night, DeRozan is pouring in 26.9 points per game while also averaging 5.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists. He’s shooting 49.4 percent from the field, 36.2 percent from three and 85.8 percent from the line. And for the first time since his third year in the NBA, DeRozan’s team has a better pace-adjusted scoring margin with him in the game than on the bench — by an enormous margin.

Based on his box-score performance and on-off differentials, DeRozan has been worth 3.3 points per 100 possessions to the Bulls’ scoring margin so far this season, according to FiveThirtyEight’s overall RAPTOR metric. That’s the single-best mark of his 13-year career. Needless to say, it’s highly unusual for a player to deliver his best season this deep into his career. In our database of 3,527 players to appear in the NBA since the 1976-77 merger, just four have had their peak RAPTOR season later in their career than DeRozan.1

DeRozan is peaking later in his career than most

NBA players whose peak season RAPTOR rating came no earlier than their 13th career year, since 1976-77

Player Peak season Age RAPTOR Year No.
Derek Fisher 2013-14 39 2.3 18
Mike Conley 2020-21 33 7.8 14
Thaddeus Young 2020-21 32 4.6 14
Zach Randolph 2014-15 33 2.9 14
DeMar DeRozan 2021-22 32 3.3 13
Nicolas Batum 2020-21 32 2.5 13
David West 2015-16 35 2.9 13
Rasheed Wallace 2007-08 33 4.6 13
Vlade Divac 2001-02 33 4.0 13

Minimum 1,000 minutes played to qualify. Age is player’s age on Feb. 1 of the given season.

2021-22 stats through Jan. 3.

While this might be his best season, DeRozan has been showing improvement for a while now. And that improvement started — like most things with DeRozan do — in the midrange.

For much of his career, DeRozan was derided as an inefficient volume scorer. And for years, the criticism rang true. Through his first 10 seasons in the NBA, DeRozan finished with a true shooting percentage better than the league average only twice. Even while he was making All-Star appearances with the Raptors, DeRozan was getting there more on quantity than quality. He became something of a poster child for analytically minded thinkers in and around the league, who consistently noted the inefficiencies of his midrange-heavy shot profile.

A few years back, though, DeRozan made a tweak, and he became a more efficient player because of it. Instead of trading long twos for threes, like so many other efficiency-seeking scorers have in the past, DeRozan simply swapped out long twos for … slightly shorter twos.

In his first All-Star campaign (2013-14), a plurality of DeRozan’s shots were attempted between 16 and 23 feet from the basket — the least efficient area of the floor. Shots from that zone are not converted at a much higher rate than those outside the 3-point line, yet they are worth 1 fewer point. Coaches generally discourage those shots these days, and with good reason.

DeRozan, like many before him, has slashed his diet of those shots. These days, they account for around a quarter of his field-goal attempts — and that’s actually on the high side for him over the past few seasons. Instead of those deep twos, DeRozan has become an expert at both seeking and knocking down shots in the short midrange area. Where shots taken between 10 and 16 feet from the rim once accounted for around 18 percent of his total, they now make up 30 percent. These days, that’s his most common shot location.

Unsurprisingly, he converts those shots at a higher rate than he does the deeper twos. And this season, he’s converting short middies at a higher rate than ever — a blistering 54.8 percent clip.

According to Second Spectrum, DeRozan is outperforming expectations2 on midrange jumpers by 12.5 percentage points this season. That’s easily his best mark of the player-tracking era, which helpfully began in his first All-Star campaign. It’s also the seventh-best mark among the 23 players who have taken at least 100 such shots this year. (DeRozan, unsurprisingly, has taken more of them than anybody in the game.) In other words, DeRozan midrangers are analytically friendly shot attempts these days.

DeRozan’s proficiency from this area carries with it an added benefit: He routinely gets opponents to bite on his nasty pump fake, which earns him repeated trips to the free-throw line. Washington Wizards color analyst Glenn Consor mused over the weekend, “Doesn’t it seem like every time DeRozan has the ball and goes up for a shot, he gets fouled?”

While it’s not exactly every time, it does happen with pretty incredible frequency. DeRozan has drawn a remarkable 35 fouls on midrange jumpers this season, per Second Spectrum’s tracking. That’s more than the next two closest players (Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid) combined.

The gap between DeRozan and the next-most prolific midrange foul-drawer during the player-tracking era is even more dramatic. Since the 2013-14 season, he’s been fouled on 530 midrange jump shots. Nobody else in the league in that time period has been fouled on even 300 of them. (Lou Williams and Russell Westbrook have drawn 299 such fouls apiece.)

DeRozan is an excellent foul shooter (83.4 percent for his career), so trudging to the charity stripe nearly eight times a game boosts his efficiency beyond what his shot profile suggests it should be. His true-shooting mark is 2.8 percentage points better than league average this season, and as such, according to Basketball-Reference.com, he’s added 40 points to Chicago’s total beyond what the league-average player with his workload would yield. That’s how a player with a 31.3 percent usage rate and slightly below-average effective field-goal percentage can nonetheless anchor a top-six offense.

DeRozan has also been a better playmaker than his reputation suggests for some time now. Beginning with his final season in Toronto, DeRozan has done a wonderful job leveraging his ability to get to his spots to seek out better opportunities for his teammates. After previously setting a career high of 4.0 assists per game in 2013-14 and 2015-16, he’s averaged 4.5 or better in five consecutive seasons despite generally carrying a lighter minutes burden.

He’s also put together some ridiculous clutch performances this year, especially of late. Over the weekend, DeRozan became the first player in the history of the NBA to hit game-winning buzzer-beaters on consecutive days. Incredibly, DeRozan’s game-winning threes against the Indiana Pacers and Wizards also occurred in two different years, since he hit them on Dec. 31, 2021, and Jan. 1, 2022.

The pair of wins (along with Monday’s victory over the Orlando Magic) has the Bulls riding high atop the East, two games ahead of both the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks. Our RAPTOR-based forecast gives Chicago a 97 percent chance of advancing to the postseason, up from just 37 percent in the preseason model. The Bulls’ projected record has improved from 38-44 to 51-31. That 13-win jump that is larger than any team but the Golden State Warriors (19) and Cleveland Cavaliers (17).

They’re not title favorites, and they might not even be inner-circle contenders just yet. But they at least look like a surefire playoff team at the moment. And that was the entire thesis behind bringing in DeRozan (along with Ball and Caruso) in the first place. So far, so good.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

CORRECTION (Jan. 11, 2022, 4:10 p.m.): An earlier version of this article included Kyle Lowry in the list of players whose peak RAPTOR has occurred after their 13th season. Lowry's defensive RAPTOR for the current season was at its peak for his career, but his total RAPTOR peaked in 2016-17.

Footnotes

  1. Minimum 1,000 minutes played for a qualifying season.

  2. Based on shot distance, closest defender distance and more.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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