In 2018, when San Antonio acquired DeMar DeRozan from Toronto in exchange for eventual 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs’ dynasty appeared to be on its way out. San Antonio managed to make the 2019 playoffs after a furious midseason rally, tying the NBA’s all-time longest postseason streak at 22 seasons,<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="#fn-1" data-footnote-content="
Matching the 1950-71 Philadelphia 76ers/Syracuse Nationals.
“>1 but then finished the 2019-20 season at 32-39 and in 11th place in the Western Conference, out of the playoffs.
Youngest teams in San Antonio Spurs history weighted by minutes played
Through games of April 28, 2021.
Source: Elias Sports Bureau
The Spurs are back above .500 this year and fighting for a playoff spot in the West despite tracking to be the youngest Spurs squad in Gregg Popovich’s tenure as head coach — even before buying out the recently retired LaMarcus Aldridge in March. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, with an average minutes-weighted age of 26.8 years, the Spurs are on pace for their youngest roster since the 1990-91 season, when Hall of Famer and two-time champion David Robinson was just a second-year pro.
While the youngsters are shining during this transitional phase for San Antonio, DeRozan’s veteran presence is making it all possible. The 12th-year guard, averaging 21.5 points in 34.1 minutes a game, has been a reliable bridge between the franchise’s dynastic past and its ambitions to return to contender status. As he prepares to enter free agency, his performance this season has offered opportunities for both DeRozan and San Antonio to assess their next respective stages of reinvention.
“He deserved to be on the All-Star team, in my opinion,” Popovich said in February. “He’s helped us win, put us in good position. He’s scored, he’s distributed the basketball. His leadership’s been amazing.”
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Even in a league more trigger-happy than ever with 3-pointers, DeRozan is still one of the NBA’s premiere midrange maestros: He leads the NBA in total points (1,141) and shot attempts (1,264) from midrange since becoming a Spur. But he has also grown as a playmaker. Since 2018-19, DeRozan is one of seven players to amass 4,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists. His company in that club is elite: LeBron James, Luka Dončić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Nikola Jokić and Russell Westbrook.
Whether scoring or assisting, DeRozan’s offensive prowess relies on his ability to navigate within unique spaces, as evidenced by his NBA-best 1,598 assist opportunities via kickout pass with San Antonio. Since acquiring DeRozan, the Spurs rank last in the total number of catch-and-shoot three attempts, but on those attempts, they hit 37.5 percent — third in the league. On DeRozan’s dishes, the Spurs hit 40.6 percent.
Pivotal to DeRozan’s production is his penchant for creating in isolation. Since earning his first All-Star nod in 2013-14, DeRozan ranks fourth across the NBA with 4,586 total isolations, according to Second Spectrum. Only Harden, James and Westbrook have recorded more over that span. He has also come through in the clutch in a big way: Through April 28, DeRozan trailed only Damian Lillard in clutch-time scoring this season.
“He seems to never get tired, and he’s always ready to go,” Popovich said after a recent victory over New Orleans. “He wants the ball, he wants to score, but he’ll get it to his teammates if that’s appropriate. He loves being in that situation. He’s the best on our team with that.”
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So what comes next for DeRozan and the Spurs? The 31-year old exercised the fifth-year, $27.7 million player option of his deal last November and is reportedly interested in taking a “wide-open” approach with his upcoming free agency. San Antonio, meanwhile, is projected to enter the offseason with the third-most cap space across the league ($52 million),<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="2" href="#fn-2" data-footnote-content="
Assuming veteran club options are declined and non-guaranteed players are released.
“>2 providing both parties an opportunity to assess the viability of a long-term relationship.
In the meantime, young players such as Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Derrick White have demonstrated promise for the Spurs. Murray is putting the finishing touches on his finest season as a pro, with career highs in scoring (15.7 points per game), boards (7.1) and dimes (5.3) to help pace San Antonio’s playoff push. Johnson, a second-year forward, has increased his scoring by almost 4 points per game and nearly doubled his rebounding average. White has recorded more 25-point outings this season (six) than in his first three years combined (three), though he injured his ankle this week and is expected to miss the rest of the season.
San Antonio’s youth movement has given the team plenty of options for the future. But it’s worth noting how those younger players perform without DeRozan alongside them. The Spurs’ most-used lineup has consisted of DeRozan, Murray, Johnson, White and Jakob Poeltl; with DeRozan sitting and the other four on the court, the team’s net rating has plummeted by more than 30 points, per NBA.com.
The Spurs young stars are better with DeRozan
Output of 2020-21 Spurs lineups featuring Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Derrick White and Jakob Poeltl, with and without DeMar DeRozan
DeRozan on the court
DeRozan off the court
Through games of April 28, 2021.
Source: NBA Advanced Stats
Despite DeRozan’s clutch-time impact, the Spurs rank just 21st in scoring differential (-15), and they’re 25th in 3-point percentage (25 percent) in the clutch. But their young core is getting more opportunities to play in those critical situations. Murray’s 52 clutch-time points trail only DeRozan among the team this season, and the fifth-year guard is shooting 54 percent over the final five minutes when the game is within 5 points.
“The things he says, when he needs to say it, it shows,” DeRozan said about his 24-year old teammate. “And that comes with time being in this league. He speaks up, he steps up when need be. … And he knows when to talk to guys, to pull guys to the side, and that speaks volumes of the leader he’s becoming.”
That’s a role DeRozan understands well already. And if he chooses to leave San Antonio this summer, he could bolster the fortunes of a contender seeking a scorer, playmaker and trusted leader.
But before that free agency decision, the Spurs have work to do to keep playing into June. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based projections give the Spurs a 15 percent chance to make the playoffs, thus avoiding missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. In fact, prior to last season, San Antonio missed the playoffs only five times in 54 seasons.
No matter the Spurs’ final record, there is no doubt that DeRozan’s presence has raised the ceiling of a team that’s finding its way again in the Western Conference. DeRozan has remained true to himself while reinventing his game, providing the Spurs ample room to navigate through their new normal.
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CORRECTION (April 30, 2021, 4:20 p.m.): The Spurs have missed the postseason five times in 54 seasons. A previous version of this article gave that number as four.