The Chicago Bulls acquisition of four-time NBA All-Star DeMar DeRozan started long before the 2021 offseason. Heading into the 2019 season, the Toronto Raptors were coming off their third straight playoff exit at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Raptors president Masai Ujiri decided it was time for a change.
And on the morning of July 18, 2018, Ujiri made his move. Soon after, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Toronto Raptors traded four-time NBA All-Star DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
In the following season, Leonard would lead the Raptors to their first NBA championship in franchise history. Meanwhile, DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs suffered a first-round exit after sneaking into the playoffs as the seventh seed out West.
Just like that, the narratives about DeRozan shifted from the leader of an upstart group contending for their franchise's first NBA title, to something much worse. After that 2019 season, DeRozan was at best labeled a flawed star whose playstyle represented a throwback to days gone. At worst, he was labeled as a player who didn't contribute to winning basketball.
Jump ahead to the 2021 NBA offseason and the Chicago Bulls have just given DeRozan a three-year, $82 million contract. Let's take a deep dive into DeMar DeRozan and see if he really is a player that doesn't contribute to winning basketball, or if this change of scenery was just what the former All-Star needs to show his true talent.
DeMar DeRozan The 3-Point Specialist
It's no secret that each season the NBA trends more and more toward three-point shooting. And a lack of three-point shooting is the number one reason that DeMar DeRozan's playstyle is labeled as a throwback. DeRozan is coming off a season where he averaged an efficient 21.6 points per game. Despite this, the career 28% three-point shooter is considered a detriment to his team as he limits their ever-important floor spacing.
The problem with this idea is that it isn't true. The San Antonio Spurs as a team shot 35.5% from three-point range when DeRozan was on the court. And when DeRozan wasn't on the court the Spurs shot 34.4%. The easiest explanation would be that the Spurs' best shooters are playing when DeRozan is and it's actually those players that are improving the team's spacing. However, this also isn't true. In fact, the exact opposite happens.
The Spurs' two best shooters during the 2021 season were Patty Mills and Rudy Gay. When DeRozan was on the court, Mills ranks sixth in minutes and Gay ranks eighth. In contrast, when DeRozan wasn't on the court Mills ranks first in minutes and Gay third.
In reality, despite shooting a dismal 19-for-74 (25.7%) on his three-point shots this season, when DeMar DeRozan is on the court the Spurs shoot better. This improved floor spacing combined with everything else DeRozan brings to the table made him the heart of the Spurs offense last season. When DeRozan was on the court, the Spurs' offensive efficiency ranked 11th in the NBA. However, when DeRozan was off the court their offense ranked 28th. Let's take a look at how he does it.
DeMar DeRozan Bends The D
When you think of an elite NBA defense, several adjectives come to mind. However, "bent" is not one of them. The most common NBA defensive system is a simple man-to-man setup. And the term "bent defense" refers to a defense that has left its organized man-to-man system. A bent defense is more likely to give up an open shot to the offense.
Bent defenses often occur when a young or inexperienced player or team makes a mistake. It can be as simple as two players both chasing a shooter and leaving a big man open at the basket. But there is a small list of offensive players so talented that they are able to bend the opposing team's defense with a combination of ball-handling, athleticism, and scoring ability. And DeMar DeRozan is certainly one of them.
While DeRozan himself isn't able to make three-point shots, his ability to bend defenses combined with his much improved passing vision leads to easier shots for his teammates. If you were to surround DeRozan with players that were incapable of hitting shots, he can't make them score. But, when surrounded by capable shooters DeRozan is able to put those shooters in excellent positions to succeed, and the Bulls certainly have the shooters needed. I want to share some of my favorite clips of how exactly the Bulls' new star bends NBA defenses with ease.
The Bend In Action
In this clip, DeMar DeRozan steps on the top of the three-point line with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. And by 18 seconds, he's doing what he loves. With his back to the basket, DeRozan is about to bully the smaller Eric Bledsoe.
This causes the defense to collapse. Zion Williamson shifts over to help his teammate prevent DeRozan from scoring. And this collapsed defense is now bent as Williamson leaves his man, Trey Lyles, wide open on the perimeter. Just as quickly as DeRozan bent the defense, he kicks the ball out to his open teammate for an easy three points.
This clip, just like the last, shows DeRozan gliding into the paint. As the defense collapses around him DeRozan finds another easy assist. However, this clip features a subtle skill of DeRozan's that makes his drive and kick playmaking deadlier than most.
DeRozan continues his drive just long enough to force Wizards' center Daniel Gafford under the basket. This makes it so when DeRozan's teammate Keldon Johnson tries to score at the basket Gafford can't really contest the shot. In this clip, Gafford desperately tries to recover and ends up fouling the shooter as well as giving up the bucket.
DeRozan is also a fantastic passer in tight spaces. This leads to a lot of easy connections with whatever big man he's paired with, and Nikola Vucevic will easily be his best partner yet. Here, DeRozan uses his footwork to send two Timberwolves defenders in the air without ever moving his pivot foot off its spot.
Fitting Amongst The Stars
DeMar DeRozan's floor spacing concerns revolve around him as a player. Another big question with DeRozan and his fit with the current Chicago Bulls team is how an offense with both Zach LaVine and DeRozan would operate. Both players like playing with the ball in their hands, but there is only one ball. There are three reasons that I'm not as scared as most about the Bulls' stars fitting together offensively.
The first of which is how the Bulls' rotation will likely work this season. The Bulls ranked 21st in offensive efficiency last season, and figuring out why this was the case is pretty simple.
Looking at data from the entire Bulls season is a bit of a mess. Of the Bulls' 72 games last season, 29 came after a flurry of roster changes at the trade deadline. And in those 29 post-deadline games Zach LaVine only appeared in 15. So let's look at the 43 pre-deadline games where the team had a consistent rotation.
The Bulls' offensive rating was 113.2 when Zach LaVine was on the court. That would put them 10th in the NBA. Unfortunately, when LaVine was off the court the Bulls' offensive rating plummets to 99.8. Which ranks them 30th by a lot. The last team to post an offensive rating below 100 was the 2016 Philadelphia 76ers who finished with a 10-72 record.
The Bulls will likely try to play both LaVine and DeRozan around 34 minutes per game. In an attempt to not break any more records held by 10-win teams, one of the stars will be on the court at all times. This means 14 minutes of one or the other playing. So we're already down to 20 minutes of an awkward fit, on to reason two.
The Bulls Have Got A Guy
We still have to deal with the 20 minutes of awkward fit between LaVine and DeRozan. Luckily we have two reasons that it might not be a big problem. Both LaVine and DeRozan have primarily operated with the ball in their hands for pretty much their entire careers. However, there is a key difference.
When Zach LaVine doesn't have the ball in his hands he still offers floor spacing. LaVine is coming off a season where he shot 41.9% from three-point range. DeRozan, however, does not offer the same floor spacing. And when DeRozan doesn't have the ball he basically stands in place with his hands out hoping for his lost ball's return. This allows defenders to sag off of DeRozan and help their teammates prevent DeRozan's team from scoring.
If only the Bulls had someone with experience running an offense through a ball-dominant non-floor spacing star...
So anyways, current Bulls head coach Billy Donovan spent five years running a successful offense through a similarly flawed star in Russell Westbrook while coaching the Oklahoma City Thunder. It would take an essay of its own to explain all the intricacies of Billy Donovan's offense. Since we don't have time for that, let's just look at one example and talk about why it works. We're going to look at a clip of a "Hawk set" Donovan ran a lot in OKC. I highly recommend reading Steph Noh's article about Billy Donovan's Hawk Set after you finish this one!
In this clip, Paul George makes a Hawk cut past a Carmelo Anthony screen. George then wraps around the defense and comes across two more screens before draining an open three. What makes this work is that Russell Westbrook has the ball the entire time. Westbrook's defender can't go to help his team because Westbrook would then drive to the basket and score. Donovan's solution to the problem is running plays designed for George that revolve around George never having the ball until it's time to shoot.
The Chicago Bulls' Hidden Starpower
So, we're probably going to have about 20 minutes of lineups including both LaVine and DeRozan. And while those lineups are on the court, the offense will likely run some of the same sets that Billy Donovan used while coaching Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. But, the Bulls will become far too predictable if they always run the same exact sets. So here is a third reason I'm not concerned about the new look Bulls' offensive fit.
The Bulls might have two of the best off-ball offensive players in the league. We just never got to see them in that role because they always had to have the ball. And with the addition of DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls have a chance to explore this in the upcoming season.
When thinking of the best off-ball scorers in the league, the game's elite shooters often come to mind. However, the NBA leader in catch-and-shoot points last season was Nikola Vucevic, and it wasn't close. In fact, the gap between Vucevic in first and Duncan Robinson in second is larger than the gap between Robinson and Bryn Forbes, who came in 16th.
As for Zach LaVine, his lack of opportunities means his off-ball role requires more projecting. But it's not hard to see him thriving with more off-ball reps. While LaVine primarily had to create his own shots this past season, he also got some catch-and-shoot chances. Among players who attempted as many catch-and-shoot threes as LaVine, he ranked fourth in the league in three-point percentage.
DeMar DeRozan's Defensive Deficiencies
Defensively, DeMar DeRozan is pretty bad. He struggles to get over almost any screen, which leads to him giving up open shots when defending on-ball. He also rotates his hips slowly, which leads to him getting beat by players who can change directions quickly. However, the Bulls may be able to hide DeRozan defensively.
Last season the Chicago Bulls ranked 12th in the NBA in defensive rating. This offseason, the Bulls added Alex Caruso from the Lakers. The Lakers had the top-ranked defense last season, and they were 6.4 points better per 100 possessions on the defensive end when Caruso was on the court. The Bulls will also have a full season of Troy Brown Jr. Last season The Bulls were 5.7 points better per 100 possessions defensively when Brown Jr. was on the court. Lonzo Ball is another addition who offers plus defense on the perimeter. Zach LaVine also received praise from his Team USA teammates for his defensive efforts during the team's gold medal-winning run in the Tokyo Olympics. In addition, Patrick Williams and Ayo Dosunmu showed great perimeter defense during the team's summer league campaign.
This all is to say, DeMar DeRozan is likely to play a majority of his minutes alongside a group with good perimeter defenders. If all the Bulls need to ask of DeRozan is to guard the opposing team's worst player, his defensive frailty might not cost the Bulls. Most teams run lineups that include 3-and-D players whose shot diet consists mainly of spot-up threes. While DeRozan isn't a great player defensively, he has the length to contest spot-up shooters.
Is DeMar DeRozan A Winning Player?
Different people will have different definitions of what a "winning player" is. Over the past eight seasons, DeMar DeRozan has been the leading scorer on his team all eight times. And in those eight seasons, his team has posted a winning record in six of them. DeRozan is certainly a flawed star player. However, we can often get overly hung-up on narratives that don't represent what is truly happening.
DeMar DeRozan is constantly labeled as a detriment to team floor spacing. Yet, his team shot better when he was on the floor. DeRozan is considered a player whose playstyle is a throwback era of the past. But, he is still one of the few players in the NBA who can truly create open shots for his teammates. DeRozan is considered a player who doesn't make his teammates better. However, you can directly link offensive improvements in DeRozan's teammates with him being on the floor.
While DeRozan isn't the best player without the ball in his hands, his new teammates can be. And Bulls' head coach Billy Donovan has had success running an offense through a player with flaws similar to DeRozan's. Despite DeRozan's defensive shortcomings, this Bulls team might be able to hide that. I think DeMar DeRozan, while flawed, can certainly contribute to the Chicago Bulls' success. And I think the star's fit with the new-look Bulls is a match that is likely to succeed.