As the roller-coaster 2009-2010 Toronto Raptors season lurches on, several questions about this new roster and rotation are naturally finding their answers.
Through the efforts of the players and the coaching staff, Amir Johnson has established himself (in the absence of Reggie Evans) as the team's back-up big man du jour after averaging 10.5ppg and 6.0rpg over the last week. Marco Belinelli has worked his way to the top of the reserve wing pile by showing a deft touch at making plays for others while also finding ways to get himself shots within his range (his play has stalled a little since the team returned from their West Coast trip, but the same can be said of most of the team in that regard). Even Jarrett Jack has begun settling into his role and finding his way as the team's backup point guard, even if he hasn't quite found the impact to justify his hefty contract from this summer.
However, despite the clarifying of many roles (including the bench-bound Sonny Weems, who is trying his hardest to inherit the Kris Humphries crown of inappropriate shot-taker), there is one player who seems wholly unsure of his role, or perhaps it's the team that has no idea how to use him. That player is the Raptors' prized rookie, DeMar DeRozan.
When the Raptors drafted DeRozan, the expectation was that he would be running the wings with Shawn Marion, proving an offensively talented counterpunch to Marion's defence-first approach. At the time, it seemed like a reasonable expectation would have been that DeRozan would actually come off of the bench and provide an athletic spark in the second unit. However, the summer offered the club a different direction and Hedo Turkoglu was brought in to replace Marion, and along with Jarrett Jack, Antoine Wright and Marco Belinelli, DeRozan's role became a lot hazier by training camp. Hedo was a scorer, so DeRozan wouldn't be asked to be a wing scorer in the starting five. Wright was a better defender and Belinelli a better playmaker, so he wouldn't be put into either one of those reserve roles, either. Plus, with Jack eating up some minutes each night at the two-spot, it became unclear exactly when DeRozan would be able to find meaningful minutes on this team.
Nonetheless, Triano held firm that he was going to start the rookie each night to get him time with a quality starting crew; but to do what, exactly? The only thing that this starting five lacks is a defender, and DeRozan was never advertised as being suitable for that role. He's a scorer first, and he looks positively unsure of how to use his primary skill set to help this team early in the season. He's not terrible at sticking to his man on defence, but as soon as he's screened off of him, or asked to pick up someone else's man in a rotation, he's lost.
To compound matters, because of the depth at his position, DeRozan will typically play only six-to-eight minutes to start each quarter before being quarantined on the bench, which means that not only is he being asked to guard starting shooting guards exclusively, but he himself is being guarded by them at the other end. That means that he's never put in a position where he might be at an offensive advantage against an opposing reserve, where he might be able to get some offensive traction as a rookie who has gotten to this point in the NBA on the back of scoring and athletic prowess. So in a sense one could argue that not only is he letting his team down by struggling defensively against some of the league's most potent scorers, but also he's letting them down again by not being in a position to utilize his offensive assets to compensate. In a starting five with Turkoglu, Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon and Chris Bosh, DeRozan is the team's last option on offense, making him a wholly unnatural fit in the Raptors' current configuration. As a result he's also being portrayed in the media (especially in the U.S.) as a rookie unable to find his feet at the NBA level and his stock is plummeting as a result. Well, of course he can't find his feet since it's starting to look like they've been lopped off to accommodate a bizarre requirement that he start games as the team's fifth scoring option come hell or high water.
Let's put it more plainly: if you were to take a look at the four players surrounding DeRozan in the starting five, what would you say that they needed to help them be more successful? From this vantage point it looks like they need someone who can slow down opposing guards, especially in light of the fact that Jose Calderon is ensconcing himself as one of the worst defensive guards in the NBA. It would need to be someone who didn't hang his hat on his scoring and could, ideally, guard multiple positions out on the court. Someone, like say, Antoine Wright, the guy I wrote a piece about this summer as the ideal starting shooting guard for this lineup.
Now, I never refer back to my own work like that because I find it self-serving and outside the realm of analysis, but I refer back to that piece if only because the salient points made then still apply.
Wright is a big guard who can guard all three backcourt positions and hit the open jumper when left open. He was the starting shooting guard for a solid Dallas Maverick's playoff run a season ago and he provides just about everything that is missing from this starting unit. There was a time at the very start of this season when the Raptors bench crew (Jack, Wright, Belinelli and Johnson playing with Bargnani at centre) looked strong enough to make breaking it up seem like a poor choice, but throwing DeRozan into that mix while moving Wright into the starting five has three very tangible positives that would seem to make the switch a no-brainer.
The starting five needs at least one player whose prerogative it is to play some defence. Having five offensively-minded players on the floor at one time makes absolutely zero sense, especially since there is still only one ball to go around. Consider that if this team could play even a modicum of defence to start games, though, their offensive talent could open up some pretty intimidating leads. To that end DeRozan won't be missed as either an offensive or defensive weapon. Wright could be like Aaron Afflalo in Denver or Keith Bogans in San Antonio or Mickael Pietrus in Orlando – that fifth starter who is tagged with simply taking the defensive pressure off of their fellow starters, kinda like he did in his most successful season of his career last year in Dallas.
2. Earn your minutes.
Right now DeRozan is stuck between a rock and a hard place; he can't play his game with the starting unit, and as a result he can't earn more minutes to play his game. DeRozan almost never looks in rhythm in the third quarter because he's been sitting for so long rotting away on the pine since his opening game minutes. If he comes in off of the bench (give him Wright's old minutes – hey, we've found a way to get him minutes with the second unit!) he can be more of a focal point on offence, especially running the floor, and he won't be as abused on defence by opposing team's reserves. If he plays well, he can stay in the game, if he doesn't then there are plenty of other wings available to take his place on the floor. If Belinelli's game is shaping up like Portland's Rudy Fernandez (and it is), then why not cast DeRozan as a slightly smaller Travis Outlaw? At least in that scenario there is a functioning precedent to work from.
3. Balance, again.
Right now, the bench crew is susceptible to slumping offensively. DeRozan offers a nice athletic counterpoint to Belinelli the shooter/passer and Johnson the screener/post player. He could play with a lot more freedom in the second unit, being an asset by just being an athletic specimen who never stops moving, attacks the rim and gets to the free-throw line. If he continues to work on his body he could eventually develop into the kind of super-sub that Corey Maggette was when he played with the Clippers. At least then there is a role and a goal to shoot for. Right now he is not on the path to coming the next Vince Carter, so a different archetype is going to have to look to for the future.
Look, there is no one single way to develop a rookie into commodity on the court. Some guards have taken a big role right out of the gate and floundered (Sebastian Telfair), while others have prospered (Ben Gordon). Some have been brought along slowly to success (Deron Williams) while others disappear before their time (Javaris Crittenton). If there were some formula to follow to ensure that a rookie capitalized on his promise and his opportunity, every single NBA coach would follow it – except Don Nelson, of course. There is no such formula, though, so every coach is left to feel around in the dark, hoping to find that elusive light switch.
Right now, the Raptors look and play like an unbalanced team, and DeRozan sits just a hair above non-factor in everything that they're doing. The idea of starting him may have had a justification at one time, perhaps, but that time has passed. No one is winning in this arrangement and continuing it would seem like an action taken simply because maintaining the status quo is easier than change. It's time to start looking at alternative configurations, though, with Ray Allen and Jason Richardson waiting for their shot at Toronto's prized rookie.