Tonight is going to be tough. DeMar DeRozan is my favorite basketball player of all-time and it's not even close. Vince Carter was my erratic youth, Chris Bosh my awkward teenage years but DeRozan has been a mature adult figure exemplifying a zealous basketball ethic focused on hard work, reliability, and loyalty.
This year has been difficult for both Kyle Lowry and I because our best friend is gone. By no fault of our own, DeRozan has been expunged from our lives in the name of some obscure greater good for the team. We are programmed to be loyal to the logo but our loyalty is being tested every night because the dinosaur is a hollow caricature without its identity, without DeRozan.
DeRozan defies the argument that players need the right team and environment to succeed. Instead, through his own effort and desire to get better every season, DeRozan became the culture itself. He dictated his career rather than assimilate it with preconceived notions of his game or the stereotypes associated with his organization. DeRozan succeeded in Toronto because he treated fate as a force that could be manipulated by hard work and not an inevitable destiny.
DeRozan's took control of his career in the summer of 2010 when it became apparent that Chris Bosh was departing to South Beach. He infamously tweeted:
DeRozan seized control of the team despite not yet being the primary option on the Raptors at the time of the tweet. That burden was misplaced on Andrea Bargnani. Then onto Rudy Gay. There was even a period when Jonas Valanciunas was anointed as a number one option. The unknown is a relentless temptation.
Amidst the many iterations of Raptors basketball, DeRozan meticulously transformed his game despite the organizational chaos around him. He entered the league as a dunking specialist. He developed a reliable mid-range jumper. Then came the improved handle, turnaround jumper, post-up game, one-handed floater, euro-step, and up-and-under scoop shot. Upon completing personal mastery, he turned his attention to others. He became a pick-and-roll player and morphed into a prolific playmaker.
Oh, he can still dunk too.
DeRozan gets better every year so it's not surprising that he's having a career year with the Spurs this season. DeRozan is averaging career-highs in rebounds (5.9), assists (6.3) and field goal percentage (47.7), while assuming all ball-handling and playmaking duties for the Spurs. This year he's added the high-off-the-glass finish on drives and jumpers over bigger players and is consistently making the second read on pick-and-rolls which adds much-needed variability to each possession.
Trade or no trade, DeRozan's improvement was inevitable this season. The vitriol towards Masai Ujiri and the Raptors is an added supplement to his own passion for greatness.
So what happened in the playoffs every season?
It's true that things tightened up a bit in the playoffs. The length and aggressiveness of Giannis, Paul George and Otto Porter Jr. disturbed his offensive rhythm. Predictability became DeRozan's vice. He was targeted defensively. But despite these nuances, the only obstacle that ever stopped DeRozan and the Raptors was LeBron. Beyond LeBron, the disturbances in DeRozan's post-season career are minor footnotes.
The perception that DeRozan failed in the playoffs is false. This premise overvalues his shortcomings rather than celebrating his evolving abilities. He could overcome everything but LeBron. That's not a crime worthy of punishment but it was enough to get him traded.
DeRozan is still very much a part of my weekly basketball canon. In some ways, I appreciate him more from a distance. I enjoy his craft without concern for the final result in each game or worse, in May and June. I can enjoy his pump fakes without worrying about whether they will be effective in the playoffs. I applaud him for doubling-down on his game inside the three-point line. It's a joy to see him leading fast breaks off of defensive rebounds. Oh, and the dunks!
Tonight's Raptors/Spurs game is going to be an awkward spectacle. It's a game featuring vilified stars but no clear villains. It's about friendship and loss. Loyalty and mistrust. Angry fingers are being pointed in all directions. DeRozan versus Kawhi will briefly matter for as long as the news cycle carries it. It's only marginally significant because the argument has never been between DeRozan versus Kawhi or any other opponent. DeRozan's only demon has been his pursuit to get better every year.
The only known tonight is that DeRozan will learn from the result and be better for it in the future. DeRozan's relentless commitment to a better tomorrow is an ideal worth working towards.