A closer look into the resurgence of Chicago Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan

(Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)
(Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images) /

After spending the first nine seasons of his career with the Toronto Raptors, DeMar DeRozan was shipped to the San Antonio Spurs. DeRozan, well-respected around the NBA for his athleticism, durability, and mid-range scoring, was coming off four All-Star appearances in the previous five seasons.

Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ head coach since 1996, is on the cusp of making history. He is currently three wins shy of breaking Don Nelson’s record of 1,335 regular season coaching wins. This begs a very important question: Why, after such success in Toronto, did DeRozan generate zero All-Star appearances in his three years under Popovich, only to be voted as an All-Star starter and play some of the best basketball of his career in his first season since leaving the Spurs?

Did Popovich fail DeRozan? Should Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan be praised as a better coach than Popovich for setting DeRozan up for greater success? Should the credit go to DeRozan himself for elevating his game? I’m going to attempt to answer these questions using analytics.

For this analysis, I’m going to exclude DeRozan’s first four seasons with the Raptors and begin with the 2013-14 season – his first All-Star appearance. From there, I’m going to divide DeRozan’s prime into three segments, corresponding to the three teams he’s played for: Toronto (2014-18), San Antonio (2019-21), and Chicago (2022).

DeRozan’s traditional box score and advanced statistics show small trends that set his time in San Antonio apart.

Out of each of the three segments, DeRozan averaged the least amount of points (21.6), minutes (34.3), field goal attempts (15.9), and free throw attempts (6.4) per game when he played for the Spurs. He did, however, average the most rebounds (5.3) and assists (6.2) per game, the latter of which corresponding to his highest turnover rate (2.4).

DeRozan saw his least usage when playing for San Antonio (26.8%), his lowest win shares per 48 (0.143) – an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player per 48 minutes – and his lowest offensive box plus/minus.

DeRozan’s Bulls segment leads the others in points (28.1), field goal attempts (19.9), and free throw attempts (8.0) per game. His scoring efficiency has also been at its best with the Bulls, leading the other segments in field goal percentage (51.7%), three-point percentage (34.3%), free throw percentage (86.6%), effective field goal percentage (53.3%), and true shooting percentage (60.1%).

With Toronto, DeRozan played most of his minutes at the Shooting Guard position (56%), compared to playing Small Forward 61% of the time with San Antonio, and now Power Forward 84% of the time with the Bulls.

His clutch scoring has also improved with the Bulls this season. The NBA defines clutch as the last five minutes of a game in which the point differential is 5 or less. DeRozan is averaging career-highs in clutch field goal percentage (54.1%), plus/minus (+2), offensive rating (123), and effective field goal percentage (55.7%).

While DeRozan’s scoring volume and efficiency are thriving on the Bulls, he was nevertheless a more all-around player with the Spurs. His three seasons with San Antonio corresponded with the three highest assist averages of his career, as well as the three highest values of points generated from assists. His Spurs segment leads the other two in assist percentage (28.4%) and rebounding percentage (8.4%).

It’s all well and good to point out that DeRozan was forced into more of a playmaking role under Popovich while being given the green light to score more often under other coaches on Toronto and Chicago. However, with DeRozan’s talent and resume, and with his game seemingly expanding to new areas in San Antonio, one might expect that he should still have garnered at least one All-Star nod, right?

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It’s evident that Gregg Popovich’s scheme hindered DeRozan’s best qualities.

DeRozan averaged more drives to the basket per game in each of his three years in San Antonio than any other year of his career. This season with Chicago, DeRozan has averaged 15.8 drives per game, choosing to pass the ball 36.9 percent of the time. With San Antonio, DeRozan passed the ball when driving 45 percent of the time, resulting in more turnovers and less points.

Scoring is obviously DeRozan’s bread-and-butter, and while I’m sure Popovich had the best intentions in creating a more well-rounded player, it doesn’t make sense to me to force one of the best mid-range scorers in NBA history to pass or drive to the hoop.

DeRozan’s segment with the Spurs spat out the lowest points per elbow touch, post touch, and paint touch of his career since 2014. His pull-up shooting percentages increased since his Toronto days, yet his two latter seasons in San Antonio saw him attempt the least amount of pull-ups of any season since 2014. Same goes for catch-and-shoot. His efficiency was around the same in San Antonio as it was in Toronto, but he attempted far fewer shots.

By the way, DeRozan is averaging the most points on pull-ups (12.4) of his career this season by a wide margin. His second highest total (9.5) came in 2017. His best mark on the Spurs was 6.9. His efficiency on pull-ups this season (51.8 eFG%) is also the highest of his career. Clearly, Billy Donovan understands the sentiment that if you’re good at something, keep doing it; a notion that the legendary Coach Popovich seems to have missed the mark on with DeRozan.

This brings us to DeRozan’s best weapon: the mid-range jump shot.

In DeRozan’s latter two seasons with San Antonio, DeRozan attempted the least amount of 15-to-19-foot jump shots per game since 2014. This season, he leads the league with 2.7 baskets per game from that range, the highest mark of the last six seasons. The second highest total in that span came from… also DeMar DeRozan (2.5), in 2017. Only four other players have averaged 2 or more.

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Only two players in the history of NBA shot tracking, which began in the 1996-97 season, have averaged at least 1.5 mid-range field goals made per fourth quarter for an entire season: DeMar DeRozan (2022) and Michael Jordan (1997). Taking the mid-range away from DeRozan would be like telling Stephen Curry not to shoot any threes. Blasphemous.