It’s been 1,727 days since DeMar DeRozan was traded away from the Toronto Raptors in a franchise-altering move. Nearly 4 years and 9 months later, DeRozan, somewhat poetically, has a chance to be the bookend to the era that his departure helped create.
The Raptors have been busy since DeRozan was sent packing: an NBA Championship, defending the title in a Disney World bubble, a weird season in Tampa Bay, another season full of COVID restrictions, they’ve added a Rookie of the Year, played in 7 different playoff series, had 5 All-Star appearances, made two additional trades with the Spurs and said goodbye to their GROAT and DeRozan’s best bud, Kyle Lowry.
Because of that, these current Raptors are almost unrecognizable from the 2018 version DeRozan was traded from, except for a few familiar faces. Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and O.G. Anunoby have grown into the foundation of this current Raptors core, with Nick Nurse, an assistant during DeRozan’s time in Toronto, taking the helm of the franchise for the last 5 seasons. Jakob Poeltl, who was traded alongside DeRozan to San Antonio, has returned after being re-acquired at this year’s trade deadline.
The thing is… questions lie ahead for all those familiar faces. VanVleet and Poeltl are free agents this summer and could walk if the Raptors don’t meet their asking price. Nurse, for all his exploits on and off the court as the franchise’s most recognizable coach, is up for a contract extension and has made it clear with his recent comments that he intends to re-think his tenure in Toronto in the off-season. Anunoby, whose alleged dissatisfaction has been well-reported, will be entering the final year of his contract next season and could be a trade chip if the Raptors decide to shake things up. And Siakam, who will also be eligible for a contract extension this summer, serves as the franchises’ ultimate opportunity to pivot in a new direction, if they choose to, as the Raptors’ defacto best and most sought-out player.
There’s a chance, albeit a small one, that next season there will be no remaining faces from DeRozan’s tenure with the Raptors, other than the two head-honchos who helped facilitate his departure in the first place in Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster.
But still, there’s basketball left to be played. And DeRozan, out of all people, knows that the end of an era doesn’t necessarily mean the end of everything. Things must continue. Life goes on, and so on and so forth.
Make no mistake, quite like the Raptors who have undergone their own transformation in the last 5 seasons, so has the 14-year pro, DeRozan. He spent 3 seasons in San Antonio, re-shaping his game, perfecting his craft as a playmaker, and fine-tuning his shot-making ability. He had arguably the best season of his career just last year in Chicago, putting up career-highs in points and efficiency and being the NBA’s most clutch player. Thanks to that, the Bulls broke their 4-year playoff drought and won over 45 games for the first time since 2015. Paired with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, alongside a solid nucleus of Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball, and intriguing young players like Patrick Williams, Ayo Dosunmu, and Coby White, the Bulls were expected to usher in a new, more consistent era of basketball.
And yet, like the Raptors, questions lie ahead for this Bulls team. Ball underwent his 3rd knee surgery in the last year just last month and because of that, in a rather heartbreaking fashion, his NBA career has been put in jeopardy. The 32-year-old Vucevic is a free agent this summer and has said in passing that he’s keeping his options open. DeRozan is heading into the final year of his contract at 33 years old. LaVine just inked a 5-year $215M deal last summer and while he’s been good this season, shaking off any lingering rust from his knee surgery in the off-season, there still are questions about how to build around the score-first guard — questions that DeRozan was familiar with in his time in Toronto: can he defend at a high-level? Is he really a number one option? Is he worth the contract? On top of that, the Bulls are going to give up, yet again, another high 1st round pick to the Orlando Magic as a part of the Vucevic deal.
And so DeRozan and the Raptors, after nearly 5 years of separation will meet each other again in the middle at the crossroads. In fact, the 9-10 matchup in this year’s Eastern Conference play-in tournament is going to be a game between two teams with numerous questions, going through the motions on the treadmill of mediocrity. A mid-off, if you will.
That may sound harsh but neither team has done anything this season that would convince you otherwise.
The Raptors finished the year 41-41 with the league’s 13th-best offense and 12th-best defense.
The Bulls finished the year 40-42 with, oddly enough, the 24th-best offense and the 5th-best defense. A rather interesting outcome for a team led by 3 offense-first stars.
The Raptors have had the upper hand in their matchups against one another, winning the season series 2-1. Toronto also hosts the play-in game at Scotiabank Arena where they’ve been 27-14 all season.
In a single elimination, do-or-die, type of game, the difference in the shooting might be enough to determine the winner. But even in that regard, the Raptors and Bulls are similar. Chicago is dead-last in 3-point attempts, and Toronto is 22nd. The Raptors hit 33.5% of their 3’s this season, good for 28th. The Bulls — 36.3%, good for 16th.
In fact, as Sporting News’ Steph Noh tweeted out earlier this week — the Raptors and Bulls are similar in many, many ways on the court.
So what can be the difference maker in a single-elimination, win-or-go-home game between two middling teams? DeRozan.
His repertoire of mid-range scoring, on-the-go playmaking, and tough shot-making is exactly what can prove to be the difference maker. In all of their matchups against DeRozan since his departure, the Raptors have used an aggressive, trap-heavy scheme to get the ball out of his hands. They’ve enlisted Anunoby’s defensive skills to be the primary option to guard DeRozan and it’s led to great results. Anunoby is quick enough, strong enough, and resilient enough to not fall for DeRozan’s pump-faking, foul-drawing ways. He can force DeRozan to pick up his dribble early, send him in to help, and force him into tough shots.
Even without Anunoby, the Raptors are going to do their darndest to force the ball out of his hands and make the Bulls’ secondary players make shots, which as I mentioned above, isn’t their strong suit.
That’s why if Chicago wants to have any chance, they’ll need LaVine to be the benefactor of the added attention DeRozan receives. In the 2 games LaVine played against the Raptors this season, he’s done well against them, averaging nearly 24 points on 53-38-88 shooting splits.
Ultimately, LaVine is a talented play-finisher who can knock down shots. That’s the exact type of player that can win you a single elimination game. The onus will be on DeRozan to use his much-improved playmaking ability to open up LaVine on Wednesday.
As for the Raptors, they have to force DeRozan’s playmaking to falter. They need to force LaVine, Patrick Beverley, Vucevic, White, and any of the Bulls’ offensive decision-makers into bad decisions. They forced 19 turnovers in their February 28th matchup against Chicago and scored 21 points off those turnovers. They need to dominate the possession battle, as they did in that game, out-rebounding the Bulls by 12 and putting up 15 2nd-chance points.
Their length needs to be disruptive, their defensive gameplan needs to key in on DeRozan, as it has every time they’ve met this season.
In that regard, the Raptors need their 6-foot-9 experiment to be unleashed and at its full potential. They need to get out in transition, impose their will on the offensive glass, use their length as a way to force the Bulls into mistakes and play their game.
Meanwhile, the Bulls will have to bank on their big-time free-agent signing of 2 summers ago in DeRozan to be the difference maker they signed him to be.
Ultimately, though, making shots will be decisive.
In that same February 28th matchup, the Raptors survived an abhorrent shooting night from VanVleet and Barnes who went 1/11 and 4/12 respectively, because they received good contributions from Anunoby and Trent who shot 6/13 each that night. In the Bulls only win against the Raptors in November, LaVine had a dominant offensive outing of 30 points on 11/20 shooting with DeRozan dishing out 7 assists.
It’s funny that in a game featuring DeRozan and the Raptors, Dwane Casey’s all-too-famous “make or miss league” quote rings true and will be the deciding factor between one of these teams going home early.
Above all else, this play-in game is pivotal for both teams because it’s meant to serve as proof, whether misguided or not, that their current experiments work. That these versions of their respective teams are worth investing in and believing in.
With so many questions mounting for both franchises and an all-important summer ahead, these two teams might be able to answer some of the questions surrounding them with how they look in this game and if they can keep their postseason hopes alive.
This game may as well be a litmus test for both sides, a way to look in the mirror and assess where they stand in the cauldron that is the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
It only becomes more poetic when you realize that it’s DeRozan versus his former team, nearly half a decade after the franchise-altering move that sent the Raptors down this path and DeRozan down his own, at a crucial junction, in a crucial game with impending decisions looming.
There’s room for revenge, there’s room for poetic irony and depending on which team ends up losing this game, there might be room for change on the other side.
May the least mid-team win.
Or lose, depending on which direction you want each team to go.