Increasingly, the NBA is a shooterís league. As the game has evolved toward spacing and the 3-point line, itís become harder and harder to be a positive offensive player without a jump shot.
The Eric Snows and Derrick McKeys are extinct breeds, and the survival of their evolutionary brethren is endangered. If you canít hit 3-pointers, your ceiling for efficient scoring is lowered. If you canít hit 3-pointers, you attract less defensive attention, which makes it harder for your teammates to score efficiently. In last yearís playoffs, the Golden State Warriors shifted their center, Andrew Bogut, onto Tony Allen of the Memphis Grizzlies, a wing. Allen couldnít punish Bogut from the outside, and the matchup helped the Warriors turn the series around and cruise into the Finals.
Obviously, there are still bruisers who can go about their business without a jumper, just catching-and-dunking and working the offensive glass. But if you play on the perimeter and canít (or wonít) shoot threes, chances are youíre hurting your team. There are 83 guards in the NBA this season who have a positive offensive Box Plus-Minus. Of those, just five ó Ish Smith, Tony Parker, Andre Miller, Dwyane Wade and DeMar DeRozan ó average fewer than two 3-point attempts per 36 minutes.
DeRozan is important because of what an enormous outlier he is: a shooting guard just coming into his prime that is thriving without a 3-point shot. Heís a statistical unicorn. Box Plus-Minus estimates that DeRozanís offense is worth 2.5 points per 100 possessions more to his team than an average player ó about the same as Golden State sharpshooter Klay Thompson. So, why is it so hard to help an offense if you canít shoot, and how does DeRozan do it?
A non-shooter stationed on the perimeter is a gift for the defense. It allows their man to dive in and help on penetration or post-ups, without fear of giving up a high quality shot on the outside. Every moment that non-shooter is standing still the defender is free to make himself an advantage elsewhere, without fear of repercussions.
This is not the case with DeRozan. Heís a career 27.2 percent 3-point shooter, but J.R. Smith is sticking to him like glue here because he knows DeRozan is going to be moving, either on a cut to the basket or trying to lose Smith by running into a baseline screen. Thatís exactly what happens here as DeRozan gets three separate screens while running the baseline, and a fourth as he curls around the opposite elbow for a driving layup.
DeRozan is constantly moving off the ball. Only three players in the NBA this season ó C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard and Jimmy Butler ó are averaging more ground covered on offense per game. Constant motion and the threat of getting backcut or buried on an off-ball screen can create a similar spacing effect to the threat of an open 3-pointer. Defenses have to treat DeRozan as an offensive threat 25 feet from the basket even though he isnít likely to actually be shooting from there.
Bend the defense another way
Good three-point shooting creates space because it pressures the defense to divert its attention in multiple directions. A spread attack works best when it came make the defense pay attention to both the paint and the 3-point line. Forcing defenders to move back and forth between those two areas is how open shots happen. This is, in large part, why non-shooting big men like Andre Drummond or DeAndre Jordan can still be net positives on offense. They demand attention around the basket and let shooters do their thing. However, this also works by inverting the offense and putting a guard around the basket.
DeRozanís post-up game has developed consistently over the past few seasons, and he is now one of the best low-post scorers for a perimeter player. So far this season, DeRozan is averaging 0.95 points per possession on post-ups. That puts him in the 75th percentile for efficiency among all players, and ranks third among all guards, trailing only Russell Westbrook and Arron Afflalo. Itís not just a fluke of small samples either; heís averaging nearly 2.5 post-up possessions per 36 minutes.
DeRozanís post scoring is efficient enough that defenses need to account for it. Here, heís backing down the Charlotte Hornetsí Jeremy Lamb. The spacing of his teammates is less than ideal on the weak side, but you can see how his presence in that area of the floor occupies defensive attention ó all five Hornets have at least one foot in the paint. DeRozan ultimately spins baseline here and uses a savvy up-and-under to get himself a layup, but this could just have easily resulted in an open three up top for Patrick Patterson or for Terrence Ross in the weak-side corner.
This ability of DeRozanís is a crucial tool for Torontoís offense because, in addition to just keeping him running constantly, it gives them a place to put him where he can both score efficiently and help stretch the defense for everyone else. Itís been especially important this year with Luis Scola adding a consistent three-point shot to his repertoire. With power forward minutes largely split between him and Patterson, Toronto is able to post DeRozan and keep at least three legitimate 3-point threats behind the arc.
Another Mechanism for Efficiency
The value of threes is not solely just in spacing; they also are one of the most efficient mechanisms for actually generating points. If a player isnít going to contribute outside shooting, he has to be able to score efficiently inside of the arc. DeRozan is doing that in bulk this year, in large part because of his ability to get to the free throw line. Only DeMarcus Cousins and James Harden average more free throw attempts per 100 possessions than DeRozan this season. Heís also shooting a career-high 84.5 percent from the line, one of the better marks in the league.
This season marks a career-high in free throw rate for DeRozan, and he gets to the line in a variety of ways. 20.7 percent of his post-up possessions have resulted in a shooting foul this season, the fourth-highest mark in the league. However most of his trips to the free throw line are coming on drives to the basket. DeRozan ranks second in the league in drives per game this season, at 11.8, and between free throws and strong finishes, been generating an absurd 1.11 points per drive, according to the detailed drive statistics at Nylon Calculus.
All that means DeRozan has joined an elite group of players who are capable of scoring efficiently and doing it mostly by generating their own shot. His ability to get to the line and convert is one of the reasons his true shooting percentage is roughly the same as those of Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, even though he takes dramatically fewer threes than them. In most cases, scoring a high volume of points without 3-pointers means using up a lot of offensive possessions, but DeRozan has figured out a way around that relationship.
Just Enough of Everything Else
Not being able to hit the three is a substantial weakness, but as weíve just looked at with DeRozan, there are ways to compensate. Staying on the positive side of the ledger, though, means minimizing any other offensive weaknesses. If a player canít help a little on the offensive glass, or find open teammates, or take care of the basketball, then the whole Ďnot being able to shootí thing simply becomes too big an obstacle.
DeRozanís game is mostly pristine in these other small niches. His turnover rate is extremely low in both of his primary on-ball scenarios ó driving and posting up ó aided in large part by his ability to get to the free throw line. Heís a respectable enough rebounder, and his assist percentage is a career-high this year. Tunnel vision and impatience were problems that plagued DeRozan early in his career on dribble penetration, but he has done a great job this season of helping move the ball to open teammates.
Heís also a reasonable enough mid-range scorer, either through pull-ups or floaters, that he can get by on those tough possessions where neither a shooting foul nor an open lane to the basket materializes. The margin for error becomes extremely small without that 3-point shot, but DeRozanís game has rounded out in such a complete way that he can thrive without it.
If this DeRozan recipe sounds familiar, itís because it is a relic from another era. This is a rough facsimile of how Michael Jordan played. And Kobe Bryant. And, more recently, Dwyane Wade. DeRozan isnít turning back the clock or opening any fissures on the prevailing wisdom of modern basketball. Heís just really, really good. This template doesnít work anymore unless you can do all of these things well and excel in a few specific ones. (If youíre curious what this player-type looks like with a little less talent attached, watch Gerald Henderson play for a few quarters. Itís not a disaster, but you notice the ways heís hurting his team.)
DeRozan also is lucky to play in an offense that surrounds him with plenty of complementary pieces. Having a point guard like Kyle Lowry ó who is a good three-point shooter and is comfortable sharing ball-handling duties ó is essential. A rotation rounded out with more good shooters on the wing and smart passers in the frontcourt ó like Luis Scola and DeMarre Carroll ó makes DeRozanís cuts and curls even more dangerous.
There are plenty of offenses where DeRozan, as skilled as he is, would likely flounder because of an ill-fitting system and parts around him. Dwane Casey and his staff deserve plenty of credit for helping DeRozan figure out how to be the best version of himself this season.
Re: Meet DeMar DeRozan, The NBAís Non-Shooting Star
A nice analysis.
It actually raises 3 questions that it frankly glosses over... it hints at them but doesn't actually address the effectiveness of Demar.
1) Is Demar successful in this team offense because the offense is scripted against conventional wisdom in the NBA ?
i.e. is Dwayne Casey and the coaching staff trying to run old school against the flow of the game with all guards capable at 3 pointers? Is this considered a success or is it a failure of the coaching staff to adapt and win?
2) Demar is as efficient at scoring because of his ratio at the line. The article says he ranks up there with CP3 Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum...
i.e. what is the longer term consequence on the body getting to the line that much. Sure some are soft fouls... but some are not soft at all. Constant motion, bending d, and playing outside in as a 2 will put mileage on the body. How long will the body take this?
3) Is all of this worth $25MM annually? Who else would pay $25MM?