The San Antonio Spurs missed the playoffs for the first time in 22 seasons in 2020-21. Not only was that the longest streak in NBA history, it was tied for the longest streak in North American professional sports history.
Give the makeup of their roster - San Antonio owns the 11th-youngest roster in the NBA - it would have been safe to assume the league's most consistent franchise was gearing up for a rebuild.
With the streak being snapped and the state of the Spurs' roster, it would have been safe to assume the league's most consistent franchise would hit a bit of a rebuilding stage as they geared up for the future.
With less than 10 games remaining in the 2020-21 season, that is not the case: San Antonio is poised to have the opportunity to get back into the playoffs by way of the new Play-In Tournament.
It starts with the crop of promising young players that have excelled this season in Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Jakob Poeltl and Lonnie Walker.
At 24-years-old, Murray has been a two-way star that is shattering expectations as the No. 29 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. The 2019 NBA Draft's No. 29 overall pick, Johnson, has also been a pleasant surprise as a high-energy, versatile forward who has broken through his glass ceiling. White performed at a high level once returning from a fractured toe, but the injury bug has gotten the 26-year-old again as he is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season with a bad ankle sprain. Poeltl has been a constant for San Antonio as a rebounder and rim protector, filling in as a full-time starter since the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge and Walker has proven to be a spark plug off the bench when the Spurs need him most.
Add those up-and-coming players with established veterans like Patty Mills and Rudy Gay and it's starting to make sense how they got back in the playoff picture so quickly.
But the key cog in their turnaround has been four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, who in the 12th season of his NBA career, has completely adapted his game for the better.
DeRozan has been a prolific scorer to this point of his career. He ranks 10th on the all-time scorers list among active players. He's averaged over 20 points per game for eight consecutive seasons. Per Stathead, the only other active players that have accomplished that are Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, James Harden, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard.
Even in a time where the game around him has evolved to make the 3-point shot the primary focus, DeRozan has stayed true to his ways, averaging less than two 3-point attempts per game while taking 5.1 midrange attempts per game. In fact, of every player in the NBA attempting at least 15 shots a game, only Zion Williamson (0.5 3PA) averages less 3-point attempts than DeRozan (1.4 3PA).
So clearly, 3-point shooting isn't the part of his game that is adapting. DeRozan has always been a scorer, but not just exclusively a scorer.
While he is still posting a team-leading 21.7 points per game, the area he has leveled up to help the Spurs become the best version of themselves is his passing.
In his first season in San Antonio, DeRozan averaged a career-best 6.2 assists per game. Even with a slight regression last season, averaging 5.6 assists per game, that still would have been higher than any of the nine seasons he spent in Toronto.
This season, DeRozan has taken his playmaking up another notch, becoming the Spurs' primary distributor in posting a career-best 7.4 assists per game, good for top 10 in the league. And although his assist numbers are way up, DeRozan is only averaging 2.0 turnovers per game, his lowest mark since the 2012-13 season. So not only is he creating a lot of offence for his teammates, he's doing so at the most efficient rate of his career.
To further drive home how much his passing has improved: DeRozan had 13 games with double digit assists in the first 11 seasons of his career. This season alone, he has 14 games with double digit assists, fresh off of a career-high 14 dimes against the Boston Celtics.
What is the veteran guard doing differently that has opened up this element of his game?
More so than anything else, he's learning to use his gravity to his advantage on drive-and-kick scenarios and his court vision has improved immensely in that area. According to NBA stats, the only players that have more assists off drives than DeRozan this season are Doncic, Westbrook, Trae Young and Ja Morant.
You can see DeRozan's development in this clip below against the Denver Nuggets.
Look at the way he throws White open in the corner, wrapping a crafty pass around the help defender in Nikola Jokic. That's not something we would have seen from Toronto DeRozan.
He's also gaining confidence in making more advanced passes, like this little behind-the-back drop off to Devin Eubanks through traffic in his career high assist total against the Celtics:
His enhanced playmaking has been invaluable to the Spurs' offence this season and the on/off numbers back that notion. With DeRozan on the floor, San Antonio boasts an offensive rating of 113.3. When he's on the bench, the Spurs' offensive rating dips to 104.6.
It's interesting that DeRozan, who is set to be one of the most coveted unrestricted free agents this offseason, is showcasing the fluidity of his game in a contract year.
According to Basketball-Reference, the long-time shooting guard has played 69 percent of his minutes at power forward for the Spurs this season. In doing so, he has produced the most impressive playmaking season of his career as a point-forward of sorts.
It's well established that DeRozan can score, but the 31-year-old is proving that wherever his next destination may be, he can morph his game to fit any team's needs.
The Spurs, who do have enough cap space this offseason to re-sign DeRozan, are seeing that in real time as he helps lead them back to the postseason.
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