The greatest Raptors season in franchise history ended in disappointment with Toronto being swept out of the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals. The latest defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavs led Raptors president Masai Ujiri to make a tough call and fire NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, who has since found a new home in Detroit.
With James leaving Cleveland and heading to the sunny skies of Los Angeles, the Raptors have an opportunity under new head coach Nick Nurse to challenge the Celtics and 76ers for the Eastern Conference crown next season. But that won't happen without improvements from Toronto's top players, especially All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan.
In a recent interview with SiriusXM NBA Radio, Nurse acknowledged the Raptors' "money guys gotta play big time in the playoffs." DeRozan struggled in the series against the Cavs, averaging only 16.8 points per game (down from 23.0 in the regular season) on 43.9 percent shooting.
The offensive struggles are notable, but Nurse seems more interested in what the four-time All-Star is willing to do on the other end of the floor.
"I'm more concerned on DeMar, and I've already talked to him about this, is that he becomes a little more focused, defensively," Nurse said. "Some of the experimentation we were talking about. Maybe instead of hiding him in a regular season game on a poor offensive player in December, maybe we are going to throw him on an All-Star. Maybe it costs a little bit, but maybe he learns a thing or two that'll help him down the line.
"We need to challenge him on that end of the floor. We need to hold him a little more accountable. We're going to do that, and he's onboard with that."
New #Raptors HC Nick Nurse says Toronto might experiment with having DeMar DeRozan guarding All Stars "instead of hiding him in a regular season game on a poor offensive player" https://t.co/SjqlnGAgKq #NBASummer pic.twitter.com/C9YLfWlxQb- SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) July 7, 2018
There's no question DeRozan is one of the best individual scorers in the league. He has averaged at least 20 points per game in each of his last five seasons. The defensive issues can't be ignored, though, with both the eye test and advanced numbers showing DeRozan still has room for development.
The Raptors' defensive rating dropped from 105.4 with DeRozan on the floor to 98.8 with DeRozan on the bench during the 2017-18 regular season. That trend continued into the playoffs as well (113.5 to 109.6). ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus, which measures a player's impact on team defensive performance, ranked DeRozan 88th out of 111 shooting guards. That's far too low.
DeRozan does carry a heavy offensive burden - to present the other side of that previous statistic, he was third in Offensive Real Plus-Minus behind only Lou Williams and Jimmy Butler - but plenty of his problems can be traced back to effort and concentration.
These types of plays are not uncommon when watching DeRozan guard his man away from the ball.
The good news for Raptors fans? This isn't a matter of completely altering how DeRozan plays the game. If Nurse can push him to consistently maintain a stance, close out to shooters and use his length and physicality to his advantage, DeRozan should take a huge step forward defensively.
He may never be an All-NBA defender, but if DeRozan can offer a little more consistency on that end, he could elevate a Raptors team no longer facing a LeBron-sized obstacle in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
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