There’s no fame in succeeding in late Gregg Popovich era San Antonio. That’s an off-off-Broadway stage. Dejounte Murray is the kind of player people like but don’t actually watch. Trail Blazers fans had had their fill of LaMarcus Aldridge before he left Portland. For a while, after Tim Duncan retired, the Spurs appeared in the playoffs each year to make it hard on some up-and-coming team in the opening round, and then they stopped showing up completely. It’s difficult to say what was lost. (It’s also difficult to say what the Spurs are trying to accomplish these days.) Most folks would rather outfits like the Grizzlies and Pelicans take those last few postseason seeds anyway. It’s a cheap thrill, but you want to see fresh colors streaking across your screen and imagine what might become of Ja Morant and Zion Williamson years down the line. The Spurs are not a team that seems to have a near future.
Of course, most of the world happens outside the light of our notice. For instance, DeMar DeRozan has continued to improve. He will always be the guy Toronto traded for Kawhi Leonard and a championship, but he’s carried that as well as anyone could, steadily building his game in obscurity. We closely track the development of young players and big stars: the moment when a prospect on a rookie deal becomes a real contributor, a generational talent’s playoff breakthrough, or the offseason from which he returns with a remade body or a polished outside shot. We tend to lose interest in a certain strata of player, ones who ascend from good to very good in their mid- to late-20s and who achieve an even higher level in that sliver of time when their understanding of the sport is nearly complete but their bodies haven’t yet begun to deteriorate. These guys have to play in big markets or on title contenders to get the appreciation they deserve. DeRozan is 31 and has never been better. In Chicago, where he was recently dealt in a sign-and-trade that amounted to the Bulls shifting out of second gear and straight into fourth, that might begin to matter.
There’s been no fundamental overhaul. He doesn’t like to shoot threes and hardly defends, but DeRozan has become an impeccably well-rounded offensive player over the past three seasons. We’ll see if Billy Donovan insists that he take a few 24-footers per game—the Raptors prodded him in that direction; the Spurs left him alone—but even if he’s a non-shooter from deep, he’s one of the best midrange artists in the league and reliably gets to the rim and the line.
With Otto Porter mostly missing in action, the Bulls got almost nothing offensively from the small forward spot last season, employing a patchwork of Garrett Temple (old), Patrick Williams (better at the four) and Denzel Valentine (extremely bad). DeRozan provides a considerably stronger scoring punch than any of those guys, and what bodes well for his Chicago tenure is that he’s more than the gunner he was five or six years ago. In San Antonio, he learned to initiate sets and operate as a secondary playmaker. He’s a genuinely agile passer now, sort of like if Joe Ingles was way more physically talented, which means he doesn’t have to put up 25 points to have a productive game. He’s not going to come in and take Zach LaVine’s shots. He’s just there to make LaVine’s life easier, maybe get him a couple easy catch-and-shoot threes per night, head up bench units, take jumpers that otherwise would have gone to Temple, Valentine and Coby White—who will move to a bench role with Lonzo Ball taking over the starting point guard spot. Chicago didn’t exactly have a there’s-only-one-ball problem last year, and it won’t discover one with DeRozan in the fold. He’s fluid; he’ll assume the shape of his container.
It’s good that he got out of San Antonio at right this moment. The Spurs appear to be rebuilding or building an entire team out of 23-year-old fifth and seventh men. That shop’s all over the place. DeRozan has taken what he needed from the Spurs and is now ready to apply it on a Bulls squad that has medium-big ideas about itself. LaVine seems vaguely discontented, probably more because the front office hasn’t offered him a max extension than all the losing the Bulls have been doing, but both things matter. Whether the former gets figured out now, later or never, a core of Nik Vučević, Williams, DeRozan, LaVine, Ball, White and Alex Caruso is definitely something for 2021-22, a statement of intent, money spent and draft capital tied up. It is an honest effort, and it makes Chicago somewhere DeRozan can meaningfully contribute, perhaps pick up some well-earned notoriety. The Bulls are all in trying to win 50 games this year, and DeRozan will help considerably. There is a rung right below greatness, where some swell players hang out, but you can lose track of them. It is high time for DeRozan to impress again. Here is a fine and fair opportunity.