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DeMar DeRozan is the MVP candidate no one is talking about

Last night reminded us how good DeMar DeRozan actually is.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Chosen One, DeMar DeRozan, logged his first career triple-double last night, at home in San Antonio against the opposing Toronto Raptors. Everything in that sentence after “DeRozan” is strange to me. DeRozan’s in his tenth season in the NBA? This is his first triple-double? “At home in San Antonio?” Against the Toronto Raptors??

Last night, in San Antonio, mano-a-mano, DeChozan beat Kawhi. The Raptors weren’t at full strength, but then the Spurs won’t be at full strength this entire season with Dejounte Murray out, so let’s call it even steven.

Kawhi was booed by the San Antonio crowd before, and during, the game, despite being the Finals MVP for a championship Spurs team. DeChozan will most likely be cheered when he and the Spurs play in Toronto later this season, though he never brought them to an NBA Finals. That game, in Canada, will probably matter a lot to both teams: San Antonio’s in a Thunderdome, Grand Melee scrum in the Western Conference to even make the playoffs, and Toronto is competing for the #1 seed in the East (home court will probably matter a great deal in these playoffs without invincible LeBron in the East negating home court advantage for other teams). They meet in Toronto on Friday, February 22nd. A helluva lot can happen in a month and a half, but the Spurs are tied for the most wins against Western Conference teams at 16, along with Denver and the Clippers (Golden State has 15 wins against Western teams). It’s not inconceivable that San Antonio could rise in the standings (they have the same total of overall wins, 22, as 4th place Houston).

DeRozan and Kyle Lowry led the Raptors to the #1 seed in the East last season, and DeRozan rightly garnered MVP consideration. Aside from shooting threes, DeMar is even better this season. He’s currently averaging his best field goal percentage since his rookie year, 47.7%, while taking more shots than he did last year.

Two years ago, DeRozan had never averaged more than 4 assists per game for a season. Last year, he averaged 5+; this year, 6+. He’s averaging as many assists as Ricky Rubio, a pass-first point guard. Only 19 people are averaging 18+ shots per game this season, including DeChozan; his 47.7 FG% is 8th best on that list behind LeBron, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kawhi, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, and Joel Embiid. Only four players in the entire NBA take as many shots as DeRozan AND average 6+ rebounds per game and 6+ assists per game: LeBron, Durant, and Russell Westbrook. Holy shit.

Now, granted, he gave up on threes. He’s the only 20 PPG player who averages less than 2 3PA per game (Giannis is 2.3 3PA per game). DeMar’s made 7 threes all season long. But, that’s the crucial point: while the rest of the NBA is going three-point crazy, DeMar DeRozan and Gregg Popovich are going the other way, and they are DOMINATING (recall their record against Western teams).

Before the season started, I assumed that DeChozan would do well in San Antonio because the organization and the coaching staff knew exactly how to use an elite 2, seeing as how they’d had Manu Ginobili for about 97 years. When Dejounte Murray went down, I should have assumed that DeRozan would help pick up the slack, and run the offense himself as the de facto distributor (he’s run offenses before, especially when Kyle Lowry’s been out).

While the Spurs definitely do play point guards, they’re used more as shooters around DeRozan and LMA, LaMarcus Aldridge, the other midrange beast in San Antonio. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and these Spurs look like a team that’s already playing at a slower, postseason pace: they’re 24th in pace this year, which means San Antonio is both slower than average, and they shoot fewer threes than average (but, they make them better than anybody). Slow twos; it’s almost like Slow Motion Kyle Anderson never left. (By the way, the Pacers, Nuggets, and Rockets also play at a slower pace than the Spurs. Interesting postseason wrinkle for the teams that play them.)

DeRozan has blossomed (again) as an all-around guard in a manner similar to Victor Oladipo in his first year in Indiana, though ‘Dipo’s a much better defender and long range shooter. The assists are the addition that matters most: only four players this season are averaging 22 PPG, 6 RPG, and 6 APG, and they are LeBron, Durant, Giannis, and DeChozan. That’s a goddamn MVP resume, in my humble opinion. (Only LeBron and Westbrook did it last year.) In other words, DeRozan’s been doing his best LeBron impersonation in San Antonio.

When you go to Basketball-Reference.com and look around at DeMar’s numbers, you get the feeling that you’re watching someone who might be massively underrated. He’s 67th all time in points per game, and he might pass Mark Aguirre for 66th by the end of the season. (Paul Pierce, Tracy McGrady, and Magic MFing Johnson all have lower career PPG averages than DeRozan.) Joe Dumars is one of his player comparisons!

DeMar DeRozan has talked about Kobe Bryant’s influence on him and his game, how Kobe learned something new in every offseason, how he came back better every year. That’s what LeBron does, too: each offseason is about honing the craft, adding a new skill, acquiring “old man” tricks, figuring out how to expand and improve the overall game. Lots of the elite players do that, but rarely have we seen a player go through such observable, substantive annual changes as DeMar DeRozan. You can literally just look at his NBA.com or B-R.com player page and chart his year-to-year progressions. He’s now one of the best scorers in the NBA, and his overall impact on his team this year is comparable to MVP numbers from seasons past.

He’s an old school player playing on an old school team for an old school coach. He’s got that midrange down, just like the hero 2s from years past, Kobe and MJ. He’s not going to win the MVP this year, not with how Giannis and Harden have been playing. And hell, there’s a significant chance that DeRozan never makes a Western Conference Finals, let alone the NBA championship. The fact remains, though, that we’re watching one of the best players in the league right now, and nary a damn person talks about him (vintage Spurs, btw). He posted a triple-double, his first, against the ferocious Raptors, and he didn’t make a single goddamn three. He didn’t even attempt one!

Maybe if DeRozan hadn’t always had to face LeBron in the playoffs (and, get crushed by him), we’d think about him differently. It does seem like the Raptors’ playoff history burdens their players with a “habit” of losing, even though, get real, EVERYONE loses to LeBron. The greatest team ever assembled, the 73-win Golden State Warriors, lost to LeBron. DeRozan and the Raptors shouldn’t be weighed down by losses to one of the best players ever (BTW, the Spurs are 3-1 against LBJ’s Lakers this season). Maybe if he shot more threes, or had a better reputation on defense. Maybe if he had played for a big American city, rather than Toronto, and now San Antonio.

There are no maybes in his game, though. DeMar’s a decisive player with a deliberate plan of attack, much like the Spurs themselves. He’s smart, they’re smart; he’s good inside, they’re good outside. He’s scoring and playing like a star, and the Spurs are a team who needed one. There’s something to be said for fit: sometimes the whole is more than its individual parts, a la the Pistons in 2004.

No matter what Kawhi ends up doing in or for Toronto, the trade will always be about him breaking up with the Spurs, and the Raptors taking a big swing to trade for him, and which team would actually “win” the trade. But, DeMar DeRozan was traded to perhaps the one team in the NBA that could actually use his strengths as a player, and help elevate him, along with their entire team, with the addition of his unusual, somewhat retro game. In that respect, DeChozan already won.

(All stats courtesy of ESPN.com, NBA.com, and Basketball-Reference.com. Thank you!)