DeMar DeRozan’s tendency to drive fueled the San Antonio Spurs’ offense

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - AUGUST 07: DeMar DeRozan #10 of the San Antonio Spurs drives the ball against Juwan Morgan #16 of the Utah Jazz during the first quarter at HP Field House. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - AUGUST 07: DeMar DeRozan #10 of the San Antonio Spurs drives the ball against Juwan Morgan #16 of the Utah Jazz during the first quarter at HP Field House. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Not only is slashing to the basket the most predictable decision that San Antonio Spurs star DeMar DeRozan could make, but it’s one of the most effective.

Attacking the rim is the most traditional way to score a basketball, but in today’s game, it’s taken a backseat to deep shooting. Most players would prefer to shoot a three, banking on the value of an attempt that’s worth 1.5 times as many points as a layup or mid-range. However, players like DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs as a whole still rely on the old way of scoring.

There are players with floor spacing capability scattered throughout the roster, but the 2019-20 Spurs built one of the league’s most efficient offensive units by attacking the basket. While the young core deserves plenty of recognition for its effort, the stage was set for them by DeRozan — One of the game’s best slashing wings.

No single player drove to the basket as many times as DeRozan did this season with 1,329 total drives. Similarly, DeRozan led all scorers in field goals made off the drive with 298 of his 557 made baskets coming from that play type. It made him one of the game’s more predictable players, but never negatively impacted his scoring output. He finished in the 90th percentile of pick-and-roll ball-handlers, using his scoring threat and so-called predictable playstyle to manipulate defenders.

Fooling around with a new (to me) ratio of player tracking stats from the NBA site — drives per 100 touches — which should tell us something about how aggressive players are at getting to the hoop. This chart sorts 60 of the league's most frequent ball handlers by this metric:

— Todd Whitehead (@CrumpledJumper) September 1, 2020

That driving threat forces defenses to react, moving them out of position to help out near the paint. This opened up space for his teammates to shoot perimeter jumpers more freely, which is why the team shot 1.8 percent better from 3-point range with him on the floor. Even though DeRozan doesn’t necessarily take them himself — He only made nine of them this season — The veteran generates good looks for others. If not for him, the Spurs wouldn’t uphold their tradition of ranking near the top of the league in 3-point efficiency (4th, 37.6%).

Even though analytics love the 3-pointer and traditionalists want to see players score near the basket, the free throw remains the most effective shot in the game. DeRozan, who traditionally doesn’t get a ton of love from referees despite drawing contact like a madman, made 192 free throws off of calls he got while driving to the rim this season. Despite leading the league in drives, DeRozan ranked sixth in free throw attempts from drives each game.

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Part of why he doesn’t get that same recognition is because he’s oftentimes passing out of these attempts. Slashing to the basket isn’t just about isolation scoring for DeRozan anymore. Head coach Gregg Popovich has schemed his offense so that DeRozan can find open teammates around the perimeter based on his own slashing instinct. It’s been influential in putting together his two best seasons as a passer in the River City.

DeRozan’s 585 passes from the drive are the most in the NBA and ultimately resulted in the sixth-most assists on that play type. That doesn’t account for the secondary assists it generates based on the repositioning that these passes force from defenders. When he switched to the power forward during the Orlando restart, most of DeRozan’s defenders failed to keep up with him and the Spurs’ ultra small-ball lineup with one of the highest paces in the league.

The Spurs and DeRozan still need to figure out what their future together looks like. In a contract year, DeRozan could simply opt-out and find a hefty deal elsewhere. However, this is a mutually beneficial pairing and after what we saw in the Orlando seeding games, this Spurs group as currently constructed may not have hit their ceiling just yet.

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None of this would be possible without DeRozan’s affinity for the traditional game.