After reaching astronomic heights during a record-setting February, it was perhaps inevitable that the on-court production of Chicago Bulls All-Star swingman DeMar DeRozan would slip a bit this month.
It doesn’t make that (mild) descent any more fun to watch, though.
At his peak this season, DeRozan had rightfully battled his way into the NBA’s MVP conversation — more as a fringe top-five candidate than as one of the three front-runners (those are, in some order, big men Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid), but still. Damn it, there were shirts (I may or may not have one)!
Now, with the 42-30 Bulls seemingly in free-fall and in danger of dipping into the play-in tournament bracket, and DeRozan’s output not contributing to wins, ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Kevin Arnovitz observed in a recent edition of Lowe’s excellent podcast that there’s at least a nonzero chance DeMar may not even make any of the three All-NBA teams this season. From being very recently (and correctly) recognized as potentially one of the five or so most impactful players in the whole league this season, DeRozan had dropped to possibly not even being one of its top 15. And given the on-court malaise that seems to have afflicted Chicago during the regular season’s home stretch, it’s hard to really make much of an argument against pundits like Lowe and Arnovitz.
DDR had gone on that aforementioned record-setting February run, in which he scored 35 points or more on 50% field goal shooting or better for eight consecutive Bulls games. That tear itself was also part of a longer run of 10 straight 30-point games, the second-most ever by a Bull (guess who owns the record of 11 straight 30-point games?). One of the best features of that halcyon era was that, well, Chicago was winning frequently during that run, going 7-3 across those 10 contests.
In the 11 games since the Deebo 30+ game streak ended, Chicago has tumbled into the fifth seed in the East and gone 3-8. DeRozan has only scored more than 30 points once in that stretch.
Many of his shooting percentages have dropped this month specifically. DeRozan’s field goal percentage for March thus far is down to 44.7%, marking only the second time all year (October being the first) that he has converted fewer than 50.5% of his field goals in a given month. His three-point shooting (albeit on a relatively low volume) also fell, though this year remains his best season as a three-point shooter. In March to date, DeRozan has nailed just 27.3% of his 22 attempted triples (his season mark is 34.4% on 1.9 looks a night). DeRozan’s effective field goal percentage of 46.1% thus far in March is also the lowest rate of the year to date. From November through February, DeRozan had enjoyed an effective field goal percentage rate of 52.2% or better each month.
Following his historic run, DeRozan has been averaging 24.1 points on 50.9% field goal shooting. For the year, DeRozan is averaging 27.6 points on 50.5% shooting through 68 of a possible 70 games. In his epic 10-game run, he logged 36.9 points a night while connecting on 56.6% of his 24.9 field goal looks from the floor. “Hey,” you might be saying right now, “24.1 points on 50.9% shooting is still pretty darn good.” Well of course it is, he’s DeMar DeRozan and he’s amazing and our clever front office signed got him for quite the contract this summer. The bigger issues are myriad.
Part of the trouble stems from the Bulls’ second- and third-most used offensive players, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. LaVine, the Bulls’ other All-Star and presumably a big part of the draw for DeRozan in his 2021 summer free agency, has not been the same since we discovered that he was struggling through a swollen left knee that apparently will not fully heal this season. Vucevic had a rough shooting start to his season, picked things up during DeRozan’s historic run, and has since also returned to his previous erratic ways on offense.
DeRozan has become the clear top target for opposing defenses. Thanks in large part to DeRozan’s incredible season, rival clubs are now committed to trapping DeRozan with double and triple teams early and often, forcing the ball out of his hands and making LaVine and Vucevic try (and often fail) to make them pay for that choice.
The free throws
Another huge issue is DeRozan’s free-throw attempts. The 6’6” vet is one of the most adept players in the entire NBA at getting refs’ whistles to go his way. Recently, he has failed to get the level of calls he has grown accustomed to. Across the 11 games since his 30+ point scoring streak ended, DeRozan is averaging 6.2 free-throws a night. That number may still sound solid, but DeRozan is actually averaging more made free-throws than that tally (6.7) this season! He’s cumulatively averaging 7.7 attempts a game. During his 10-game 30+ peak, DeRozan was getting to the line a bonkers 9.1 times. Those days feel long gone, in part because, again, opposing defenses cut him off before he can progress too far into his preferred actions. In his most recent outing, a brutal 126-98 blowout loss to the Bucks on Tuesday, DeRozan couldn’t even get to the charity stripe once.
Being stretched pretty thin on defense certainly can’t help the 32-year-old DeRozan produce at the other end, either. With everyone from guards Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Zach LaVine to forwards Patrick Williams, Javonte Green and Derrick Jones missing significant time in 2022, DeRozan (who can essentially play 1-4 now) has gotten somewhat overtaxed. He’s never been a particularly good defender. At least now, with most of those guys back in the fold (though LaVine, Caruso, and Williams are not quite themselves, and Lonzo’s prospects for returning at all look increasingly bleak), DDR can focus more or less exclusively on offense again.
We found out yesterday that DeRozan was listed as questionable for tonight’s crucial contest against the New Orleans Pelicans with a strained groin. It’s possible (this is pure speculation, to be clear, but let’s go with it) that the injury may have been afflicting him prior to yesterday, and if so could have conceivably impacted his recent performative downtick. Could some of his recent return to basketball mortality be chalked up to fatigue from potential overuse this year, from having to take on so much of the team’s offensive burden due to its many absences? Perhaps, but that certainly doesn’t bode well for his playoff outlook.
The Bulls need to right this ship as best they can in these final 10 regular season games. DeRozan cranking up his aggression inside the paint will help (I’m not saying we need him to get to the line 9.1 times, but I’ll take 7.7), as would more consistent outside shooting from his fellow Bulls that could keep defenders honest and give him more room to operate in the midrange, where he remains one of the most lethal scorers in the NBA.
Assuming DeMar maintains his efficiency and the team resumes its winning ways around him, he should be able to secure at least a Third-Team All-NBA slot. The five-time All-Star would garner his third All-NBA inclusion with the honor, and a career that seemed stuck in neutral on some middling San Antonio clubs can inch ever closer to one day concluding with a call-up to Springfield.