In a season in which the Warriors are on pace to shatter the record for most wins ever, Stephen Curry is threatening to be the most efficient player ever, the Spurs are on pace for a full 70 wins, and LeBron got his coach fired despite a winning percentage of .732, it's hard for any other storylines to get a whole lot of run.
But very quietly, the Raptors are putting together the best season in franchise history. They're on pace for 56 wins, a win threshold that usually denotes serious championship contenders, and they're led by a backcourt that has been dynamite all season. Kyle Lowry, rightly, has gotten many of the plaudits for the Raptors' emergence. He has been their leader and their floor general, an absolute killer on both sides of the ball.
But it's DeMar Derozan's elevated play that has paved the way for the Raptors' unexpected improvement. DeRozan has been the poster boy for quasi-inefficient scoring, a ball-dominant "star" who doesn't provide enough value to truly impact his team's win totals to be considered a positive player. This year, he's developed the edges of his game in important ways to become a well-rounded player and the co-star the Raptors. Whether or not he continues this play going forward, he's provided the blueprint for non-shooting stars in the spacing-oriented NBA.
DeRozan is a career 28% shooter from 3. And yet his presence doesn't destroy spacing in Raptors' lineups. Ian Levy pinpointed the three main areas of the game that have allowed him to thrive despite his poor shooting-- he moves constantly without the ball, he has leveraged his post-game into a legitimate weapon, and he gets to the free throw line at an extreme rate. These three traits, combined with no other glaring weaknesses (he keeps his turnovers low, finds open teammates, and contributes on the O-boards) have allowed DeRozan to become a plus offensive player despite not being able to shoot.
Not coincidentally, there's a certain prospect who also struggles (or refuses) to shoot from distance. Many Sixers' fans' nightmare is a team based around Ben Simmons and Jahlil Okafor, surrounded by mediocre shooters-- a setup that might look okay on paper, but would lack even a semblance of offensive spacing (and defensive rim protection). If Simmons, who is hesitant to even attempt a jump shot, can't ever become an average 3-point shooter, how can he become the superstar the Sixers have so desperately coveted the last 3 years?
The answer: excel at the same things DeRozan does. The blueprint is sitting right in front of him.
Getting Efficiency Through Secondary Avenues
The most important thing driving DeRozan's efficiency is his free throw rate. He's third in FTA per 100 possessions this season, behind only James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins, two of the most prolific free throw shooters in the last decade. The free throw is one of the most efficient shots in basketball-- the expected points per possession for a 70% free throw shooter is 1.4, better than 120% the rate of the Golden State Warriors' offense. A 3-point shot from a 40% shooter, yields an exceeded points per possession of 1.2. In other words, getting to the free throw line is the single most efficient possession in NBA basketball.
As a freshman at LSU, Simmons already excels at getting to the free throw line. It's the single biggest factor driving his 60% TS. Of recent combo forwards and wings who were selected in the lottery, Simmons' free throw rate is an outlier.
(All numbers current as of the morning of March 5.)
Only Julius Randle, a noted low-post bruiser, begins to approach the rate at which Simmons gets to the line. Between Simmons' overwhelming size, outlier mobility, and freakish top speed, he's almost impossible for smaller players to contain and for bigger players to stay in front of. I haven't conducted research about how consistently FTr translates from one level to the next, but my guess is that outliers like Simmons and Harden, who clearly have a skill-based reason for accumulating lots of free throws, are more likely than not to maintain their high rates. And while Simmons doesn't shoot in game action, he has no problem making his free throws. At 68.5%, his expected points per possession from a typical trip to the line is 1.37, better than almost any possession in game flow.
So Simmons can maintain his offensive efficiency despite not shooting 3's. But scoring efficiency isn't the only benefit of 3-point shooters. As has often been discussed around these parts, surrounding big men with non-shooters destroys any semblance of spacing, as defenders are given license to help more liberally off of players who aren't threats from beyond the arc. How can Simmons make up for that problem?
Activity and Cutting
The best way to ameliorate a team's lack of shooting is by putting players in motion, so that their defenders are forced to stick close to them, lest they lost contact. Zach Lowe wrote of Portland's implementation of this strategy:
The constant motion makes Portland unpredictable, and unpredictability makes up for what might otherwise be a fatal lack of spacing in some lineups... Help defenders won't arrive at the rim on time if they are looking in the wrong place... The Blazers pull that sort of distraction trick several times every game.
This is the sort of scheme-based machination that Simmons will be reliant on his coach to implement. Nevertheless, it shows that there are more ways of creating space than pure shooting. DeRozan and Dwyane Wade are perfect examples of smart players who have leveraged their threats as cutters to ensure that their defenders don't help too much off of them despite being poor shooters.
In that respect, becoming a smart off-ball cutter lies more within Simmons' control. But again, it's something that his game seems eminently suitable for-- his basketball IQ is one of the aspects that most sets his game apart. The dearth of quality teammates on LSU and archaic offensive system have prevented Simmons from showcasing this ability, but given how easily he understands all components of the game with the ball in his hands, there is no reason to doubt his ability to make smart off-ball cuts when his defender is caught out of position or with his head turned.
A Different Kind of Gravity
Levy points out that the post-up has been a key part of DeRozan's impact for the Raptors this year. In the same way that a rim-rolling Andre Drummond or DeAndre Jordan present their own kind of positional gravity that sucks help defenders towards their runs, a strong post-up player pulls in additional help defenders towards him.
While post-scoring is often seen as an outdated mode of scoring, too inefficient to generate worthwhile offense, it has seen a rebirth of sorts over the last few years. Smart coaches and players will leverage a post-up threat to create wide open spot-up attempts for other shooters stationed around the perimeter. Simmons, again, is perfectly equipped to take advantage of this style of play.
You can see the defense immediately bend towards Simmons when he catches the ball in the post, providing an easy opportunity for a kick-out and swing pass to an open shooter. This is a common component of LSU's offense. They use the threat of the Simmons post-up to create open looks for his teammates.
He has also demonstrated the ability to score when isolated in the post.
So the three components that have allowed DeRozan to become a non-shooting star on the wing are all components that naturally fit Simmons' skill set and tools. But DeRozan succeeds only because he doesn't take anything other than shooting off the table. He contributes as an offensive rebounder, he passes adequately, and he doesn't commit too many turnovers.
Contributing a Lot Everywhere Else
Simmons, of course, excels in two of these parts of the game. He has most often been lauded for his singular passing vision from the power forward spot, and his rebounding, similarly, is impressive. Here's how his freshman year at LSU compares to what DeRozan has done this year.
You can see that he is more than adequate as a passer and a rebounder, bringing not only *enough* value to offset his shooting, but potentially far more than enough value to do so. If he's able to maintain similar production as he jumps to the next level-- not a given, but certainly not improbable either-- then his biggest challenge at the next level (other than improving his jump shot) will be cutting down on his turnovers. He already has the profile of a player who will be a star without shooting. Putting a premium on ball safety while improving his shooting would make Simmons a guaranteed superstar.
As it stands, he can become one even without becoming a great shooter. Simmons is a special player who can help turn around the fortunes of any franchise. While it's fair to wonder whether he'll ever be able to shoot at a high level, worrying that he can't contribute in the NBA without doing so is bunk. After all, there's already a player doing so, and there's no reason to believe Simmons won't excel at the same things DeRozan does.