NBA 2024 offseason: DeMar DeRozan's tepid free agent market says more about the league than the CBA

The rule changes from the 2023 collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players haven’t even been fully implemented yet and they have already proven to be one of the strongest forces against player-movement in league history. The second apron broke up the Golden State Warriors. It compelled the Los Angeles Clippers to let Paul George walk for nothing instead of trading him and taking salary back. It’s an “apron world” now, as Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka put it on Tuesday. All 30 teams are living in it.

With that reality is going to come a built-in excuse. Whenever a move that would have made sense in the old world doesn’t happen, people are going to point to the CBA as the boogeyman that prevented it. This is happening, to some extent, to DeMar DeRozan.

DeRozan was an All-Star as recently as 2023. He nearly won Clutch Player of the Year last season. He hasn’t yet experienced significant statistical decline. There was a time in NBA history that such a player would be among the most coveted on the entire free agent market. It isn’t happening so far. “The kind of contract he might want just is not going to be available,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Tuesday. “It’s not left out there on the marketplace. The Bulls are more than willing to work out a sign-and-trade agreement to get him the years and money that he might want, but with the new salary cap rules, those are much more difficult for teams to do.

We’re now several days into free agency. As of Tuesday night, only two teams have more than $20 million in cap space. Those teams are the Utah Jazz, who are either about to go into a rebuild, or use their cap space to renegotiate-and-extend the contract of Lauri Markkanen, and the Detroit Pistons who have more ball-handlers than they know what to do with and a serious lack of 3-point shooting to complement them. Neither appear to be obvious destinations. 

Yet, to this point, the notion of a significant pay cut is reportedly still out of the question. “For the teams that might be calling or gauging interest in DeMar taking a full mid-level exception, which is around $13 million, I am told that is not even being considered right now,” Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes said. DeRozan is still operating under the old-world assumption that he is a star and should be paid as such.

It would be tempting to sit here and say that the CBA is costing DeRozan money, but it wouldn’t necessarily be accurate. Free agency hasn’t been a major driver of player-movement for several years now. Just go back to 2022, the last offseason before this new CBA was conceived. No free agent changed teams for more than the $27.3 million annually DeRozan made on his last deal. Only two free agents changed teams for more than that $13 million starting salary that DeRozan is turning down now: Jalen Brunson and Collin Sexton, who did so as part of sign-and-trade that netted the Cavaliers Donovan Mitchell. That Sexton deal came in September. If Cleveland hadn’t had the chance to land its All-Star, Sexton may well have needed to remain with the Cavaliers on a cheap, one-year qualifying offer. Free agency just doesn’t get players paid externally to the degree that it used to.

When DeRozan was last a free agent in 2021, he needed an external force to bail him out. He has said himself he expected to land with the Lakers. They ultimately decided to trade for Russell Westbrook. There’s never been a full and clear accounting of why, but the easiest explanation is that signing-and-trading for DeRozan would have hard-capped them at the (then singular) apron. Palatable if DeRozan would leave enough money on the table. Not so much at the price he was ultimately paid. 

The first day of free agency came and went. Most of the league’s money was spent. It’s been forgotten now. There was a brief moment, even three years ago, when the basketball world thought he might be considering a mid-level deal. Even after he got paid, the widespread reaction was bewilderment. John Hollinger explained it in a story for The Athletic:

“Consider this: If they had paid half as much — $14 million a year — who was outbidding them? The Clippers and Lakers only had the taxpayer midlevel exception. The Knicks quickly burned through their cap space to lock in the six seed for the next three years. The only teams with the space to make a move here were Oklahoma City, which isn’t rebuilding around a 32-year-old, and DeRozan’s own team in San Antonio, which didn’t seem to be in that big a rush to bring him back.”

So what we have here are two separate free-agency markets that operated under two different sets of CBA rules. In both, the market for DeRozan was seemingly limited. In 2021, one team stepped up and met DeRozan’s demands. Thus far in 2024, they have not. So why is that?

Well, it’s probably pretty simple. The NBA values different things today than it did in the past. The NBA champion Boston Celtics ranked No. 1 in 3-point attempts and No. 2 in defense. The youngest No. 1 seed in NBA history, the Oklahoma City Thunder, ranked No. 4 in defense and led the NBA in 3-point percentage. Mikal Bridges brings other things to the table, but he is primarily known as perhaps the pinnacle of the modern 3-and-D archetype. He just got traded for five first-round picks. 

Even if there was far more to that trade than meets the eye, it’s a bit of a hint towards what the NBA prizes today. Shot-creation, at the superstar level, is still the single most valuable skill in basketball. But more and more, teams are deciding that aside from their best or second-best players, the traits they value most are 3-point shooting and defense.

DeRozan offers very little of both. He attempted 2.8 3-pointers per game last season—amazingly the second-highest figure of his career—but out of 17.2 shot attempts, that’s a 3-point attempt rate of only 16.6%. That’s the fourth-lowest figure among the 34 players at his shooting volume, ahead of only Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

In the 2022-23 season, he was dead last, behind even Antetokounmpo. He’s had a negative Defensive Estimated Plus Minus in four of the last five years. He’s never had a positive Defensive Daily Plus-Minus. If you’re not the analytics type, here’s a simpler way of putting it: If you judge defenses by how many points per 100 possessions they allow, all three of DeRozan’s Bulls defenses were better with him on the bench than with him on the floor. So were all three of his Spurs defenses. To find a defense that was better with DeRozan on the floor than off of it, you’d have to go back to the 2014-15 Raptors.

The NBA was already moving towards the hyper-valuation of 3-point shooting and defense in 2021, but not quite to the degree that it is now. The Lakers, for instance, traded for Westbrook, who came with similar (and frankly, greater) flaws. The Bulls had already added Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, so they felt comfortable covering DeRozan’s defensive flaws. Offensively, they led the NBA in mid-range shot attempts in all three of DeRozan’s seasons, but Billy Donovan had never coached a team that finished in the top 10 in the NBA in 3-point volume, so there was a stylistic fit.

Could there still be a fit this time around? Potentially. The Heat have popped up as a potentially interested party, but it’s worth noting that they are already around $7 million above the first apron. Acquiring a signed-and-traded player hard caps you at the first apron, so the Heat wouldn’t just have to trade out however much salary they planned to pay DeRozan, but add another $7 million or so on top of that (and that’s before you talk about filling out the rest of the roster). For this to be feasible, you’d basically have to give up either Tyler Herro or Terry Rozier. Maybe Miami is prepared to do that, but Herro is a decade younger than DeRozan, the Heat just gave up a first-round pick for Rozier, and the Heat already ranked 18th in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game, so subbing out a willing gunner for DeRozan would be suboptimal to say the least.

ESPN’s Marc Spears called the Kings a dark horse for DeRozan. The fit here is, again, awkward. Sacramento already has three offense-first, defense-last guards in De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter. Keon Ellis is the only above-average defender in the rotation. Their general manager, Monte McNair, came up in basketball working for a Houston Rockets team that led the NBA in 3-point attempts basically every year. That’s not the sort of executive that you’d expect to pay someone to shoot long 2s. Franky, this report screams of pressure from ownership. 

Kings insider James Ham reported during Mike Brown’s contentious extension negotiations that “the failure to repeat the success of the previous year hasn’t sat well with ownership.” The Kings have been linked to just about every big name to hit the market since their surprise trip to the 2023 postseason. Bradley Beal. Zach LaVine. Markkanen. Brandon Ingram. Now, surprise, surprise, DeRozan.

Impatient owners compel front offices to make rash decisions fairly often. The Heat or a similar team could make a surprising trade to clear the money needed to bring DeRozan at a price he deems acceptable via a sign-and-trade. But, to be frank, when teams want to do that, they tend to be able to do so quickly. The Mavericks wanted to pay Klay Thompson above the mid-level exception. They quickly traded Josh Green to create the money to do so. The Lakers were reportedly willing and attempting to do the same thing. Klay Thompson shoots 3s. DeRozan does not. If there was some team out there eager to pay DeRozan at anything close to his old salary… wouldn’t it have happened by now?

Haynes is reporting that DeRozan is prepared to be patient in search of the right deal. Rarely do big free agency paydays come after the first wave. Eventually, a lot of those teams calling DeRozan with mid-level offers are going to have to move on to other business. There is a finite amount of money on the market. Eventually the music stops and a certain number of players don’t have chairs. Nowadays, players with skill sets like DeRozan’s are getting likelier and likelier to find themselves in that position. He hasn’t declined in the way that, say, Westbrook has. But the league’s interest in players like him have slipped regardless. He just spent three years as the best player on a Play-In team. Nobody is going to add him hoping he can lead them, but nobody really wants role players with his deficiencies either.

It takes a very specific sort of roster to maximize DeRozan at this point in his career, one with a lot of shooting, a lot of defenders, a lot of size, and some sort of need for ball-handling. How many teams check that box, at least at the starter level? Not many. That was true under the old CBA. It’s true under the new one. The NBA is starting to catch onto that. DeRozan might be losing money for every day that he doesn’t.

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