There is no vast narrative conspiracy against DeMar DeRozan, but you could be forgiven for thinking that there is one. A victim of unfortunate mythological convergences, the Chicago Bulls’ new 32-year-old wingman has long been one of the league’s most underappreciated players, and primarily for reasons beyond his control. Now that he is a key player in a big market franchise’s return to relevance, DeRozan’s reputation is experiencing a well-deserved renovation, and that’s been wonderful to behold. But we would be remiss not to note how it got to a point where so thorough an adjustment in perception became so needed.
It all started with DeRozan and Kyle Lowry’s Toronto Raptors getting good. In the 2013-14 season, DeRozan’s fifth as a pro, he averaged a career-high 22.7 points per game. There was a direct correlation between his rise in productivity and his team’s success: they went from 34 wins to 48, beginning a five-season annual playoff presence that for more than half of the time could only be stopped from reaching the NBA Finals by the Cleveland Cavaliers of LeBron James--who, we can likely agree, is quite the person to lose to three years in a row.
DeRozan, through these seasons, proved himself to be a good enough player to be the difference between high-end lottery finishes and respectable playoff contention. This extremely valuable quality, however, was quickly laughed away when he was traded for Kawhi Leonard, a player so good that he can be the central pillar in a championship run. Which, of course, he then was: the Raptors—riding post-DeRozan, on the wings of Leonard as he claimed another Finals MVP trophy—won it all in 2019.
And thus, we have a good player whose immediate cultural associations involve arguably the two best wingmen of the 21st Century: Leonard, and James. These are the people he is not. That, a failing of everyone in the world, became his own to bear. DeRozen continued to lose more and more luster, after that, and again due to no action of his own. This is because, after the big trade, he was made to preside over the declining San Antonio Spurs. Now that his departure from Texas has taken his team from low-end playoff seeding down to basement-of-the-sport territory, it’s possible his run there will earn some post-facto appreciation; but for the past three seasons, most noted him as the face of a dying dynasty instead.
It’s an unfair label for someone who dragged some of the least talented rosters in the NBA to an iota of prominence, which he received no flowers for; he wasn’t James and he wasn’t Leonard, and he also wasn’t Tim Duncan, which is where the prevailing standard was for the Spurs when DeRozan got there. He quietly improved nonetheless, fine-tuning his approach as a volume scorer with every month, and turning into one of the most overlooked playmakers in the NBA to boot.
Now, Bulls fans are seeing all that on their screens a few times every week. This is particularly true given the remaining blind spots of DeRozan’s new super-talented teammate Zach LaVine. Chicagoans hoping for a brighter tomorrow see DeRozan’s extra-canny judgement and feel for the game and hope that it rubs off on the extraordinary athlete next to him, who often still lacks in his sense of what his team needs and when, and in his overall processing of the game. Though LaVine has provided the 7-3 Bulls with much of their most highlight-worthy ballast, it has been DeRozan who has been their most valuable player; their life raft, their steady hand, their guardian angel.
Now that the Bulls seem to be for real (a likely above-.500 team, with a legitimate shot at avoiding the play-in tournament and making real noise in the NBA Playoffs), we can see clearly how different ideas of a player can be when they’re stepping off of a sinking ship and onto an ascending plane, instead of the reverse. It certainly doesn’t hurt that all the offensive talent on Chicago’s roster is giving DeRozan more space and mismatches to cook on than he’s ever had, which has created a noticeable uptick in his efficiency. That DeRozan’s free throw attempts have stayed high with the league’s new officiating mandates in place has also added some shine to his halo, galvanizing fans to note how timeless, fluid, and versatile of a scorer he is.
The league, right now, is a bit more his than it was before, and perhaps more his than it ever has been. If current trends maintain, DeRozan will work himself into consideration for his second career inclusion on an All-NBA squad. And Bulls fans, like Raptors fans before them, will fall more and more in love with him as he captains them back to recognition. Just be sure to remember that as the renaissance in his image goes on, it is just that: a reflection of how people think of him, rather than of who he is. He has always been like this.