A number of NBA people scoffed when the Chicago Bulls gave DeMar DeRozan a three-year, $81.9 million contract (it was initially reported as $85 million) as part of a sign-and-trade with the San Antonio Spurs. In addition to shelling out that cash, the Bulls gave up a quality veteran in Thaddeus Young, a first-round pick, two second-round picks and Al-Farouq Aminu in the deal, so it was a hefty price to pay for the veteran. It was fair to have some sticker shock after seeing the deal.
DeRozan has been worth every penny so far in the 2021-22 season, resulting in some early mea culpas for the outlook on this Bulls team that’s off to an 11-5 start after an impressive 3-2 West Coast road trip without Nikola Vucevic. The 32-year-old DeRozan immediately turned heads with a quick start to the season, and he has only continued to show how valuable he is with his lethal mid-range scoring, stellar playmaking, steady veteran presence and clutch play. At this point, he should be considered an early fringe MVP candidate.
DeRozan’s value was especially evident on this West Coast trip with no Vucevic. After an ugly loss to the Golden State Warriors, DeRozan returned home to Los Angeles and dominated the Clippers and Lakers on back-to-back nights. The Bulls star put up 35 points against the Clippers and stemmed the tide in the fourth quarter when it seemed like Chicago was going to fall part, and then he put up 38 points in a blowout of the Lakers. The latter game had to feel especially sweet considering he initially thought he was going to wind up with the Lakers in the offseason, only to see them pivot to Russell Westbrook.
Things didn’t go so well for DeRozan in Portland after a hot first half, but his veteran guile put him in a position where he should have drawn a foul on Nassir Little in the waning moments that would have sent him to the foul line for potential go-ahead free throws. The foul wasn’t called, though, with the NBA admitting the next day it was an incorrect no-call.
DeRozan’s shot abandoned him again at the end of the road trip in Denver, but he still managed to score 26 points despite shooting just 7-of-21 from the field. That’s because he made all 12 of his free throws, with eight of those coming in the last 1:15 to seal the victory. Even with Zach LaVine on board, Billy Donovan trusts DeRozan more in crunch time to run the offense, as noted by Bulls analyst Stephen Noh:
Of course, LaVine has made his fair share of big shots as well, including several against the Nuggets in a 36-point performance. In fact, DeRozan and LaVine are tops in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring:
They seem to be fitting just fine:
DeRozan had a message to all the critics who doubted his fit with LaVine:
DeRozan is now averaging 26.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists while shooting 48.8% from the field and 33.3% from 3-point range. He’s getting to the charity stripe 8.1 times per game and hitting at an 88.5% clip, which is huge for a Bulls team that ranked last in free throws made and attempted last season. In 2021-22, they’re third in free throws made per game, 11th in attempts and first in percentage by a wide margin. He also doesn’t turn the ball over that much (2.0 per game) for a player with such a high usage rate (over 30).
In addition to his offensive heroics, DeRozan has at least been passable on the defensive end. While there was a lot of concern that DeRozan would sink the defense, the Bulls have only allowed 98.6 points per 100 possessions in his time on the court, per NBA.com. Chicago is eighth in defensive rating overall with a 104.3 mark. It helps that the Bulls have some ferocious perimeter defenders on the roster, especially Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, but DeRozan is doing his part to make sure the defense performs at a winning level.
The Bulls look like they’re for real, and they wouldn’t be anywhere close to this good without DeRozan. Chicago is crushing teams with DeRozan on the court (plus-10.5 net rating) and getting crushed (minus-10.7 net rating) when he sits. The front office knew big moves needed to be made this past season, and they identified DeRozan as a guy who would mitigate some of their weaknesses and help get them to the next level. After becoming underrated in San Antonio, the veteran is showing he still has a lot to offer a successful team.
Chicago may have paid a hefty price in order to get DeRozan, but he’s currently showing why it was the right move to make. DeRozan and the Bulls must now prove they can keep this up.