By Frank McLean
Here’s a question. Who is the Raptors starter that the team can most ill afford to lose?
I say it’s DeMar DeRozan.
Monday night in the Raptors win over the New York Knicks right on Broadway, DeRozan became the player with the most wins in the 21-year history of the franchise.
Monday’s game was his 498th career game and he now has been part of 233 Raptors victories. He moved past Chris Bosh (232 wins in 509 games) and Morris Peterson (232 in 542) into first place on the all-time wins list.
“It’s an honor for me, I’ve been here since the beginning and to have that is big for me. I can’t believe it, I really can’t believe it, but it’s in the books now,” DeRozan said speaking to reporters in his postgame media availability.
At 26 years of age and two All-Star game appearances he has become the face of this franchise. It’s well deserved as he stuck with a team which during his time in Toronto has suffered seasons where they have been out of playoff contention by Christmas, had long losing streaks and where if you walked into the locker room, you could see the faces of players who wondered if they would ever win another game.
For proof that he is this team’s most important player, all you have to do is look at last season when he missed time in December with a back injury. Kyle Lowry did his best to hold things together, but the Raptors were a .500 team the rest of the regular season.
This year DeRozan has stayed healthy. Oh the team has missed DeMarre Carroll, who is expected to be back sometime before the middle of March, even if the win total has still met expectations. Then they did not miss a step when Jonas Valanciunas injured his hand in game against the Lakers in December. The Raptors are sitting comfortably in second place in the Eastern Conference three back of the first place Cleveland Cavaliers and 5.5 games up on the surprising Heat and Celtics.
Talk to Kyle Lowry and he can’t keep the smile off his face. He is happy for his best friend on the team.
“It’s really an exciting time for him and I’m very happy for him. It just shows the adversity he has been through. When he first started here, you would never have thought he would get that record but now he has it and he did it in less games than the other two.”
“The big strides he made from where he was to be an All-Star is a great story, it says a lot about him and what he’s meant to the franchise, what he means to the franchise,” head coach Dwane Casey said about DeRozan.
“Your legacy is what you’re record is. If you have a record for a franchise as a player, it says a lot. We’re a growing franchise, I know 20-years is not a long time, but we’re taking steps and DeMar’s been a big part of that, he’s a big engine in that growth.
“It’s a feather in his cap to have that record.”
The scary thing is that since Christmas you see him taking more three point shot attempts. DeRozan has said in the past it’s the next phase of his game to get better at. Even opposing coaches have noticed him getting better at it.
Talking to Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers when they were in Toronto recently he made a point of recognizing that he is getting better at shooting behind the arc and that it’s just going to be a bigger pain to defend him now that he has added that to his game.
Casey will tell you that they have created an offensive scheme based on DeRozan’s talents.
“He has a niche, we have an offense catered around him and also Kyle. He knows where he’s going to get the ball.
“You can throw the analytics out the window because he gets to the free-throw line enough to offset the three-point shot. We have a system built around DeMar and his anti-analytical game that has been efficient for him.”
DeRozan is what baseball great Reggie Jackson used to say of himself “the straw that stirs the drink.” If this team is finally going to have playoff success it will all fall on the back of DeRozan.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.