In his first season with the Bulls, DeMar DeRozan turned in arguably the best season of his career. He averaged a personal best of 27.9 PPG, was named All-NBA Second Team, and finished in the top-10 in the MVP voting.
Could he replicate that success this season, his 14th, at age 33?
Before the season, I projected that answer to be 'yes'. I projected DeRozan to average 27.1 PPG on 50.0 FG% and 87.0 FT%, 5.1 RPG and 5.0 APG.
In his first two games, he burst out as though he planned to far exceed expectations, with back-to-back 30-point efforts and averages of 34.5 PPG, 7.5 APG and 6.0 RPG.
Then, Zach LaVine made his season debut.
In the next 12 games, DeRozan's numbers would plummet to 22.1 PPG (49.7 FFG%, 91.4 FT%), 3.6 RPG and 3.7 APG. DeRozan would score 20 or fewer points in seven of those 12 games, including two single-digit efforts with nine points against the Hornets on November 2 and nine points against the Raptors on November 7.
Let's unpack this a bit. LaVine had missed the first two games of the season as he continued to recover from knee surgery earlier in the year, and in his absence DeRozan had popped. But, when LaVine returned, there was a negative correlation between LaVine's presence and DeRozan's declining production:
LaVine debuted with 23 points, and DeRozan scored only 13.
LaVine popped for 28 points in his third game, and DeRozan managed 17.
LaVine sat the fourth game after his return, and DeRozan was back at 33 points.
Lavine's season-high 30 points came in the 10th game in that stretch, and DeRozan scored a season-low nine points.
The pattern seemed clear and went beyond just points. If you look at the seven aforementioned games in that stretch where DeRozan scored 20 or fewer points, you'd find that LaVine averaged 23.5 PPG and 4.8 APG in the games he played versus DeRozan's 14.9 PPG and 3.7 APG. In the other five games in that stretch, where DeRozan averaged 32.2 PPG and 3.6 APG, LaVine was at 19.5 PPG and 3.0 APG in the games he played.
So, in the first 12 games after LeVine debuted, when LaVine was high usage, DeRozan's numbers went into the tank. When LaVine was relatively low usage, DeRozan shined.
But, if DeRozan struggles when LaVine plays well...why wasn't this the case last season?
Last season, DeRozan's crowning glory, had included a high-usage LaVine that had averaged 24.4 PPG on 47.6 FG%, with 4.5 APG. If DeRozan could thrive with high-usage LaVine last season, why couldn't he this season?
The answer may lie, in part, beyond LaVine and instead with the rest of the backcourt. Last season, the point guard to start the campaign was Lonzo Ball. Ball is as close to a 3-and-D point guard as exists, a pass-first and pass-second player that took about 70% of his shots as spot-up 3-pointers created off ball movement. The second main point guard to start the season was Alex Caruso, another low usage guard that focused on defense. Ball and Caruso both got injured and missed half of last season, but when they were out, rookie Ayo Dosunmu became the starter and continued their low-usage ways. If anything, DeRozan and LaVine took on a larger role as offense initiators.
Fast-forward to the start of this season, and closer examination shows the difference in that other guard spot. With Ball still out, Dosunmu was starting with newly acquired Goran Dragic taking on a larger role as well. In the 12 games we've been examining, Dosunmu averaged 11.6 PPG and 3.3 APG in 29.7 MPG, while Dragic averaged 10.2 PPG and 3.6 APG in 18.9 MPG. Thus, for every 48 or so minutes, the Bulls' point guard was averaging almost 23 points and 7 assists per game during that stretch. That is much more production at much higher usage than the position was giving last season, and effectively precluded DeRozan being able to thrive in games where LaVine approached his normal usage level.
However, right around November 16, the Bulls seemed to reorganize, as Dosunmu took a step back (8.7 PPG, 2.3 APG since Nov. 16), and Dragic fell almost completely out of the offense (3.5 PPG, 2.3 APG in 13.5 MPG since Nov. 16). Alex Caruso has taken on a larger role, up to 26.0 MPG, 8.7 PPG and 3.1 APG (from 4.3 PPG, 4.0 APG in 12 games before).
Suddenly, Caruso and Dosunmu are effectively reprising the point guard role from last season. And, like clockwork, DeRozan has started consistently producing even with LaVine playing every game.
In the seven games since November 16, DeRozan has averaged 31.1 PPG (53.5 FG%, 86.3 FT%) and 5.3 APG. He has scored at least 26 points in every game. There is still some correlation with LaVine's output, but starting at a much higher level. LaVine has only two games under 20 points during that stretch, a 4-point effort against the Magic and an 18-point game against the Bucks, and DeRozan turned in his two highest scoring efforts with 41 and 36 points, respectively. But, conversely, even in the two games LaVine has scored 25 or more, DeRozan has still popped for 28 and 7 assists, and 30 points and 6 assists, respectively. With a low-usage, defensive-minded point guard slot that cedes the playmaking and offense creation to DeRozan and LaVine, their two best players are free to thrive.
This is excellent news for the fantasy basketball prospects of both DeRozan and LaVine, but particularly DeRozan. LaVine's output still depends more on his health and ability to finish than his deployment, with his 40.7% shooting from the field keeping his scoring averages low despite his 17.8 FGA/G this season. DeRozan, though, is showing that he can absolutely replicate, if not improve upon, the career numbers he posted a season ago. If the Bulls put the ball in his hands, he has consistent 30-point/5-assist capability, with excellent shooting percentages on high volume to help in categories leagues. DeRozan could flirt with late-first round value in some league formats, and has easy top-20 expectation in pretty much every league.
So, if you can trade for him at any value less than that, or if you are still planning to draft your league in upcoming weeks, keep in mind that DeRozan has the kind of production-vs-reputation profile that can win you fantasy hoops leagues.