DeMar DeRozan may have signed with the Chicago Bulls this offseason, but he made it perfectly clear in the buildup to free agency that he wanted to join the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles native idolized Kobe Bryant growing up. He spoke openly about how flattering it was to be mentioned in trade rumors with his childhood team and declared that joining a championship contender was his goal during the offseason. Reports suggested that he was prepared to take a pay cut to join the Lakers. He met with LeBron James at least twice, according to The Athletic. “It almost happened,” DeRozan said of his Lakers courtship.
Instead, his hometown team chose another star. Russell Westbrook became a Laker hours before the 2021 NBA Draft. DeRozan was left without an obvious home. Chicago swooped in and made him a strong $85 million offer, and thus far, they’ve been major beneficiaries of Rob Pelinka’s decision. DeRozan averaged 26.1 points in Chicago’s first 13 games. The 9-4 Bulls sat less than a game short of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. That made Monday’s decimation of the Lakers the cherry on top of the best start of DeRozan’s career.
The four-time All-Star dropped 38 points on the team that spurned him, and he did it on their home floor. Chicago waltzed its way to an easy 121-103 victory, and after watching Westbrook miss all six of his 3-point attempts, the Lakers can only wonder what might have been.
The Bulls sent the Spurs Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu and a first-round in the DeRozan sign-and-trade in August. It’s not hard to envision the Lakers building a package enticing enough to eschew that first-rounder with some combination of Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell. All three ultimately landed in Washington. All three could’ve helped the Spurs. Kuzma played for Gregg Popovich at Team USA’s training camp for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Anthony Davis rocked the Spurs for 34 points on Sunday because they lacked a backup center behind Jakob Poeltl. Every team can use a three-and-D wing like Caldwell-Pope.
Acquiring DeRozan through a sign-and-trade presented one notable challenge for the Lakers: the hard-cap. When teams acquire players through a sign-and-trade, the full mid-level exception or the bi-annual exception, they are not allowed to spend above a figure called the apron (roughly $6 million above the tax line). The Lakers were hampered by it last season after using the full mid-level on Harrell. Reports hinted that they wanted to avoid triggering it again for fear of the flexibility it might cost them.
In practice, that flexibility would have been minimal. The hard cap line is roughly $143 million this season. James, Davis and DeRozan (at the salary he signed in Chicago for) would have cost the Lakers less than $105 million. Even with $5 million in dead money, the Lakers would have had slightly more than $33 million left to spend beneath the hard cap. In reality, they spent only around $36 million on their roster aside from James, Davis and Westbrook this season. That gap is tiny in the grand scheme of things. Had DeRozan taken the pay-cut he was reportedly considering, that difference might have disappeared entirely. Even if it hadn’t, ownership would have saved a fortune in tax bills and been freed from the hard cap next offseason, giving the Lakers more room to build around a trio featuring DeRozan.
The truth of why DeRozan isn’t a Laker doesn’t appear nearly so complex. Without getting far in trade talks and unable to settle on a contract number, the Lakers seemingly decided they preferred Hield, according to The Athletic. It’s just not fully clear why. Hield is a far stronger 3-point shooter, but if that was such a priority, the Lakers likely wouldn’t have landed on Westbrook. DeRozan was always the middle ground between their two extremes. While he rarely shoots 3-pointers, his mid-range game made him more of a spacer than Westbrook, but a stronger shot-creator than Hield. DeRozan is shooting roughly 37 percent from behind the arc this season. Westbrook is down to around 29 percent.
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It’s too early to declare the Westbrook trade a loss. He’s adjusting to his fourth team in four years, and the Lakers have a roster that is hardly optimized for his skill set. The same is somewhat true of DeRozan. His defensive shortcomings might have looked more apparent on a roster with fewer point-of-attack stoppers. He might not be shooting so well if he had to share ball-handling duties with so many other creators.
But DeRozan has been the vastly superior player through the first month of the season. He proved it emphatically on Monday night, and until the Lakers figure out how to maximize Westbrook and the deeply flawed roster they put around him, they’re going to have to wonder what could have been had they just brought DeRozan home as he wanted.