DeMar DeRozan is the Chicago Bulls’ fourth quarter, mid-range assassin

CHICAGO, Ill. — The Chicago Bulls are turning into one of the most surprising stories of the 2021-22 NBA season. After toiling in mediocrity the past half decade, Chicago has injected new life into its fanbase thanks in part to a new cast of characters gracing the floor at the United Center.

Most notable among those new faces is DeMar DeRozan. It might not be a coincidence the Bulls have exceeded expectations to the degree they have in, this, DeRozan’s first year in red.

The 2009 Toronto Raptors draft pick DeRozan is fifth in scoring this season (26.8 points per game) and the league’s leading fourth-quarter scorer among qualified players, averaging 7.8 points on 53.4 percent shooting in the final frame. In the late stages of tight games — where overall shooting percentages decline as defenses play tighter — DeRozan is self-generating golden looks at the bucket even if he’s got defenders draped all over him. And he’s hitting them.

He’s a big reason the Bulls have experienced a resurgence after several years missing the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and boast a 22-10 record as the 2021 calendar year comes to a close. Only two teams have a better record than what Vegas bookmakers expected at the outset of the 2021-22 regular season.

“When he gets to his spot, there’s no one that can really stop him.” Chicago big man Nikola Vučević said after a 115-110 win over the Los Angeles Lakers recently.

DeRozan is old school. The modern game has changed in the past decade to focus on 3-pointers and shots taken around the basket in the name of efficiency. After all, three is worth more than two, and teams at all levels of the game – NBA, college, high school, AAU – have embraced this philosophy. The sea change in offensive strategy is rooted in analytics and has had an interesting side effect: the devaluation of the mid-range game.

In fact, as a percentage of all field goals taken the mid-range has dropped from 30.3 percent to just 13.1 percent over the past decade as more players try to extend their shooting range beyond the 3-point line.

But DeRozan is proving to be the king of the afterthought mid-range; trusting DeRozan late in games has meant putting faith in his abilities between the paint and the 3-point line. Teams are increasingly happy to cede 10-20 foot jumpers, he’s said, and is content taking what defenses give him, especially late in games. In a season that has seen Stephen Curry — the greatest shooter of all-time — break the all-time record for career 3-pointers made, DeRozan is annihilating defenses from inside the arc.

DeRozan is tops in the league in both mid-range field goals made (4.2 per game) and mid-range field goals attempted (8.7 per game), all while while shooting 48.2 percent on those shots, according to NBA.com. He has ranked in the top five in mid-range field goals made per game eight times in the past 10 seasons and has never finished lower than 11th in a single season.

The Bulls are also 9-6 in “clutch” games this season, defined as games within five points with five minutes or less to play by NBA.com; Chicago went 14-21 in such contests last year. They’ve pulled up their clutch-time offensive rating in the fourth quarter to third in the league (124.1 points per 100 possessions) from 16th last season (107.3 rating). Only the Phoenix Suns (136.6), L.A Clippers (132.5) and Milwaukee Bucks (124.4) boast better numbers in that category this season.

A lot of that has to do with DeRozan, who has an offensive rating of 118.0 when he is on the floor in the fourth quarter. Case in point: he is a whopping 17-for-23 from the field in high leverage situations — plays that swing the win probability in the fourth quarter, according to pbpstats.com.

DeRozan’s performance early this season is proving that the Bulls’ front office move to acquire the 12-year veteran from San Antonio in the offseason to be a prescient one. He signed a 3-year, $81.9 million contract with the Bulls — an annual average salary of more than $27 million, according to spotrac.com, and by most statistical measures he’s having one of the best seasons of his career so far.

While the league has trended towards long range 3s and can’t miss-2s, a select few players buck the analytical trend to be truly efficient from spots on the floor the rest of the league avoids like the plague. Guys like DeRozan and Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant are lethal with the mid-range jumper.

While Durant is able to utilize his long arms and pinpoint accuracy from deep to convert many long 2-point field goals in addition to his 3-point prowess, DeMar is most comfortable from the 10-15 foot range just beneath the foul line.

DeRozan has been getting more attention in the MVP conversation as well. He was recently pegged sixth on an ESPN straw poll for that award behind the aforementioned Durant, Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Chris Paul. Looking at his Four Factors DeRozan is having one of the best statistical seasons of his 12-year career. He’s hovering around 60 percent true shooting percentage (a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throws) and his having his best year ever from a turnover perspective. In other words, he’s been one of the biggest contributors to the Bulls’ torrid start.

The Bulls look like a real contender this year, and having DeRozan as the go-to option will be that much more valuable for them come playoff time given the importance the mid-range garners in the postseason. As teams tighten up their defenses in the latter part of the year DeRozan’s ability to get to his spot and drain a mid-range shot — heavily contested or not — could take Chicago deep into the playoffs this year.

The fanbase is certainly ready.

And now a fantastic breakdown of modern day mid-range kings from Ben Taylor at Thinking Basketball:

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Code for all the plots above can be found on my Github page.

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