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Cory Joseph stepping up in Kyle Lowry’s absence

When the Kyle Lowry injury news dropped, all eyes turned to Cory Joseph. Up until that point, Joseph’s second season playing for the Toronto Raptors had been disappointing. Defence was his trademark, and Joseph was getting beat far more often than anyone expected.

Immediately, there were questions about whether Joseph was up to the task. Would putting him in the starting line up just magnify his struggles? Should Toronto find another point guard, maybe add Brandon Jennings?

Since the All-Star break, the answer to both of these questions has been a simple “no.” Prior to Lowry’s injury, Joseph had a net-rating of -0.8. — a number that would rank in the 220s of the 310 players who play at least 15 minutes a game. His defensive rating was 109.0, putting him in the worst 10 percent of players.

Of course, the sample size is smaller, but Joseph has been playing more minutes against starting units. Post All-Star, Lowry’s net-rating is 8.3. If he held that up for an entire season, it would be a top-50 mark in the league. His defence has recovered, though still not to the level of last season: so far, Joseph owns a defensive rating of 102.3. Last year, it was 100.2.

What has sparked the turnaround? A variety of factors. For starters, and I think this might be the most important, Joseph has a significantly better partner in the pick and roll in Serge Ibaka. The Raptors can confidently use a variety of coverages, and this flexibility results in a stronger perimeter defence. The spillover effects are significant here.

If Ibaka is guarding the roll man, the Raptors can snuff out the initial perimeter attack. Joseph, though not particularly long, is an active and quick defender who can duck around picks and get to the right spots when engaged. Ibaka’s foot speed allows Joseph time to recover if they want to go over the screen. This keeps the pick and roll defence to just two Raptors instead of having to involve a third.

Another reason is the return of Patrick Patterson. He is still figuring things out post-knee injury, but he should be back to full speed relatively soon. If Patterson gets back to last year’s level, the majority of Joseph’s regular season minutes will feature at least one switch-y pick and roll defender. The Canadian point guard’s numbers could see another improvement.

My final thought for why his numbers have increased rely less on NBA.com/stats and more on some reader buy-in. Defence is an effort-based equation. Yes, some players will never be good defenders because of pure athletic limitations, but the athleticism is useless if you don’t commit to playing defence. Joseph has had an incredibly taxing stretch, and it’s possible that the early struggles were just a product of a hell of a lot of basketball.

Let’s start in 2014, when Joseph won a ring in San Antonio. He didn’t play much; only five minutes a game. The NBA Finals ended June 17, and the Canadian men’s national team opened training camp in mid-July ahead of an 11-game exhibition tour in Europe. The next season, Joseph played more regular season minutes with a brief playoff run. Joseph did not play in the Pan Am Games, but did play in the FIBA Americas tournament in late August, hosted in Mexico City.

In 2015-16, Joseph played a career high in minutes and then faded in the playoffs. He was great against Indiana, but struggled in the following two series. Joseph then played in the Olympic qualifying tournament in early July 2016. That tournament, although brief, was in the Philippines.

Joseph has played a ton of minutes, racking up miles in travel and has not had the extended rest period that many players enjoy in the offseason. It is easy to dismiss these things when we know that athletes are earning millions of dollars, but we have to separate the paycheque from the physical toll. Cash can’t compensate for tired legs or a lack of sleep. That’s just not how it works.

Dwane Casey benched Joseph in early February, and he’s been solid since that. Originally, the coach wanted to give Joseph a “mental blow” but he may have just given him the time off he really needed. Or, being forced into the spotlight made him step up his game. Having Ibaka doesn’t hurt either. Whatever the reason, Joseph has proven to be a more-than-capable replacement while Lowry gets right.

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