By now it’s an all too familiar story. The Toronto entered the playoffs heavily favoured with a hopeful fanbase behind them and then immediately faltered, quickly turning that hope into despair. We’ve seen it play out a few times now and demands to blow the team up are becoming as much an annual tradition as game one losses, bad west coast road trips and midseason slumps. This all took on a slightly different look this time around, as the critics set their sight on a new target: starting point guard and Little Engine That Could Kyle Lowry.
Lowry has had his ups and downs in the past and is certainly not above criticism but it’s always seemed generally understood that he’s the best player and driving force behind everything this team does well. This usually gives him a little more slack when things aren’t going well, with fingers being pointed in a half dozen other directions before Lowry is even considered a problem, let alone THE problem. This time around all it took was one poor performance for him to be almost universally reviled and to bring out takes packing some real heat about the quality of his play, who would have done better(names like Raymond Felton were actually thrown around) and how much better the Raptors would be if they let him walk this summer. This is surprising when you consider how much Lowry has meant to the Raptors as they’ve climbed the ranks from laughing stock to respected franchise.
It’s Lowry who gives the Raptors their on-court personality. That never-say-die approach that keeps the team from being blown out even relative to other really good NBA teams starts with the smallest guy in the rotation repeatedly putting his body on the line to gain the smallest of advantages. When the team digs in on defense it’s often Lowry leading the charge by pressuring the point of attack and he’s the guard most likely to come through with a big strip or deflection in crunch time. He doesn’t lock in on defense constantly because nobody has the motor necessary to go all out on both ends for 38 minutes per game but he’s smart and effective and good at recognizing opportunities and picking his spots.
He’s also the driving force behind their offense. DeMar DeRozan takes the most shots but Lowry is the one who makes the offense run, their abysmal assist numbers only coming close to those of decent NBA offenses when Lowry is on the floor – only 43% of their baskets are assisted when sits vs. 50% when he plays. The Raptors have a tendency to get bogged down in one on one play and as much as it looks like Lowry is one of the most willing participants he’s also one of the only players with the skillset necessary to actually get other players involved consistently. It’s not just his playmaking that has driven the team to elite status on the offensive end. After coming into the league with a shaky jumpshot Lowry has put in a lot of work to become one of the leagues best high volume three point shooters, which is crucial on a team that sorely lacks shooting. Lowry, and to a lesser extent Patrick Patterson and Serge Ibaka, are the ones who make this group workable. Everyone else has skills and is a good player in their niche but also have holes in their game that can make it difficult to fit them into an NBA team. Certain skills or a certain IQ level are necessary on a good NBA team, and every player you have that lacks fundamental skills requires someone else to make up what they lack. Lowry more than anybody plays that role for the Raptors – they can get away with DeRozan’s lack of range with one of the best shooters in the NBA beside him and Cory Joseph’s mediocre playmaking skills are manageable because Lowry is a workhorse who will play a regular starting PG’s minutes and prop up the second unit as well.
Lowry has willed this team to victory after victory, and nowhere was this more apparent in last years postseason run, when he essentially dragged them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Lowry is talked about as a poor playoff performer but there is a big difference between playing poorly and shooting poorly; Lowry’s 2016 playoff performance was clearly the latter and a constant reminder of exactly what he brings to this team. Anybody who tries to reduce Lowry’s value to his shooting numbers – especially in the postseason – needs a reminder of what the Raptors did with and without him on the court during last years postseason:
Obviously the postseason is a small sample size but you see something similar if you check numbers over the last couple of seasons. Lowry is one of the biggest net positives on this team, especially on the offensive end.
DeRozan may score the most points and new arrivals Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker may get a lot of credit for adding an element of toughness to the Raptors previously soft defense but this team is still only going as far as Kyle Lowry can take them. If anything, the opening games of these playoffs have given us a clear picture of Lowry’s value; if he’s not firing on all cylinders, even against a team with considerably less talent, the Raptors odds of winning diminish and if he doesn’t show up at all their odds all but disappear. In game two he didn’t even have an amazing performance but it was one of the biggest differences between a 14 point loss and a 6 point win. He may not shoot the ball well every game but we have an established history of him making huge positive impacts on the teams performance even when his shot isn’t falling, and that’s something that should be remembered should he happen to have another game where he doesn’t make a huge overall contribution.