When the buzzer sounded in Game 4 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in their second-round playoff series last May, there was an empty feeling that emanated in the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors got served in Games 1 and 2, their floor general went down in Game 2, and Games 3 and 4 felt almost academic.
An off-season filled with inevitable questions had officially begun – and this time around, it was a bit earlier than fans wanted. For Masai Ujiri and his team, last year’s playoffs must have felt like that feeling when you’re on vacation and have something to take care of when you get back home that you’re not particularly looking forward to. Except this time, the vacation ended early with terrible weather, and was punctuated with a rocky flight home, and lost luggage along the way.
So it was on to business for Masai, and the first order of business (the first domino, if you will), was re-signing that floor general. The possibility of re-signing Kyle Lowry was something that most reporters and fans legitimately couldn’t get a handle on immediately after that series was over. From the post-game interviews to the locker clean-out press conference, inking Lowry to a deal seemed like a franchise-altering moment that was going to dictate the way the next 3-5 years was going to go. But if there’s anything we’ve learned about Masai Ujiri in the past 4 years since he arrived in Toronto, it’s that he’s patient, calculated, subtle, and appreciates stability. And the way the market was trending, with salaries normalizing and point-guard holes being filled rapidly, Kyle Lowry was almost backed into a corner …. and that didn’t turn out so bad after all. It was a corner that led to a 3-year $100 million contract, and a franchise-leading role with the only team that’s ever really believed in him.
The beautiful thing about Lowry’s contract, and the way Ujiri went about that dreaded off-season, is that it sets up the Raptors core (Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka) for a shrewdly-calculated 3 year window. And at the centre of it, is KLow – the all-star guard that’s been the leader of the “We the North” era, and brought a renewed sense of legitimacy to a mediocre and otherwise forgotten franchise.
Entering his 6th year as a Raptor, Lowry is at an intriguing point in his career. As a late-bloomer, who made his first all-star game at the age of 28 and in his 9th year in the league, Lowry has relatively low mileage for someone at this phase of his career. But at the wary age of 31, and with huge minutes under his belt the past 4 years, history says the next 2-3 years will likely be Lowry’s last full-fledged all-star caliber years. The question is – how good can he really be now? And what will the Raptors’ ceiling be as a result?
Lowry’s game (while probably the most dynamic on the team) boils down to a few things for me – notably, his three-point shooting, passing game, and overall floor-impact (what Dwane Casey would call the “lil’ things”). Let’s look at some numbers.
Despite what Lowry’s age-related trajectory may suggest, his scoring numbers have peaked in recent years and have been steadily climbing. Not that it is certainly bound to continue, but it’s something to keep in mind. This guy hasn’t been the type to take it easy after securing some dough, and I don’t think any dip this year would be due to a lack of effort, conditioning or training.
It’s no surprise that Lowry’s shooting numbers have improved each year in his tenure with Toronto. Despite an increased usage level under Dwane Casey’s system, Lowry has sustained an improving shooting percentage from all over the floor. Aside from a dip in 3-point percentage in 2014-15 (the nagging-injury-riddled year ending in the Wizards sweep), Lowry’s shooting has seen a consistent trend upward.
What’s especially encouraging is to see that Lowry’s usual tough and gritty style, which used to lead mostly in plays at the rim, has transformed into a more shooting-centric offensive game with 3-point field goals increasingly becoming part of the Lowry equation. In fact, he attempted more 3’s than 2’s per game for the first time in his career last year, and while that wasn’t a full year (only 60 games, due to the late wrist injury), that’s still a large enough sample size to see what’s going on. In a contract year, Lowry made the shift into an elite 3-point shooter, and I don’t see why that transformation can’t continue this year; though Casey’s new offensive system putting an extra emphasis on the three-pointer means his percentages may be see a slight decline due to volume.
Lowry’s assists are a beautiful part of his game, and with a more passing-oriented Raptor offense expected to take shape (we hope), I can see him taking an improved distributor role, while passing some of his scoring load to DeRozan, Ibaka, C.J. Miles or Norm on many nights.
His assists per 100 possessions continues to be above 9.0 (it has stayed that way since his first year in Toronto), and I’d actually expect this figure to climb from the 9.4 level it was at last season.
ICYMI: Lowry’s assist impact stretches off the floor as well. For Thanksgiving, Kyle and his wife gave back to the community, by donating 300 Thanksgiving meals to families in need in the city of Toronto.
Lowry’s always been the kind of player that impacts the floor in so many ways that statistics may fail to realize. So the best we can probably do is look at holistic impact-based statistics.
In Lowry’s last two seasons, his PER, win-shares, and overall box plus/minus have been the highest in his career. It’s his ability to play and lead multiple lineups, knack for the game, basketball IQ, and clutch shots he can hit that lead to these kind of numbers. The Raptors have boasted 50+ wins in each of the last 2 years after never having done that in franchise history, and it’s no secret why. Kyle Lowry is a top-25 player for a reason.
Season lookahead and prediction
Regardless of what he’s accomplished in the past, I expect this year to be a legitimate test for Kyle Lowry – is his game going to finally regress slightly as we all expect it to at some point, or is it going to be a continued progression for the now 3-time All-star? With how late his rise begun, one would expect a quicker-than-normal fall, right?
The truth is, while the numbers may suggest a continued progression, all of this probably depends on a few simple factors – namely (1) his health (obviously), (2) how much Dwane Casey decides to use Lowry in the offense, (3) whether this new passing-and-shooting philosophy will work, and (4) whether Lowry can do his part in continuing to transition into a passing-and-shooting style of player. And like the numbers indicate in the past couple of seasons, I expect him to do it pretty well.
I’d say the scoring number on a per-game basis will probably dip (let’s say to 18-20 ppg), but the efficiency, three-point shooting, assist ratios and overall plus-minus numbers may look similar, or even noticeably better. With the shape Lowry has kept himself in, and another trim-down apparent this past off-season, I can only see him being better. But as always … time, wins and losses will tell.
Statistics provided by basketballreference.com