In Defense of Kyle Lowry

The embattled point guard is fighting more than just a finger injury, he’s fighting the blind vitriol of an angry lynch mob.

I get it. I really do.

This team is 5-7, and as Zach Salzmann of RaptorsHQ pointed out, the Raptors are losing ugly. Rudy Gay and Demar Derozan are combining to use more almost 60% of Raptors possessions (and FYI, Gay is using more possessions than either Lebron or Durant), and the team has been much more successful with either, rather than both players on the court at the same time. Throw a pair of overtime losses, a gut-wrenching loss to the Bobcats (where Dwane Casey inexplicably forgot how math works), a spanking by the Bulls, and I can see why everyone is upset. I am too.

The fanbase is angry, we’re looking for someone/something to blame, and rightfully so because something is definitely wrong with this team. We’ve pointed the finger at Gay and Derozan for their high usage/low efficiency production. We’ve pointed the finger at Dwane Casey and his seemingly inept offensive system. We’ve pointed the finger at the lack of ball movement (30th in the NBA in assist/game). We’ve pointed a finger at the barren wasteland that is the Raptors’ bench.

But now a portion of the fanbase, enveloped and blinded by sheer frustration, has started to point the finger at Kyle Lowry, citing that he can’t or won’t pass, and for that they’ve gone too far.

It’s one thing to criticize Lowry because he’s far from perfect (synonym: Chris Paul). He’s not a good shooter from the outside, his reckless play-style leads to him being injury prone and he has a penchant for playing hero-ball in the clutch which usually manifests in him launching an ill-advised three-pointer in transition. If you want to criticize Lowry, there’s plenty of kindling lying around waiting for your fire to burn.

It’s also fine if you want to Ujiri to trade away Lowry. If you’re in favor of tanking, trading Lowry would be easily the most viable, and the most effective way to sink the season. Even if you’re not a proponent of tanking, there’s also some sense in trading Lowry to recoup some of the value in his expiring contract.

However, it’s another thing to fabricate criticisms of Kyle Lowry that are simply untrue – claims like “Lowry can’t/won’t pass”.

Let’s first throw out Lowry’s boxscore numbers, which is probably what’s angering the fans. At this current time of writing (right after the Philly game), Lowry is averaging an rather pedestrian 12.4 points, 6.3 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals in 35.5 minutes per game. He’s shooting 38.1%/37.3%/68.3% which translates to an ugly 51.7 TS% (still 2 percentage points higher than both Demar and Rudy). Those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page.

However there are plenty of contextual factors to consider. First, Lowry suffered a finger injury in the preseason and he’s been wearing a splint on his non-shooting hand, which is likely affecting his shooting, as evidenced by his uncharacteristically low free-throw percentage (67% this season, 80% last season, career 78%). Second, his role in the offense  has been nearly marginalized. His usage rate (% of possessions used while he’s on the court) this season is 17.1%, which is the lowest it has ever been outside of his rookie season. Lastly, with only 12 games played this season, there’s always the caveat of small-sample size that needs to be heeded.

If you’d like to criticize Lowry for his shooting, be my guest. But let’s focus on his passing, of which he is (wrongfully) receiving the most criticism and derision.

By whatever assist metric you want to use – be it assists per game, assists per 36 minutes, assist% – Lowry’s assist numbers aren’t spectacular, but they’re far from awful. He’s currently averaging 6.3 assists per game which ranks 14th in the NBA.  He drops to 18th in assists per 36 minutes, which is right in-line with his assist% (also 18th). However, I personally think that his assist numbers are actually a bit deflated.

Lowry is definitely moving the ball. Lowry is currently averaging 67.6 passes per game, which is the sixth highest mark in the NBA ahead of players like Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker etc.

So why are the assists down? Perhaps his teammates just aren’t shooting? After all, you can’t record an assist if nobody is shooting. Well that’s quite possible because despite making so many passes, Lowry’s teammates are only shooting 11.7 times per game after receiving a pass from Lowry, which ranks 19th in the NBA.

Okay, so maybe Lowry just isn’t generating good looks for his teammates and they’re opting to not shoot, an admittedly hilarious proposition given that Lowry spends the majority of the time playing with and passing to two shot-happy wing players. This could be true, but Lowry is still averaging the 14th highest assists per opportunity (number of assists per assist opportunity, ie: someone shoots after a pass from Lowry), a mark higher than guys like Jeff Teague, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook, which suggests that the chances he creates aren’t bad because when his teammates do shoot, they’re making them at a pretty decent clip.

So maybe…he’s just a different player? I doubt that too. The chart below shows a comparison of his play-type usage (from Synergy Sports) between this season, and last season. He’s playing less in isolation, and he’s shooting a tad less in the pick and roll, while shooting a little more in spot-up scenarios, but aside from these incremental differences, does he look any different to you?

chart1 (1)

But all this pandering around SportVU and Synergy Sport information is a bit like the blind-man and the elephant, and the two elephants in the room (I know I’m mixing two analogies), are undoubtedly the poor shooting by the wing players, and the Raptors’ glacial pace.

Whether by coaching design, or by choice, Lowry is making most of his passes to Demar and Rudy, who are both shooting at career worst rates. In order for Lowry to get an assist, somebody has to make a shot, and Gay and Derozan are struggling with that whole “putting the ball in the basket” thing right now (although Demar is really starting to turn that around).

And then there’s the issue with pace. A higher pace means more possessions, which means more opportunities to generate shots/assists/rebounds, whatever. Currently, the Raptors are 28th in pace, which means Lowry, and the Raptors as a whole, have less chances to put up assists. After adjusting for pace, Lowry’s pace-neutral average of 6.4 assists per game is right in line with his averages over the last three seasons (6.4, 6.5, 6.5).

So what we’re seeing is the same Kyle Lowry – a player who isn’t necessarily pass-first, but is still a very capable passer. He’ll never average double-digit assists per game, but he’s more than capable of running an offense.

Is he Jose Calderon? No he is not. He doesn’t have Calderon’s intuitive sense of timing and spacing in the pick and roll, the very same senses that allowed him to find Amir Johnson rolling down the lane for thundering dunks. But Calderon doesn’t have Lowry’s ability to attack the basket, nor his ability to disrupt the opposing offense with his dogged on-ball hounding.

And most importantly, Lowry’s passing is not, and I repeat, Lowry’s passing is NOT the problem with these hapless Toronto Raptors. He’s part of a bad situation, the orchestrator of a stagnant offense, but is he’s a willing and capable passer. Want more proof? Here’s Lowry in an actual NBA-level offense.

So keep looking and keep blaming, all you angry Raptors fans. Blame the coach, critique the wings, chastise the bench and lament the stagnant offense, but don’t fabricate problems because there are plenty of real issues with this roster that are more than deserving of your venom.

Statistical support from NBA stats, SportVU, Synergy Sports and Basketball-Reference. Photo courtesy of ESPN.

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