DeMar DeRozan was an All-Star a season ago, is a safe bet for 20 points every night, and has missed the last 15 games for the Toronto Raptors. During that stretch, the Raptors have gone 11-4.
The Raptors currently have the best Offensive Rating since 1973-74, when the statistic is first available. Said differently, they are scoring more points per possession than any team in recorded history.
That is nothing short of incredible. It’s also in large part the work of one Kyle Lowry, the best player on a 24-7 team that sits atop the Eastern Conference as December nears its conclusion.
Lowry’s brilliance is hardly a new phenomenon. I remember being enamored with the trade that landed him. His first season probably cooled those feelings for most, and I had legitimate concerns about his game. He was almost a New York Knick after the Rudy Gay trade, in what’s become one of this franchise’s greatest What-Ifs. From the moment that trade was nixed onward, he’s been masterful at the offensive end. He’s put the team on his back for countless games, had some of the most incredible performances in Raptors lore and become the face, avatar, and heartbeat of the team.
Over the past nine days, Lowry has been putting on the full KLOE act. 22 points and nine dimes in just 31 minutes against the Knicks. 34 points as he tried to keep the team in it against Derrick Rose and the Bulls. 25 points and seven dimes against Chris Paul in an upset of the Clippers. 30-7-11 against Ty Lawson and the Nuggets. That’s a four-game stretch stretch shooting 56.3 percent and averaging 27.8 points, five rebounds and 7.5 assists, with the team going 3-1 and notching two wins out west.
For the season, Lowry’s now averaging 20.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 7.7 assists while shooting 45.5 percent from the floor. Each of those represents a career high. His 24.7 player efficiency rating is easily a career-high and ranks sixth among all qualified players. His 57.1 true shooting percentage is a career-best. All of this has come while his usage rate has spiked even further, which is generally accompanied by a decrease in efficiency, not an increase. Since DeRozan went down, Lowry’s been even better, averaging 22.6 points and 9.1 assists on 45.9 percent shooting. The team’s depth has helped, as has Lou Williams in particular, but Lowry has secured the team firmly to his back.
There are nits to pick, of course. Lowry is not a superstar in the traditional sense, and there are good arguments to be made about where he stands in the discussion of “best player on a team” rankings. He can be shot-happy at times, displaying tunnel vision late in games and losing control of his instrument to a degree once he’s decided the outcome is his to determine. He’s slipped defensively, too, and while he helps force a good deal of turnovers, his man coverage has been found wanting more often this season. He’s not perfect. That’s all fine to discuss, and questioning how sustainable his play – and the play of the team – is is the job of national media. They’re not hating, it’s their job to evaluate what the Raptors’ upside is with Lowry as the lead dog. Those are fine debates to have, it’s really okay.
Here’s something for you to use in any debate or discussion, because it’s worth repeating over and over and over: Kyle Lowry is leading the best offense in recorded history.
What’s even more remarkable about the team’s performance, and specifically Lowry’s role in it, is that they’ve done this largely without the use of assists. Much as people see the chemistry this team has and assume they play a Spursian brand of basketball, but they don’t. This is one of the most isolation-heavy offenses in basketball, and in Lowry, Williams, and DeRozan, the Raptors possess an embarrassment of singular shot (and foul) creating ability.
This isn’t conjecture from watching games and occasionally being frustrated with the somewhat bland and repetitive offensive sets. The Raptors are dead last in the league in the percentage of their field goals that are assisted.
Through last night’s games, team shooting splits on assisted and unassisted shot attempts @Markos1O @HPbasketball: pic.twitter.com/QCaQS49xFI
— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) December 29, 2014
The Raptors do better on assisted field goals, as do all teams. They actually shoot an effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the value of threes) of 63.4 percent on assisted field goals, the best mark in the entire league. Why, then, do they assist so infrequently? Well, the talents of their three best scorers dictate that unassisted field goals aren’t terrible options – the team has a 42.2 percent effective field goal percentage on unassisted baskets, which is the ninth-best mark in the league.
Lowry has a 59.6 percent eFG when he occasionally works in a catch-and-shoot role, but he’s also at 44.7 percent on pullups and 58 percent within 10 feet of the basket. (I would love to be able to compare his assisted and unassisted eFG, but the NBA’s shot database currently has Lowry at 100 percent shooting in both scenarios. He’s been good, but not that good.)
The gap in eFG between assisted and unassisted still suggests the Raptors could be even deadlier by shifting some one-on-one attempts to attempts borne from more passing. That’s true in a broad sense, but their iso-ways also produce a ton of free throws, with the Raptors ranking eighth in free throw rate. Lowry, DeRozan, Williams, and Jonas Valanciunas all rank in the top-25 in the league in free throw attempts per-100 possessions used. Free throws help drive an offense’s performance beyond just their ability to hit shots, and they also help on the defensive end by allowing the defense to get set.
Offense is largely driven by what are known as the Four Factors. Lowry’s impact on eFG and free throw rate have been discussed, but he contributes in the other two areas, as well.
The Raptors rank seventh in offensive rebounding rate. Among qualified guards (this includes some wings classified as guard-forwards by Basketball Reference), Lowry ranks 26th in offensive rebounding rate. If guard-forwards are excluded, he ranks 18th, in with the likes of Tyreke Evans and James Harden. His impact isn’t necessarily profound here, but he’s abvove-average.
The final “factor” is turnover rate, the area where the Raptors really stand out. Toronto has turned the ball over on just 12 percent of their possessions, second only to Charlotte on the season. For a team that relies heavily on guys going one-on-one and attacking, that’s fairly remarkable. (For what it’s worth, the percentage of a team’s field goals that are assisted explains about 7.5 percent of the variance in turnover percentage.) Bad pass turnovers are avoided if a player is just driving or scoring on his own, and while that’s at times ugly to watch, it’s proven a decent way to protect the ball.
Again, Lowry shines in this regard. Among all players who use at least 25 percent of their team’s possessions when on the floor, Lowry has the 13th-lowest turnover rate, coughing up the ball just 11 percent of the time. Among all guards who use even 20 percent of their team’s possessions, Lowry is again 13th. For high-usage guards, he has the fifth-lowest turnover rate (Williams is tops in this regard, by the way, turning the ball over just 7.4 percent of the time).
In every factor of an offense’s success, Lowry is delivering. The circumstances under which he’s doing it are nothing short of astounding, leading the league’s best offense (ever, to this point) without the team’s top scoring option, and helping drive the team to an 11-4 mark without their lone All-Star from a season ago. He’s seventh in Win Shares, for however much stock you put in that stat. He’s fifth in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus and Wins Above Replacement, again, for whatever you get from those stats (and it shouldn’t be a lot, but it’s sure nice that they back the narrative up).
Lowry has been incredible this season, amazing since DeRozan went down, and on a whole other level the last four games. Kyle Lowry is truly over everything right now.