I should preface all of this by saying that I don’t care all that much about who starts the All-Star Game, or even who makes it.
With the 2016 game in Toronto, it would certainly be great for a pair of Raptors to represent the team and city in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. They’re also both deserving of a spot, with each ranking among the four best guards in the Eastern Conference so far this season. Either missing out – a real possibility if Lowry doesn’t get the necessary last-minute push to jump Kyrie Irving – would be disappointing, especially since Irving has played so little and Dwyane Wade has been good but not quite on their level.
At the same time, the game is for the fans as Cleveland Cavaliers twitter has been quick to remind us, and Irving is a ridiculously entertaining player. Wade has also done enough that you forgive fans for giving him the legacy vote, especially since he’s still playing well. Lowry himself has said he’s not too worried about ti, because the fans can vote for who the fans want to vote for, and despite dunking in 2015 All-Star Game, Lowry’s style maybe isn’t flashy enough for some in such a showcase. Given all of that and the very real potential the coaches vote both Lowry and DeRozan in, or that an additional spot opens up due to injury, allowing commissioner Adam Silver to give the aggrieved party a place, I won’t get too worked up either way when the results are announced Thursday night on TNT.
With that said, Lowry is deserving of starting the 2016 NBA All-Star Game, and here’s hoping Raptors fans give the necessary Monday push to see him jump Irving. This happened last year, too, with Lowry getting a very late push to surpass Wade, and the Raptors’ media machine still has a few bullets in the chamber, like a Drake tweet (why post on Instagram where likes don’t count as votes, Papi?). The Golden State Warriors fanbase has also gotten behind Lowry as an F-you to the Cavaliers, which could provide a nice little boost. Voting is open until 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, so there’s a lot of time.
However one decides to cast their ballot, so long as it’s based on merit and not entertainment or legacy, Lowry grades out incredibly well. The battle between him, John Wall, Jimmy Butler, and DeRozan for the two guard spots is incredibly close, and on straight statistics, it’s hard to make a wrong choice.
In terms of basic numbers, who you prefer from that group will come down largely to personal preference. Lowry and Butler have been a little more efficient scoring; Lowry and Wall distribute more, with Wall owning a major edge there; Lowry and Butler have a shade more scoring volume; Lowry, Wall, and Butler create a lot of steals. It goes on. If the first place you look is essentially the back of a basketball card, you don’t come out with much better an idea of who is most deserving (Butler probably gets the edge, but they’re all close).
So what’s the next step? From there, you can look at more advanced metrics. Advanced stats, especially ones that try to capture performance in a single metric, aren’t for everyone, and they should never be used alone without the proper context. Real Plus-Minus, DRE, Win Shares, BPM…none of these are a mic drop at all. What they are, though, is another tool to try to separate a very tight group, looking at their performances through a slightly different lens. Using those tools, Lowry’s standing is improved even further. (I’m using totals here rather than per-minute or per-game versions of the metrics because playing more games and more minutes matters – my All-Star vote is descriptive and cumulative, who has done the most to date.)
I realize that without the proper context for the uninitiated, the numbers within that table have little meaning. It’s beyond the scope of this article to explain them, but as a point of reference, every cell in the box is a top-50 mark except for DeRozan’s DRE and Wall’s Win Shares. Every cell for Lowry and Butler represents a top-10 mark in the NBA. In other words, the metrics mostly agree that all four players have been great, and they unanimously agree that Lowry and Butler have been two of the league’s best players.
These metrics may also help us get a better grasp of defensive contributions, though I think most have an idea of where those four stand. Butler is an elite perimeter defender, Wall is an excellent defender at the point, Lowry is a good defender who causes a lot of havoc, and DeRozan is somewhere around average. They probably rank in that order, though it’s worth noting that Lowry’s defense this season has rebounded after a down 2014-15, and he and Wall are probably closer this year than reputation may suggest (although it certainly helps that Cory Joseph is around to take the load off for the 14 minutes they share the floor).
From here, we can start to add some team context. Butler’s leading the league in minutes on a team that sits third in the conference with a 23-16 record, a team on which he is both the best scorer and the best defender. Wall has carried a team that would be woeful without him, but they’re just 19-20, sitting outside of a playoff spot. Lowry and DeRozan have each other to help shoulder the load, which some may see as a shot against them, but they’ve also done so for the conference’s No. 2 team, a 25-15 outfit that ranks in the top 10 on both ends of the floor. The gap between Toronto and Chicago is as narrow as the gap between all of the candidates, and Wall may actually deserve more credit for his circumstances. All four are taking on obscene workloads. In other words, how you want to spin the team context of each, if you even care about such a thing for All-Star voting, is really up to you.
The crux of my argument for Lowry comes down to a bit of team context that also serves to bump DeRozan down a peg. I don’t set out to do that, but the best case to make for Lowry is how much he lifts the play of the Raptors, with or without DeRozan. First, a quick look at how the contenders impact their team, most of which is captured by the advanced metrics above. As with all things, it’s necessary to understand these on-off numbers within the context that they exist. These aren’t mic drops, they’re just descriptions of what’s happened.
Lowry’s impact seems much larger through this lens. It’s magnified even more when you look at the impact Lowry has had on each individual Raptor in the rotation. All four players raise their team’s offense, but even Wall, an elite passer, only raises his team’s true-shooting percentage by 0.9 percentage points.
Lowry lifts the Raptors by seven points per-100 possessions on offense (there is some inconsistency between tables due to differences at Basketball Reference and NBA.com in terms of calculating possessions) and raises the team’s true-shooting percentage by 2.6 percentage points. Five of the team’s eight primary rotation players see an increase in true shooting with Lowry and six see a bump in offensive rating (I’m excluding Valanciunas here only because he’s hardly played without Lowry). There is nobody for whom you’d say Lowry has a negative impact overall except for James Johnson, and his positive impact on several players is profound. To a man, the Raptors are much, much better with Lowry.
I struggled with whether or not to include an intangible element here or not, because Lowry is the Raptors. I wrote earlier this season that he couldn’t be more of an avatar for this team if he were literally a Raptor, and his toughness, desire, and refusal to quit, even when down big, have helped carve out this team’s identity. He’s the guy on the floor for loose balls, he’s the guy making wild forays to the rim when the team desperately needs a bucket, he’s the guy rallying his teammates and acting as an extension of Dwane Casey on the floor, and he’s the guy making sure there’s no such thing as too comfortable a lead or too daunting a hole. He’s a very good team’s unquestioned leader and best player, and that’s what an All-Star should be. Alas, you can strike this paragraph from the record – the other candidates are all probably those things, too, and without going into the trenches with the fans of another team, we can’t really sit back and say Lowry means more to the Raptors than Wall or Butler to the Wizards or Bulls on an intangible, character, or identity level.
Still, even without that extra edge, Lowry’s deserving of the start in the All-Star Game. He’s been exceptional, he’s raised a good team to very good and done so at both ends of the floor, and he’s made everyone around him better for it. Kyle Lowry Over Everything, including John Wall and teammate DeMar DeRozan, and especially over Kyrie Irving.
I’ll do a full All-Star ballot next week before the reserves are announced, but here are my starters based on merit:
G: Kyle Lowry
G: Jimmy Butler (sorry)
F: LeBron James
F: Chris Bosh
F: Paul Millsap
G: Steph Curry
G: Russell Westbrook
F: Kawhi Leonard
F: Kevin Durant
F: Draymond Green