Yesterday felt like doomsday for the Raptors. The last two weeks have seen Masai Ujiri and the Raptors push their pile of chips to the centre of the table in order to compete now, and yesterday felt like a crushing blow to those plans.
In are Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker. Out went Terrence Ross, Jared Sullinger (and his scooter), a 2017 first round pick (the lowest of their two first round picks), a 2017 second round pick, and a 2018 second round pick.
And now out goes Kyle Lowry for the time being. Doomsday.
Yes, it’s only temporary, but the heart of the team will be sitting on the sideline for the foreseeable future (While many reported he aims to return for the playoffs, Woj says 4-5 weeks is the target. And when has Woj ever been wrong before?). That’s a huge lose for a team that has made their goal competing for a championship, and now finds themselves in a battle for playoff seeding.
Meanwhile the Raptors find themselves on a four game winning streak, the last three of which have come without Lowry on the court. This is all the more surprising when one considers they had a double digit deficit in each of those games, and Toronto now finds themselves just two games behind Boston for the second seed…for whatever that’s worth at the end of February.
Toronto is in survival mode without Lowry, and after their deadline acquisitions of Ibaka and Tucker they are may just be able to stay afloat in their race for a top three seed (which would mean they could avoid Cleveland until the conference finals).
Yes, losing Lowry for an undisclosed period of time feels like a sucker punch, but there are a few reasons to step back from the ledge.
1) DeMar DeKobe
Without Lowry beside him DeMar has been carrying the Raptors on his shoulders since the All Star break. Over the last three games he is averaging 37.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3 assists (although with 3 turnovers). He’s doing this while shooting 53.6 percent from the floor, getting to the line 13.7 times per game, and hitting 90.2 percent of his free throws.
It feels like DeRozan has found the little edge that he had when he dominated the early season, which will be needed all the more while Lowry is on the mend.
2) Point Guard Depth
Cory Joseph has struggled the majority of the season to reclaim the consistently strong play he provided in 2015-16, but he has largely looked like his old stuff since returning from the break. He’s got a net rating of +13.2 and has shown renewed defensive effort. It’s been a delight to watch.
Although both are relatively unproven, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet still provide three capable point guards options for Toronto. In fact, the two shockingly shared the floor together during a pivotal run against the Knicks last night. We’ve seen glimpses of each being capable of more, with Delon in particular having deserved additional minutes for some time.
Entering the deadline it seemed like the Raptors could likely use their point guard depth to help juice a trade or two, and holding on to all four of their point guards looks like an increasingly wise decision with Lowry missing time.
3) Defensive Identity
It feels a little weird even writing these words about the Raptors, but Ibaka and Tucker are clearly helping to instill a new intensity when it comes to defending. Their comebacks have been more about locking down an opponent rather than an offensive explosion.
Even DeRozan, likely the Raptors most consistently weak defender (and yes, I’m including Jonas in this), has shown renewed focus and intensity. DeRozan has been particularly active when put in the current closing line-up with Cory, Carroll, Ibaka, and Tucker.
If Woj’s timeline is correct (Woj has spoken, and it must therefore be true. Lowry will likely heal in 4-5 weeks simply because Woj told him to), Lowry could return around March 31st (roughly 4.5 weeks) against the Indiana Pacers, leaving him with the final 7 games of the season to get ready for the playoffs. This means the Raptors hopefully just need to stay afloat for roughly 15 games.
The Raptors are clearly a worse team without Lowry. There is no debate to the contrary. But after trading for Ibaka and Tucker the Raptors are better prepared to deal with his lose than they’ve ever been.