A lot is riding on 2018 playoffs for Kyle Lowry

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This is a guest post from Oren Weisfeld.

Kyle Lowry is the driver of the Toronto Raptors ship. A four-time all-star who leads the Raptors franchise in 3-point field goals and box plus/minus, and ranks second in assists. He is a star point guard in a league that demands starpower at that position. The fact that the Raptors acquired Lowry for just a mid first-round pick should be icing on the cake. Yet despite everything Lowry has done for the organization, leading them to what will soon be five straight playoff appearances, the point guard’s inability to perform at the same level in the playoffs stands out to many fans. It’s the reason Lowry might be the most polarizing player in the Raptors organization, and if it doesn’t change this year, it’s unclear in what direction management might need to steer the ship from there.

We all know what Lowry is capable of. He’s a highly intelligent point guard with a lethal 3-point shot and an ability to find his teammates in the right positions and make the best play possible. He does the little things that might not always appear on the score sheet but always pass the eye test. It’s no wonder he has the highest box plus/minus in franchise history at +5.5 while  leading the league in charges-drawn and placing in the top ten in both steals and assists. This season, like the rest, Lowry has been a regular season beast, scoring 16.7 points per game with 5.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists in just 32.3 minutes, his fewest minutes since the 2012-13 season. The reduced workload has paid off as Lowry has been healthy all season while shooting an efficient 40.8 percent from three with a 60.9 true shooting percentage, heating up as the season goes on. Lowry is an all-star vying for a spot on an all-NBA team. So why do so many fans not trust Lowry, expressing concern when the Raptors handed their all-star point guard a three year deal worth $90 million in the offseason?

That has to do with Lowry’s playoff woes, of course. Since becoming a Raptor in 2012, Lowry has never been himself in the playoffs, consistently underperforming en route to several earlier than expected exits. Those include an embarrassing first-round sweep to the Washington Wizards in 2014-15 where Lowry shot just 31.6 percent and looked completely outmatched by John Wall and a second-round sweep to the Cleveland Cavaliers last season that caused a culture shift in the Raptors organization. In fact, Lowry has the second-worst playoff field-goal percentage among all active players at just 39.4 percent, according to basketball-reference.com. Compared to an all-star point guard like Chris Paul, who’s shooting percentage actually improves in the playoffs to 48.4 percent, Lowry’s drop-off looks significantly worse. That isn’t to say that Lowry completely forgets how to ball come playoff time, because that’s not the case. He still does the little things that make him the driver of the ship such as come up with timely assists, steals, and drawn-charges. In fact, despite his shooting woes Lowry has actually been the best Raptor in terms of +/- through the past four playoff runs, averaging +15 per 100 possessions. But as many fans will jump to point out, if you are going to drive an NBA ship in 2018, you better be able to shoot the ball.

His inability to perform when it matters most has caused a divide between the Raptors fan base: While some are willing to overlook his playoff stumbles in favour of the fact that he is the leader who helped legitimize the franchise by taking them to five straight playoff appearances, others argue that with Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet showing immense skill and potential in limited backup roles the Raptors might be better off trading Lowry or limiting his role. What has become clear is that if Lowry doesn’t perform this time around, with the Raptors being the No.1 seed with legitimate expectations of making their NBA Finals in franchise history, it will be extremely hard for him to re-earn the trust of an already-conflicted fan base.

This might be Lowry’s last chance to prove to a concerned fan base that he has it in him, and the Raptors organization is well aware of that. The organization has taken measures to ensure Lowry is rested, healthy, and in the best possible situation to perform down the stretch, limiting his minutes and decreasing his offensive workload by moving away from isolation ball in favour of heavy ball movement and a more collaborative offensive approach.

Proof that the ball is moving more with less dependence on Lowry lies in the numbers: Lowry’s assist percentage has nudged up from 29.9 percent last season to 30.6 percent this season and the Raptors as a team are assisting on 58.3 percent of their baskets, up from a league-worst 48.1 percent last season. The extra rest and lighter offensive workload seems to be helping Lowry, as the Philadelphia-native has been efficient all season and is heating up at the perfect time. As opposed to shooting worst down the stretch like he has in previous seasons, whether it was due to injury or fatigue, Lowry is playing his best basketball all season since the all-star break. Since the beginning of February, Lowry has shot an impressive 44.9 percent from behind the arc while taking a team-high 7.9 attempts per game. His confidence looks to be at an all-time high.

The good news is that Lowry has a real opportunity this year to prove to the segment of the fan base that might not trust that he can be himself in the playoffs. Lowry’s recent hot streak from the 3-point line might not be a fluke; it might just be that Lowry is becoming a lethal 3-point shooter late in his career. Like his mentor Chauncey Billups, whose 3-point shot got better as he aged into his thirties, Lowry has shot 40.2 percent from three in his last three seasons (since the season in which he turned 30) after shooting just 33.2 in his first nine NBA seasons. Maybe Lowry is just getting started, a top-10 shooter (he ranks 3rd in threes made and 19th in percentage among players with at least 100 makes) who will remain this good for the next three-to-five years. Maybe the Raptors knew this when they re-signed Lowry in the offseason, and maybe they will try to get more out of him down the stretch, increasing his 3-point attempts per game from 7.6 to a Curry-like 10 in the near future. Those are all big maybes, because it really doesn’t matter what Lowry can do if he continues to not be himself in the playoffs.

Some people argue that come playoff time, Lowry gets shook and mentally can’t perform at his normal level. Others argue it’s more physical than psychological, as his body deteriorates after playing such heavy minutes throughout the season. Either way, it appears that in the playoffs Lowry loses the edge and some of the confidence he displays throughout the regular season. Some players just seem to be more clutch than others,and part of being a superstar and earning a $90 million dollar contract has to do with performing well in the games that matter most. Lowry has always had trouble doing that. At the age of 32 with five playoff appearances under his belt, Lowry has had plenty of time to learn from his mistakes. Maybe the work the Raptors organization has put in to keep Lowry rested and give him less of an offensive workload will pay off and maybe Lowry will stay hot from behind the arc and have the playoffs the Raptors need him to have in order to make the NBA Finals.

For Lowry, a lot is riding on the 2018 playoffs. The organization rewarded him in the offseason with a massive contract despite his playoff stumbles, but Masai Ujiri and Co. only have so much patience. What will happen if Lowry fails to deliver once again and the Raptors are knocked out earlier than expected? The relationship between Lowry and the fan base will likely be soured. More importantly, though, the Raptors organization might run out of patience. If they believe Lowry’s playoff struggles are a genuine trend rather than a series of flukes, they might have little choice but to re-evaluate who is running the ship. And if he comes through, the bet the organization made on him may result in the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

All stats current as of March 27th, 2018. All stats from basketball-reference.com unless otherwise stated.

This is a guest post from Oren Weisfeld.

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