When the Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard this past summer, they were doing that because the organization had their sights set on getting a superstar, a player who could be one of the most dominant players in the entire league and help to lead them to further postseason success. Through eleven games this season, Kawhi has played in seven of those games and each time he’s taken the court he’s delivered exactly that, in being both an unstoppable scorer that teams struggle to slow down as well as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league.
At the same time though, the Raptors also seem to have acquired another superstar in that trade, if early season returns are to be believed, with the way that Kyle Lowry has expanded his game this season. He is picking apart defenses with ease, creating easy opportunities for teammates and keeping everyone on the Raptors involved, while also scoring efficiently himself when the space presents itself and the situation calls for it. He leads the league once again in charges taken. Lowry has always been the heart and soul of this era of Raptors basketball, in that the team has largely succeeded as he’s succeeded and Toronto has depended on his successes to build victories, but this has been a much more effective player thus far this season.
Lowry is shooting over 40% from three-point range again this season, which he did two years ago and just missed a season ago, but he’s also shooting a career high on two-point shots. The difference is that while he’s shooting similar percentages at the rim to previous years, he’s getting there much more frequently, benefiting from the increased space around him in the Raptors offense, with the team now fielding shooters at every position more frequently.
There’s another factor here that has to be mentioned as well, in that turning Serge Ibaka into a center has allowed the Raptors to start Pascal Siakam, and his growth as a creator in the half-court has created mismatches frequently which causes problems for defenses and opens up space for everyone around him, as teams struggle to contain his attacks off the dribble with his size and length. Siakam is still figuring out his outside shot, shooting just 17% from three-point range this season, but remains a willing shooter and it’s something he should be able to add to his game at some point. Last season Siakam was a big contributor for the Raptors’ bench, which has missed him so far this season, but this year he’s added a dynamic to the starting lineup that thus far, hasn’t been figured out by an opponent.
As well, Leonard has been a struggle for opposition teams, with his incredible strength on the wing allowing him to bully defenders and get to the rim at will, and he’s been hitting his jumper from all over the court as well. Serge Ibaka has become a dominant offensive weapon for the Raptors, scoring inside and out and developing his game as a roll man, notably hitting 25 of his last 27 shots going into Wednesday night’s game in Sacramento, and Danny Green has been the knockdown three-and-D player the Raptors have spent years looking for.
At the center of it all remains Lowry though. When he’s on the court, he’s running the offense and demanding the best from his teammates, picking apart defenses and finding ways to always put his teammates in the right place to succeed. If a Raptors player is delivering a dominant offensive performance thus far this season, Lowry isn’t far away, finding a way to keep them going, whether it’s finding a big man in the pick and roll to get them another easy look at the basket, or creating space for Leonard to go to work while also positioning himself to take advantage of any over-committing the defense does to try to take away Kawhi’s game.
The elephant in the room here, and the player that I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention at this point, is the Raptors’ departed star, DeMar DeRozan, who is off to his own torrid start in San Antonio. The partnership between DeRozan and Lowry was always entertaining for fans, with the two players developing into best friends off the court and helping each other to become All-Stars on the court. For years, the Raptors simply didn’t have the offensive creators to run large portions of their offense through Lowry, and asking him to do more at that end of the floor meant that he would wear down as the season went on, leading to late season injuries that derailed several Raptors playoff runs. Last season, with the emergence of Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, the team had found solutions to limit Lowry’s minutes which has allowed him the energy he’s had this season to be a focal point offensively, and find rest when he needs it.
This isn’t to take anything away from what DeRozan did for the Raptors. He was a critical part of those teams and his ability to absorb high usage offensively and find points at will was necessary for a lot of those teams, and that allowed Lowry to be the player the team needed him to be in those seasons. There’s also no need to fully re-litigate the weaknesses that DeMar brought to the table there either, except in the context of mentioning how filling those holes allows Lowry to expand his own game this season.
This year, with Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard on board, the Raptors have strong defensive presences at every position in the starting lineup, lessening the burden on Kyle at that end of the floor. In past season, the team would at times have Lowry guard up a position or two at times, given his ability to be a physical defender, to afford teammates easier assignments, and that’s no longer necessary this season, which helps to save Kyle’s energy for the offensive end. At the same time, he’s playing with more space offensively, with those same players on the wing. Opposing defenses don’t want to bring a second defender to help on a Lowry drive if that means leaving Danny Green open in a corner for three, or giving Leonard more space to find his own shot. This means that Kyle isn’t just playing with the ball in his hands more often this season, he’s doing it with more room to seek out holes in the defense.
So just how dominant has Kyle Lowry been this season, with the growth in his own game as well as the roster better suited to him being dominant? As of the writing of this article, despite Steph Curry having a resurgent season in Golden State and Giannis Antetokounmpo looking the part of a fully realized superstar in Milwaukee with Mike Budenholzer’s new offense, it’s Kyle Lowry, not either of them, leading the NBA in Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM metric. He’s leading the league in assists by a large margin, and he’s helped Serge Ibaka to a resurgent season offensively, as mentioned above.
The attention in the MVP race thus far has largely, for the Raptors, rested on Kawhi Leonard, and for good reason. Prior to his injury in the 2016-17 playoffs, Kawhi looked on his way to being potentially the best basketball player in the world, and this year, while still not quite back in full form, he’s looked on his way to being that player once again. He’s one of the best perimeter defenders basketball has ever seen and a nearly unstoppable offensive force at the same time.
Still, despite Leonard’s dominance, at least through the first eleven games, Lowry has been the Raptors’ best player. Maybe he can’t maintain this pace and will regress as the season goes on, but until that happens, Raptors fans should appreciate what they’re seeing in their second superstar, and maybe Lowry deserves a little more recognition for being one of the NBA’s absolute best through the first weeks of the season.