What do you need to win a basketball game?
Points, sure. Players who can get you assists, rebounds, steals – also important. You need sound defensive schemes, a robust playbook, and a coach who understands the opponent’s soft spots. That much is obvious. But what do you really need?
There’s certain intangibles that contribute to winning basketball which aren’t necessarily reflected in a box score. The willingness to take a charge against the opponent’s heaviest player, being a vocal presence, directing traffic on defense and giving your teammate a firm shove in the backside to help him get around a screen.
These things are hard to quantify, yet they hold equal importance in deciding who wins basketball games. When you see it – it’s nearly impossible to ignore. When a player puts their body on the line, stops a fast break at mid court, or whose voice can be heard piercing the steady murmur of 20,000 psychotic fans as they help their teammates make the right decision. They are the type of plays that force us up out of our Lay-Z Boys, incite unintentional fist pumps or cause us to scream profanities in public places. In the moment, it’s all that matters. But when we remove ourselves from these adrenaline-fueled blips on the map of basketball spectating, they become just that – tiny moments in an otherwise alley-oop, no-look-pass and did-he-just-pull-up-from-the-logo focused world that we live in.
We let box scores, highlights and armchair coaches govern our opinions of what elite talent is supposed to look like on a basketball court. Because hey, if a guy just posted a near triple double, or hit 8 threes and 16 free throws, chances are it was a pretty impressive display of skill. But it’s not the only way to leave your hand-print on a basketball game.
In this wild and wonderful world we live in as Toronto Raptors fans, we have so much to be excited about. We’ve been saturated in storylines this season to the point where we don’t know what to do with ourselves. First it was the arrival of Kawhi Leonard. How would the Raps offense look with a true superstar at the helm? Will he be able to stay healthy? Would Kyle Lowry ever speak to him??
After the strange inconsistencies with Leonard’s availability and presence (or lack thereof) at games he sat, we got thrown in the spin cycle for another couple weeks. Then Pascal Siakam grabbed us by the gonads and took us on this wonderful and rapid journey that recently climaxed in a blistering 44 point performance ahead of the All-Star break.
Sprinkle in the Marc Gasol addition, flashes of Chris Boucher and the chatter around how Nick Nurse, a rookie NBA Head Coach, would configure the pieces of our most talented roster ever, and you’ve got the largest buffet of headlines in franchise history. The one dish that rarely seems to be on the menu? Kyle Lowry.
Yeah, he’s had a down year from a scoring perspective. Posting 7-year lows in field goal percentage and scoring isn’t a great look for a guy who is meant to be the second-best player on a championship caliber team. But that’s the thing, he still is. And while Kawhi Leonard is unquestionably the biggest statistical contributor to this Raptors team, Kyle might be just as important to his team’s post-season success.
Averaging a career-high (by a wide margin) of 9.2 assists per contest, good for second in the league this year, Kyle has tinkered with his offensive game in an effort to help his team reach its ceiling – and it’s working. Lowry finds himself ranked 7th in the league in assist percentage this season. For you non-nerds out there, assist percentage is an estimated percentage of teammate field goals a player has assisted on while they’re on the court. A measure of how involved a player is in initiating their team’s offense.
Kyle’s always been an elite distributor right? Well, not exactly. While Lowry has led his team in assists every single season that he’s run point for the Dinos, the highest he’s ever ranked in league-wide assist percentage is 20th, back in the 2013-2014 season. That’s when Steve Nash’s back still worked, Ellen took the most epic selfie of all time, and How I Met Your Mother was still on the air. That is the most effective Kyle Lowry has ever been as passer, and it’s still over 100% worse than where he ranks today.
Another dirty little secret about Lowry’s playmaking impact this year: he’s doing it while boasting the 3rd lowest usage rate of his career (18.7). For context, the other 7 guys ahead of him in assist percentage (Harden, Kyrie, Lebron, etc) average a usage rate of 28.2. Westbrook, the only player exceeding Lowry in assists per game, carries a usage rate of 30.0.
So what does this all mean? Touch for touch, Lowry has been the best playmaker in basketball this season. If you’ve watched the Raptors play this year, this shouldn’t come as a shock. The ball is zipping around the court faster than a hummingbird en route to its feeder. Long gone are the days of standing and watching as our best player begins a post-up from the elbow with 14 seconds left on the shot clock. Sure, Leonard has had his share of iso possessions – but for the most part, this team has normalized the fast-passing “we don’t care who scores” style of offense that has been idealized for so many seasons.
The man igniting the spark behind this “Spursy” brand of unselfish basketball? Kyle Lowry. The eye test backs up the Villanova Point Guard’s irreplaceable value to this team, but so do the numbers. Four of Toronto’s top five net-rated lineups include Kyle:
His playmaking has put him in the highest tier of point guards this year, but the most incredible thing about Kyle Lowry, is that what he brings to the table for his team is so much more than his statistical outputs.
I’ve always thought the true mark of a star is the ability to significantly elevate their teammates level of play. In a kick-ass piece of writing published by the Athletic, Blake Murphy did some digging on the impact of Kyle’s sheer presence on the court. The chart below examines Lowry’s WOWY (with or without you) impact on his teammate’s net rating over the past 4 years:
From within this piece, I think this is a pretty remarkable graphic. Lowry's WOWY impact on teammate net rating the last 4 years: pic.twitter.com/mc4vD8tdDP
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 23, 2019
Almost every single player to ever don a Toronto Raptors jersey has been a more effective basketball player when they share the court with Kyle Lowry. This isn’t a metric that accounts for Kyle’s dime dropping, points scored or 3-point percentage. But it is a number that reflects each fast break stopped, defensive assignment screamed out, and fellow Raptor our Pitbull has ever shoved through the receiving end of a screen.
The above graphic is a numerical justification for the communal drop in our stomachs we all felt when we heard the news that Lowry could potentially be included in a trade at the deadline. Beyond the fact that a trade would have gutted the last piece of a core that began this journey with us, there was something else that just didn’t sit right.
On paper, the proposed swap of Conley for Lowry wasn’t absurd. An improvement on offense and FG efficiency — from a numbers perspective, you could argue the deal made sense. But it didn’t make sense in the slightest, did it?
It induced feelings of nausea nation-wide, and fear that we were about to lose the backbone of everything Masai and Co. had built up till now. The primal cause of these emotions couldn’t be argued using recent box scores, assist to turnover ratios or House of Highlights clips. No, the reason no one north of the border was okay with Kyle leaving is derived from the same feeling we get every time he takes a charge, stones a lanky wing in the post, or throws his body on top of a loose ball during crunch time.
The reason, above all else that we revere number 7 in red and white isn’t so much measured as it is felt. Each night, Leonard brings unrivaled scoring prowess, Gasol lends a silky-smooth touch from the high post and Siakam turns awkward bounces in to opportunity and fast breaks. Lowry, is not so linear in his on-court contributions.
Sometimes, it’s mastery of pace control with a few dagger threes. Other nights he might go 2/11 and put on a distribution clinic, deferring to his talented surrounding cast. But every night, you can bet your next paycheck that Kyle Lowry is going to do everything in his power to raise his team’s win total by 1.
That’s one stat you can always count on.