RR Mailbag

Championship Mailbag: Road to the Lowrytitle, He Stay? And Warm Feelings

Before I started writing and podcasting for RR, I loved posing questions to Blake Murphy when he would do his mailbags. It was a cool way to see myself represented on a site I loved, and it was a direct answer from somebody who’s basketball knowledge I respected. As a writer who’s been treated to a warm experience from readers and listeners, I can’t think of anything better than to do this type of write-up. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate a championship with you readers, in our small part, on this wonderful website. To all those who had questions, and to everyone who has engaged in meaningful dialogue in the comments, thank you.

Before we kick this off:  We have a Patreon version of the site here at Raptors Republic. Not only will it provide an ad-free service to you, it will help fund all things RR related. If you’re a fan of the content, want to support, and have the means to do so, you can do that here. If you use twitter, you can follow me here, if you so choose. Going forward, use #RRMailbag on twitter, and I’ll make sure those are considered for future mailbags as well.

Okydoke, let’s get into it.

Great question. Let’s walk it out.

2010: Los Angeles Lakers – Kobe Bryant & Pau Gasol

2011: Dallas Mavericks – Dirk Nowitzki & Tyson Chandler

2012/2013 Miami Heat – LeBron James & Dwyane Wade

2014: San Antonio Spurs – Tim Duncan & Kawhi Leonard

2015: Golden State Warriors – Steph Curry & Draymond Green

2016 – Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron James & Kyrie Irving

2017/2018 – Golden State Warriors – Kevin Durant & Steph Curry

2019 – Toronto Raptors (!!!) – Kawhi Leonard & Kyle Lowry

There’s a (short) conversation to be had about whether or not Lowry deserves the moniker of second best player on this title team. Pascal Siakam was often raised up as the Raptors second option, and he is, in a way. He scores the ball the second most, but he doesn’t initiate or create the second most, that would still be Lowry. Not to mention that Lowry is one of the best game-manager’s in the league and his handling of the pace against every team in the playoffs was masterful. I’d love to shower more praise on Siakam, of course, but Lowry is such a wonderful and cerebral player that it’s easy to recognize his spot as top two on the Raptors squad. He certainly deserves to mentioned next to all those terrific players.

There’s been countless attempts to explain Lowry’s outsized impact on the court, and I actually think most of them do a good job. Basically, there’s a perceived set of margins by which we think teams win basketball games. 3-point percentage, rebounds, points in the paint – these are all good indicators of success and when teams win these margins they do well. What Lowry does (and has done) is thrive in the smaller margins of the game, and he’s unrelenting in those. Firstly, he had the most robust rebounding for a sub-six foot guard in the history of the NBA. That means more possessions, and more jumpstarted transition opportunities, a big deal since the Raptors were the NBA’s best transition offense and stretching the floor vertically was one of the most intriguing aspects of the team this year.

His wildly impressive rim defense on the fast-break is also massively important to the Raptors. His status as point guard usually dictates that he’s closer to his own basket than most of his teammates. This, and his indomitable will to compete means that he’s always getting back to contest shots at the rim, and he’s good at it. Anytime a 6-foot point guard can deter shots at the rim that’s a big victory.

Another edge, calling the timeout in the middle of the floor. This can also be credited to Nick Nurse. Most players call the timeout at the sideline and the ball will be inbounded from that side, this means that both teams know which side of the floor the action will be run from. When Lowry calls the timeouts in the middle of the floor, the Raptors get to choose which side to inbound from. Taking the predictability of a simple timeout and shifting it to an advantage for your team and creating an information deficit between yourself and the other team.

Lastly, he was forward thinking in how he adapted his game. Not only was the pull-up 3 that he incorporated into his game extremely good when contrasting his bowling ball style of getting to the rim and drawing fouls, it was predictive of what way the league was going. Even though he was streaky this past season, Lowry has been one of the best 15 shooters in the NBA over the last 6 years.

Every dynasty has talked about how difficult it is to maintain that level of play. The only player that seemed to do it without breaking was Michael Jordan, and he took a two year break in the middle. Not to mention former teammates and coaches said he had an unhealthy way of seeing the world and imagining slights toward him, always looking for something to respond to and drive his competitor’s spirit. Jordan was built different. As far as the injuries, there’s an aspect of Thompson’s injury that I would label as “freak” even though they seem to be far more common as of late. Kevin Durant’s, though, I think that was the culmination of a long 3 years with the Warriors, mentally and physically. It’s a small miracle that LeBron James’ body held up during his runs to the Finals because it’s definitely a grind to get there, and players who make repeated trips (let alone 5 like Klay) always point to how tough it is mentally and physically.

This isn’t the place to make sweeping judgments about law enforcement and the implications around that. There are people who have far better commentary on that loaded a subject than I do. I, like you I’d guess, have an incredible amount of love and respect for Masai and it’s absurd and a bit shocking that he was in that position. Without making any crazy statements I’ll say that I’m 100% with Masai in regards to that situation.

I have seen it, I liked it a lot! It was strange to see Kawhi offer up that “no one knew what went on behind the scenes, and nothing got out of the organization” freely. That statement seems to indicate drama within the team, but when she asked Kyle and Kawhi to expand they both declined.

My major takeaway was that Lowry calls him ‘Big Whi’, which is fantastic. As far as if he’s staying? I’m not sure. It’s clear he and Lowry have created a good bond, and he has other friendships that have been on display all year.

Basically, the Raptors made the greatest pitch of all time. They tailored to his health specifically, went at his pace, and while doing that they became champions. If Leonard leaves in free agency than the Raptors can objectively say there’s nothing they could’ve done. Would it be disappointing to see him leave? Of course, but I’m holding out hope.

All the love in the world goes out to Serge Ibaka. He had a few massive performances in the playoffs – think about Game 7 against the 76ers, holy **** – and his ability to provide some punch off the bench for the Raptors in the Finals was a really big deal. With that being said, it’s Fred VanVleet who I appreciate immensely. There was a point in this series where VanVleet was laying on the court with blood leaking from his eye (!) and next to his body was a piece of his front tooth that he might’ve never seen again. He got stitched up, came back into the series and didn’t miss a beat. He provided stellar defense chasing Curry around pin-downs, and through split-actions the whole time and crazier than that, in game 6, down the stretch they went to VanVleet as a primary operator. They had VanVleet repeatedly hunting DeMarcus Cousins, and VanVleet killed him in those mismatches. He was an irreplaceable piece of this championship.

They’re all eligible for a ring. At this point it comes down to if the players want one, and if the team is willing to give one – and from what I’ve heard in the past, usually players take them in this scenario.

One of the beautiful things about being a champion is that talent often flocks to you. There’s a reason Cousins chose the Warriors, and for cheap. Provided that Leonard re-signs with the Raptors, I’d expect a two or three players to take a pay cut and try and win next to Leonard-Lowry-Siakam-Gasol. Internal development shouldn’t be ignored, though. The Raptors boast a couple of the most intriguing young players in the league (Siakam, Anunoby) and their progression could really be something. I’m a big fan of Anunoby’s game, and it wasn’t so long ago that he was one of the brightest young players in the league. In fact, I wrote two specific features about him that highlight just how good he can be. Here and here. And Siakam, well, he’ll likely take the next logical step in his career next year, meaning an All-Star appearance and an All-Defensive team nod. Siakam’s meteoric rise is one that I would attach myself to, and it’s certainly not a bad type of internal development to bank on.

The major takeaway here is that you can never trust the Wizards to do what’s best for themselves. I agree that the Wizards should probably try and throw the bank at Ujiri – who knows if he would take it – but in the most Wizards fashion possible, they’ve apparently already backtracked:

The Woj-bomb that was dropped was crazy to see right as the Raptors were preparing to celebrate their title, but it seems like it’s not something to worry about at this point in time. MLSE should be throwing all they can at Ujiri to keep him in Toronto as well.

Terrific question.

Magic: An extremely fun collection of length and defensive discipline that was done in by their lack of offensive creativity and dependence on Nikola Vucevic, who had a tough matchup in Marc Gasol. Before the series started I was of the mind that the Magic were a superior team to not only the Nets and Pistons, but very close to as good as the Celtics. The Magic matched up well against the Raptors defensively, Johnathan Isaac – who I think will have a strong case for MIP next year – played stellar defense on Siakam individually and on Leonard in a team capacity. As ever, the length of the opposing team gave Lowry and VanVleet fits which stagnated the Raptors offense from the jump. The Raptors offense was humming coming into the playoffs, so having the Magic’s defense kind’ve punch the Raptors in the mouth was anxiety inducing for the fans, but it also started the Raptors down a path that would lead them to a championship.

It’s also kind’ve funny that after Leonard blew his rotation before Augustin hit his winning shot, that people were already offering up Gasol as burnt toast in the pick n’ roll, only for Gasol to quell Steph Curry in the same play-type in the Finals. Never underestimate Gasol’s big and beautiful basketball brain.

76ers: There’s a fun and silly conversation about this being the Raptors hardest series. For one, I think it was the hardest series for the Raptors, but only because the Raptors hadn’t reached their apex yet. Don’t get me wrong, the 76ers are damn good. I think that Joel Embiid has a real claim to top-5 status, and the 76ers dependence on him was bigger than any other teams on a star. Jimmy Butler was, of course, awesome and produced really well after a mediocre regular season. Ben Simmons showed his outrageous defensive chops on Leonard and looks the part of a perennial All-Defensive team player. Brett Brown’s decision to put Embiid on Siakam and Simmons on Leonard almost swung the series. The 76ers are a huge team, and a lot of teams aren’t well-equipped to deal with their sheer size, especially when so much of it has transcendent talent. It was one of the strangest playoff series of this year, with blowouts and close games, and Kawhi Leonard’s ‘shot’. Provided that the 76ers bring back Embiid-Simmons-Butler-Redick and Embiid is healthy, I might pick them out of the East next year. A huge and exciting team. It took one of the greatest offensive series of all time from Leonard to take them down.

Bucks: The series that created a fork in the road for Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks were the heavy favourites, most everyone on staff picked them to win the series, and the Raptors started morphing into an all-time defense before our eyes. Against this defense, and Leonard in particular, Antetokounmpo faltered. He built brick-houses from the free throw line, and his reluctancy to shoot hamstrung the Bucks offense. The Raptors attacked that weakness repeatedly, and without fail. Similar to how Brett Brown nearly swung the 76ers series, Nick Nurse flipped this series on it’s head when he put Leonard on Antetokounmpo. The Raptors were so close to going down 3-0 in this series. Double overtime, without Lowry. It got pretty hairy, but they won eight of their next ten against the team with the best record in the league (Bucks) and one of the most impressive dynasties of all time (Warriors). The run they had through these uber-impressive teams positions the Raptors as a team of destiny, which they are.

I had this conversation with Louis Zatzman on the podcast – episode #1046. We actually disagreed on this, and it’s because while I really do rate VanVleet very highly, I think he’s an off-ball player. He can definitely initiate offense, but I think it’s best if he’s left as a tertiary option. He’s an incredibly sticky defender, and a terrific spot-up threat. There’s a lot of things he does well, but there’s a reason his best minutes always came next to one of Delon Wright or Kyle Lowry. I think it’s imperative that VanVleet remain a part of the Raptors going forward, but not as the starting point guard. Also, Lowry is still on contract and he’s incredible haha.

I think this is a tough question to answer, because I’m trying to determine if the Championship counts as a “moment” or if that would have to be when the final buzzer went which was great, but I think there was a “moment” that probably surpasses that as far as jubilation and hysteria… so I think I’ll list my 5 favourite things from this playoff run, and highlight a moment of realization.

5. When we realized that Gasol could guard the pick n’ roll against the Warriors – when they trapped the ball towards the left baseline 4 times in a half and created 3 easy baskets for the Raptors.

4. Fred VanVleet becoming Fred Sr. and becoming a legend – the 7-9 game from downtown in game 4 against the Bucks that may have changed the Raptors course of history.

3. Kawhi reminding the league that he’s a former DPOY – when he blocked Antetokounmpo at the rim in game 3 twice and proceeded to dominate and disrupt an MVP candidate’s offensive game, to the point that Antetokounmpo couldn’t even get comfortable at the free throw line.

2. Kawhi’s incredible and show-stopping offensive game in the 76ers series – Highlighted by his relentless will when attacking the rim, superb mid-range marksmanship and the capacity to hit the biggest shots in the world. The step-back 3 in Game 4 over Embiid, and ‘The Shot’.

1.  The LowryTitle – Kyle Lowry, as I alluded to above, and as Fred VanVleet alluded to in his interview after winning the chip, is one of the most underrated players of all-time. The job he’s done as the Raptors lead guard since he arrived has been nothing short of incredible. To see that man rewarded with a championship was the most rewarding thing from these playoffs.

If we’re talking a “moment” though, ‘The Shot’ is one of the most incredible things to happen in the NBA, ever.

Hopefully this was fun for everyone, and feel free to keep asking with #RRMailbag on twitter or just follow me and lob questions that way, I’ll respond. Super happy to engage with you lot in this way. A last reminder: We have a Patreon version of the site here at Raptors Republic. Not only will it provide an ad-free service to you, it will help fund all things RR related. If you’re a fan of the content, want to support, and have the means to do so, you can do that here.

Let’s all bask in the warmth of this championship for as long as possible, we deserve it.

Have a blessed day.

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