Reputations are a funny thing. Easy to establish the wrong kind of reputation, and hard to correct it once it’s built. The Raptors, prior to this last season, had a reputation as a team that just couldn’t be trusted in the postseason, a team that would find a way to disappoint. Their emotional leader over this last era, Kyle Lowry, had his own reputations as well. Depending on who you asked, he was either one of the best point guards in the league who didn’t get his due for being able to help his teams win and making the players around him better, or a guy who got too much credit for the teams he was on and the players around him.
To my eye, he’s always been in the first camp, the catalyst of the success of the group. When the Raptors built this era of basketball where they were accidentally good, it was with Lowry at the helm, helping the guys around him to find their game and build up the Raptors as a good team in the league. The team also absolutely needed the scoring ability of DeMar DeRozan through those early years, when they just didn’t have enough guys who could create offense to be able to stay afloat at that end of the floor without him, but the organization deemed a summer ago, after yet another disappointing loss in the playoffs, that moving on from DeRozan in favor of taking the risk on a superstar coming off a year missed to injury was the right decision in order to move the team forward and take that next step.
For Kyle, that meant his best friend no longer being his running mate, and he definitely didn’t help ease the transition in the months immediately following the trade. He shunned the media for most of the summer, opting to be the private person he’s always preferred to be during the offseason, and at the USA Basketball camp he declined to take questions regarding the trade, perhaps protecting his friend, DeRozan, from having to then answer followup questions. That’s where Kyle positioned himself all season long on the trade, that he was going to try to win with the team he had around him afterwords, but he seemed to want to take all of the emotional consequences of the trade on himself. He was neither going to make Kawhi the bad guy, as the new player arriving in place of his friend, or make it about how Kawhi brought elements the team had been missing in the past, to avoid having it seem like he was saying there were things DeRozan didn’t bring to the table on the other side, and having those questions asked of him in San Antonio.
This was often miscast as Lowry being angry with the organization, and perhaps there were some undertones of that being accurate, but once the season started he seemed to quickly put any ideas that he wouldn’t give his full effort to rest. As the Raptors sped out to a 12-1 record to start the season, Kyle averaged 17 points and 11 assists over that stretch and looked the part of a MVP candidate often. He shot 49.7% from the field and 38.6% from three point distance, and concerns over him slowing down due to age seemed to be over while he was leading the Raptors to some dominant basketball.
In December however, at some point, he seemed to develop a nagging back injury that would cost him games through the middle portion of the season, and have him struggling to score when he was out there. The team felt his absence often, despite some still great performances like leading the team to wins in a tough back-to-back in Los Angeles against the Clippers and at Oracle Arena against the Golden State Warriors, when he scored well and helped the team dominate each of the two games despite Leonard’s absence. He then sat 10 of the next 11 games, however, and the team went just 6-5 over that stretch, with his struggles continuing into the All-Star break, where he was once again selected, largely off the strength of his first month of the season. Still, the team’s record was good, they were in the hunt for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and they kept playing well when their superstar, Leonard, wasn’t on the floor. Over the course of the season they went 17-5 without him, and the offense seemed to find a different rhythm when they weren’t always deferring to Kawhi’s ability to create his own shot, and that was largely with the ball in Lowry’s hands.
For Lowry himself, once Jonas Valanciunas went down with a broken thumb in December, combined with his own injury, he seemed unable to regularly establish his own scoring. No player on the floor really helped him to do that, without Valanciunas he lacked the roll man for his pick and roll game. Although Serge Ibaka continued to benefit from Lowry’s ability to get him good looks in the pick and pop, Ibaka wasn’t the same screener and doesn’t create for his guards through that action in the way the Lithuanian big man can help get a guard moving downhill.
At the trade deadline, there were rumblings that Lowry might not make the playoff push with the Raptors, that the team was looking to move him, perhaps for Mike Conley, to make their playoff push, because they had been struggling with inconsistency and seemed at times to not be as good as their record, and there were concerns that a quick playoff exit would be an end to this era of Raptors basketball, would lead to Leonard not considering the Raptors as a place to stay when he entered free agency, and then the team going into a rebuild the following summer without finding their true success that they desired. It’s hard to know how much truth there were in the rumors of the Lowry/Conley swap, but there was enough reporting on it that it’s certainly worth considering something that was considered.
Once the dust settled though, Kyle was still a Raptor, with a new big man. Instead of Valanciunas who was slated to return the day of the deadline from his thumb injury, the team brought in Marc Gasol to solidify them in the paint for the playoffs. Gasol gave Lowry an offensive partner once again, a player who could create shots not just for the other players on the floor, but also help Kyle establish his own scoring once again through that comfortable pick and roll action that often helped him build his rhythm. Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, though.
In the first playoff outing, reputations came into play again. The Orlando Magic beat the Raptors in a game one on their own floor, with their point guard, DJ Augustin, leading the way with 25 points. Lowry, despite 7 rebounds and 8 assists, and being a +11 in a 3-point loss, didn’t manage to score a single point and the media jumped on him once again as a guy who simply couldn’t get it done. The rest is known history though, Lowry helped lead the Raptors to winning the next four, his toughness and defensive edge was critical to escaping a brutally tough series against the Philadelphia 76ers, and he outplayed Eric Bledsoe handily to get through the Milwaukee Bucks, which brought the Raptors to their first NBA Finals in franchise history.
In those Finals, the story will be the injuries for a few years, the guys who didn’t play for the Warriors. The Raptors, for their part, can only play the team in front of them, and they beat the team that they faced four games in six tries, which is enough to make a team the NBA Champions. In the deciding game 6, at Oracle Arena, it wasn’t Kawhi Leonard setting the tone in the opening minutes. Lowry led the team with a 8-0, and then 11-2, personal run to open the contest, setting the tone that the Raptors were there to play. He’d finish the night with 26 points, 7 rebounds and 10 assists, and a game-high +16 in his 41 minutes, in just a 4-point victory. Also, he’d finish the night a NBA Champion.
The one thing that does change reputations is irrefutable evidence that they are wrong, and for Lowry, he now has this championship, this season and the ring he’ll receive in October. Those loud statements that he is a guy who you can win with in those moments will outlast any struggles he’s had during playoff games in his career, and for Raptors fans, those moments and this season will be what sealed the deal for many that despite Leonard’s dominance being the primary catalyst for the Championship, it’s Lowry who was still the heart and soul of this team, and that’s what made this season the one that should have put him firmly in place as the best player in Raptors franchise history.