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More than anyone else, Kyle Lowry will determine Toronto’s success this year

Don’t look now, but Kyle Lowry is, once again, the most important player on the Toronto Raptors. We’ve all heard this story before: Kyle Lowry is unimaginably good at basketball. He may not be good at answering reporter’s questions, and he may not appeal to American audiences, but he does what’s necessary to win. Through five games, the Raptors have been bolstered a variety of potential award winners. Pascal Siakam will be playing for a spot on an All-NBA team, and OG Anunoby looks ready to compete for Most Improved, following in Siakam’s footsteps. There’s no award in the categories in which Lowry contributes, yet he’s been just as important as anyone else on the roster. It may be 2019-20, but some things don’t change; Kyle Lowry is the straw that stirs the drink, the heart of the team, the engine of the car, or whatever other metaphor you so choose.

Just as he always has been, Lowry is what makes this Raptors team win games.

Some years Lowry’s contributions have been subtle, if still all-encompassing. This year, Lowry’s play has been loud. Here are some of his numbers, as well as his ranks on the team and league-wide.

(Note: To qualify to rank, I chose minimum filters as three games played and more than or equal to 20 minutes per game. I also compared Lowry to all guards, not just point guards.)

Per Inpredictable, Lowry is sixth in the league in win probability added. Per Basketball Reference, he’s third in offensive win shares. Lowry is not just leading Toronto, but he’s among the most important offensive players in the league right now.

Lowry current averages for points and rebounds, as well as his true shooting percentage, would all be career highs. He has been absolutely integral to Toronto’s success, and he’s done all his highlight scoring while taking a ridiculous beating. Lowry is second in the league in minutes played, at 233, and he’s second in charges drawn, with five.

To top off the Lowry hat-trick of big numbers-receive physical abuse-incredible efficiency, his percentages are phenomenal. Lowry is shooting 47.3 percent from the field, 39.3 percent from deep, and 89.5 percent from the line. Part of Lowry’s efficiency is because of a hot streak, but much of it is because he’s almost exclusively attempted analytically-minded shots. His shot spectrum, per nbashotcharts, would make James Harden blush.

Though Lowry took a step back last year with Kawhi Leonard in the fold, he’s clearly shown that even at the advanced — for a small guard in the NBA — age of 33, Lowry can hop right back into the driver’s seat. As evidence, Lowry has taken 28.0 percent of his shots this year in the restricted area, and shooting 65.4 percent there, after only attempting 20.6 percent of his shots there last year. Lowry took a step back last year not because of physical decline but because of contextual necessity.

Nearly double Lowry’s baskets this year have been unassisted as compared to assisted, after having an almost equal share between the two last year. He’s slinging fire above the break, shooting 7-of-11 on pull-up triples so far this year. Lowry has been calling his own number with aplomb, and he’s been delivering for a team that pundits thought lacked a first option this year. Against the Bucks, Lowry alone clawed the Raptors back into the game, scoring 36 points and fighting to keep Toronto in a game that saw a 12-1 lead for Milwaukee before any subs had even entered the game.

In other words, Kyle Lowry remains Kyle Lowry.

The Raptors need Kyle Lowry. They need him to be this version of Lowry, a fire-breathing scorer who makes his team better in every way imaginable. And Lowry does make his team better in every way imaginable. Per pbpstats, when Lowry is playing the Raptors are better at shooting, passing, defensive rebounding, and defending. They play faster and force opponents to play slower, and they take better shots, including far more layups and corner 3s. Really, the only thing that Raptors are worse at so far this year when Lowry plays is offensive rebounding.

That the Raptors need Lowry so much makes his performance all the more frightening. He plays like a basketball version of Evel Knievel, far more interested in results than his own health. Lowry would rather jump 20 buses end to end on a flaming motorcycle than rest during a blowout or look after his recently repaired thumb.  The problem is that not looking after one’s body on the court can result in a broken-down body. It’s happened before. Lowry has entered a variety of post-seasons with physical ailments, and though he thrived in winning a championship last year, he still sported damaged ligaments in his left thumb through the entire process.

If the Raptors lose Lowry to injury, the Raptors would lose their edge. They’ve been a great team this season, fighting to a 4-2 record and +5.2 net rating. Lost time from Lowry would instantly result in a turn of fortune for Toronto. The Raptors need Lowry, but the very playing style that makes him indispensable also makes it likely that he’ll be dispensed with, at least at some point during the season. Such is the price Toronto pays for Hall of Fame performance.

The Raptors walk the knife’s edge in their quest to repeat as champions this year. They rely on huge development leaps from Siakam, Anunoby, and VanVleet. They rely on their veteran bigs, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, to not lose their physical advantages as they age. But most importantly, they rely on Kyle Lowry to stay Kyle Lowry, and to stay healthy while he does it. It may seem like a Catch-22, but so too does Lowry’s whole career. Lowry has been overcoming the odds for his entire life. For him, this season is just one more gamble.

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