It’s one thing to help other stars and starters around you, which is a part of a point guard’s role. It’s another thing entirely to be able to turn end-of-bench players into productive pieces and buy rest for other starters and flexibility for a coach by anchoring bench-heavy groups. Lowry is responsible for a huge chunk of the Raptors’ one-starter success in this era.
The Raptors have played 1,644 minutes with Lowry and four bench players in that span, posting a +9.8 net rating that would rank tops in the league for single-starter states. In the minutes with any other player as the lone starter, the Raptors own a +1.0 net rating, still good (it would rank eighth) but not the elite level of the Lowry groups.
What’s perhaps most amazing about this is that Lowry has seemingly been able to take any four players and make it work. It’s long been a joke on Raptors Twitter that Lowry could lead four writers to productive minutes. He couldn’t — Bruce Arthur and Michael Grange would hog too many possessions, and my P.J. Tucker-adjacent small-ball centre game probably won’t translate against guys a foot taller than me — but it has often felt like any four replacement-level players or better would get the job done.
The team’s historic 30-point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks in December was a perfect example. As I did this exercise, Malcolm Miller kept popping up at the top of lists because five percent of his career minutes came in that game, where he went +29. Terence Davis II, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher are all rotation-calibre players who benefited from that boost, too. And this isn’t unique to 2019-20; I’m confident part of the reason I still can’t let go of Lucas Nogueira’s advanced-stats dominance is because of how well he fit with Lowry in small windows.
If there was one thing Raptors fans seemed to agree on during the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Boston Celtics, it was the agony of following the seven-game defeat.
That and the collective will to honour veteran point guard Kyle Lowry with a statue outside Scotiabank Arena.
The Raptors guard, like so many times before, was his team’s heart and engine as Toronto fought to defend its 2019 championship in the NBA bubble.
Despite coming up short, many have dubbed him the greatest Raptor of all time and think he deserves a bronze likeness on Bremner Boulevard. There’s even a petition to that effect floating around the internet, if you’re so inclined.
But which Lowry do you sculpt? There is a laundry list of possibilities when it comes to the man who does it all.
The Knicks have just two players, R.J. Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, who are good bets to be part of their long-term future. The rest of the roster is a blank slate, with point guard an obvious need after last year’s run on virtually every power forward on the market left their offensive organization, well, lacking. VanVleet also seems like he’d be a good spiritual match with coach Tom Thibodeau, who is known for playing his best players a lot.
The Pistons jump out as a possibility both because of their positional need and because of VanVleet’s familiarity with Detroit coach Dwane Casey. The Pistons have their own unrestricted free agent they would love to keep around in forward Christian Wood, so they do not have quite as much money to work with. However, before Wood signs, he only comes with a $1.7-million cap hold, so the Pistons could theoretically float a huge offer to VanVleet before worrying about Wood, if the timing works out. If the interest is there, the Pistons could make a very aggressive offer to VanVleet whether or not they try to retain Wood.
The Suns are more of a long shot, having signed Ricky Rubio to a three-year deal last year at $17-million annually. The Suns would likely have to punt on retaining both Aron Baynes and Dario Saric to make a real run at VanVleet, but a guard rotation of Rubio, VanVleet and Devin Booker would certainly be appealing.
We stan an NBA player who knows his role. Just one peek at Matt Thomas’ shot plot from the regular season gives us what we want.
With the target range lighting up outside the arc, the obvious hotspot for Thomas was the left corner three. He made 8-of-14 from this area for his best distance percentage — 57.1 percent.
The vast majority of his looks, though, came on above the break threes — plays where Thomas made himself a part of Toronto’s prodigious transition offense by running a lane, spotting up, and drilling a three from the wing. He took 73 of these shots during the regular season, 40 more than any other type of shot according to NBA.com’s available types, making 45.2 percent of them.
This brings up a needed note on how Thomas tended to be used in 2019-20, and how we should contextualize his first season with the Raptors. There’s no hiding that much of his brilliance came in blowouts and against poor defensive teams, where Nick Nurse felt more comfortable playing a full bench lineup. There were outliers, but the next big step in Thomas’ usage is getting consistent minutes in the rotation rather than shading toward spot duty. This season, it was Terence Davis who ended up in that consistent eighth man role. I see potential for Thomas to overtake that, but it would take a small off-season leap.
There will also be a shift in how Thomas gets his shots up as he becomes more well-known. The most interesting look to me are the plays where Thomas curls off an off-ball screen on the wing, and can get into his shot with the defense on his shoulder. Another progression would be to make a pass off this look, something we saw sparingly this season, but would encourage the Raptors’ half-court offense to diversify.
These small improvements will help Thomas solidify his spot in the NBA, but it’s still impressive that he turned himself into a ten-minute per game player in his first season, and never experienced a drop-off with his outside shooting. He gave the Raptors exactly what they signed up for, right away. He earned enough notoriety to make defenses think about his shooting when he was on the floor in the playoffs. In a half court offense that ended up middle of the pack in the NBA, his one killer ability gave the Raptors’ an extra arrow in their quiver. That bodes well for the confidence the organization has in him going forward.
The Raptors have never played late-September basketball, but it certainly feels like they should be.
While the number of hotel guests at the Gran Destino dwindle, the discussion and accompanying pressure of the off-season continue to grow for the Raptors. Three of Toronto’s top seven players are unrestricted free agents, while a fourth looms large as a 2021 salary swing piece.
Enjoy the latest episode of That’s A Rap, as we eulogize the unforgettable 2019-20 season and project what figures to be an off-season full of franchise-altering decisions.