While this has been a two-way problem, the much bigger concern is on the offensive end. The worst offence in NBA history saw the 1976-77 Knicks score 92.2 points per-100 possessions. The worst offensive lineup of the 261 groups to play at least 50 minutes together last year (once again the Knicks!) scored 81.6 points per-100 possessions. The Lowry-less Raptors so far are scoring 63.8.
Underlying that number are a handful of issues: A high turnover rate (20.3 percent of possession, compared to 15.7 percent with Lowry), a low assist rate (47.4 percent versus 73.7), an extremely low rebounding rate (41.3 percent) and a ridiculous 35.1-percent true-shooting mark. Lowry has consistently had a strong impact on team offence, effective field-goal percentage and usually turnover rate, but this is beyond extreme.
Some of those are partially explainable, like the assist rate being lower because the shots aren’t dropping, or the rebounding rate being low because half of the minutes have come with no true centre on the floor. No amount of Lowry being good would indicate the team shooting 4-of-29 on 3s without him will sustain.
Regression won’t fix all of this. The Raptors have somehow taken just four free throws without Lowry, and two of those were with a game already decided. They have gotten to the line once in meaningful minutes without Lowry. That comes in part because almost half of their attempts have come from 3, where you’re rarely fouled. There’s a bit of variance there, too. Mostly, it’s a product of not getting to the rim, where they’ve taken just 31 percent of their attempts.
(To be clear: The passive shot profile and low free-throw rate are not exclusive to Lowry-less lineups. It is a team-wide issue that has them last in free throws so far. They are first in volume of 3s attempts and bottom-five in rim attempts; you just can’t expect a lot of calls with that shot diet. That has a multiplier effect of not getting to play in the bonus, which was a very obvious swing factor against Philadelphia.)
It’s a pretty bad recipe for success: A high-variance shot mix that doesn’t put a lot of pressure on the rim or free-throw line, all while committing a lot of turnovers and not defending well enough for the transition game to make up for it.
Overall, they play like a 54-win team when he’s on the floor but are 0-3 because they’ve lost the 33 minutes he doesn’t play by 40 total points.
Being impactful is part of Lowry’s job description, however. He’s the highest-paid Raptor and a six-time all-star and perhaps even a future hall-of-famer because he can shape a game with his smarts, skills and energy. Teams are supposed to be better when their best player is playing.
But the Raptors have invested in a young core to keep them competitive this season and into a post-Lowry future – whenever that might be – and so far, they can’t seem to generate anything without Lowry driving play on both ends.
Their top-five two-man units over the first three games (minimum 30 minutes played) all feature Lowry and are the only ones with a net rating per 100 possessions of better than a single point, per NBA.com.
But who else is driving play?
Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are being paid a combined $52 million this year and have a net rating of minus-14 per 100 possessions. If they were a team they’d have the worst net rating in the league. VanVleet and OG Anunoby, who just signed a $72 million extension, have a net rating of minus-10.7 – the 0-4 Detroit Pistons are minus-8 on the year — while Siakam and Anunoby are minus-9 together.
If your core can only be productive when being escorted around by their big brother Kyle, they may not be as ready for primetime as might have been thought.
There are plenty of reasons that anyone could list for what could simply be a slow start: a short pre-season (it probably didn’t help that Lowry only bothered to play one game); a completely new and almost certainly inferior centre rotation, with newly acquired Aron Baynes and Alex Len weak substitutes for the departed Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
And the solutions – at least partial – are clear too: Norm Powell needs to shake off his early-season cobwebs. The Raptors’ sixth man is shooting just 17 per cent from the floor through three games. In fairness, he was shooting 19 per cent through the first four games last season before starting a tear that lasted the rest of the season, interrupted only by injury, so too soon to worry too much on that one.
Kyle Lowry, Hopeful Saviour
Wouldn’t it be great if Kyle Lowry could play 48 minutes a night?
Because he is, believe it or not, a mortal man, Lowry cannot play the entire game every night. Instead, he gets to rest for brief amounts of time while the Raptors find new and creative ways to throw the game away (see: Norman Powell video below).
This is not new news. The Raptors know what they have in their leader and Nick Nurse knows that he can put Lowry into whatever lineup he so chooses and Kyle will come through time and time again to hoist the sinking ship. He almost did it against the 76ers and he almost did it against the Spurs, but the stark truth of the matter is that Lowry needs somebody to help him out. Who could it be?
The problem with P: Pascal Siakam, like the entire team, has shown flashes but little late-game consistency and, as the No. 1 option, he has to be the No. 1 player more often.
His fourth-quarter play has been dreadful almost beyond words. In three games, he is 1-for-9 from the field with two rebounds and has yet to make a three-pointer. He scored one basket on four attempts Tuesday in Philadelphia and committed five fouls in about a six-minute span.
“He’s going to continue to grow and I think right now he’s getting more attention and he’s got to make a few more plays and try to make it easier on everybody else,” Lowry said. “And we’ve gotta make it easier for him knowing (he’s getting a lot of attention) and getting him into spots where he can be a little bit more effective.”
So, anything good? Well, it is only three games into a 72-game season and it’s not like the Raptors are dead in the water.
And Kyle Lowry is averaging 19.3 points and 9.7 assists per game, he hasn’t missed a free throw and is shooting 39.1 per cent from three-point range. He’s doing Lowry things.
“Just him being a great leader, encouraging everyone, keeping everyone ready, and then just making sure everyone is in their spot, make sure everyone knows what we’re doing,” said forward OG Anunoby.
“He just keeps everyone in line.”
Pascal Siakam can’t pressure the paint
Key stat: Siakam is shooting 8-of-23 within five feet of the basket while attempting a total of six free throws
Siakam is in the midst of reinventing his game to suit his role as the No. 1 option. He put noticeable work into his jumpshot, both from deep and in the midrange, and has also improved his playmaking, as he demonstrated by matching his career-high with eight assists against the Spurs. Improving his perimeter skills continues to be his main focus, and although the results haven’t translated to wins, Siakam is making noticeable improvements on the weakest parts of his game.
In doing so, however, Siakam has lost what made him so successful early in his career. His burst to the rim, the all-out sprints, the stretching layups around defenders, the devastating spin move, and his exquisite touch around the basket made Siakam an indispensable second scorer on the 2019 championship team. His defining play from that stretch was the floater he made over Draymond Green, where he eluded Green’s swiping attempt at a steal before rising up and hitting a running bank shot to secure the title.
Siakam has not impacted the paint whatsoever this season. Defences have scouted him well, using the Celtics series as a blueprint, and have packed the paint against Siakam by loading up with a help defender at the basket while assigning their best wing defenders to pressure him up top. Siakam hasn’t shown the handle to elude his defender, nor the strength and touch to finish against the help, and the results are downright ugly. Not only is Siakam shooting 8-of-23 within five feet, but he has also collected just six total free throws despite attempting 56 field goals. That free-throw rate is almost impossibly low and will naturally rise as Siakam averaged over five per game last season, but it’s unclear if his current skill set is sufficient to unlock the paint.
The best way the Raptors can help Siakam is by improving the spacing on his drives. The common theme so far within the offence is that newcomer Aron Baynes prefers to linger in the dunker spot along the baseline to collect layups and offensive rebounds. By doing so, that keeps the opposing centre in the paint and within a few steps of rotating over to contest against Siakam. Sometimes it works, as Siakam has found Baynes a few times with dump-off passes when he draws the double, but it might be easier as a whole if Baynes just stayed at the 3-point line. Defences might still choose to leave Baynes open since he’s only a 35 percent shooter, but at least it would give Siakam another option on the kickout. Of course, it’s also down to Siakam to make his baskets. He failed to capitalize on mismatches against Keldon Johnson and Danny Green (both standing 6-foot-5) which isn’t so much a spacing issue rather than an issue of skill.
With the Raptors off to an 0-3 start to the season for the first time in 15 years, SportsCentre goes By the Numbers to breakdown Toronto’s struggles.
The numbers aren’t kind on a possible Toronto deal, and much of that lies in the theoretical redundancy of having three ball-handling guards. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet can both shoot and function off the ball, but lose value in a Harden-centric offense. The defense would decline as well, and it’s worth noting that as problematic as their lack of shot creation proved in the playoffs, this team had a better record than the Lakers in the 2019-20 regular season. Room for growth is minimal, and it would likely come in a frontcourt that just lost Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.