Given everything stacked against the Toronto Raptors in the early going of this season, a rough start could have been justified, even expected. But instead of falling victim to Jonas Valanciunas’ broken hand, DeMarre Carroll’s gimpy foot, a road-dominated November and a tenth of its first 20 games coming against the Warriors, Toronto avoided a stumble off the blocks. In fact, instead of merely evading the obstacles thrown at them, the Raptors have routinely bull-rushed them like a senior defensive tackle swallowing up a freshman on the practice field.
Toronto (15-9) already has an impressive Rolodex of marquee wins. The Pacers, Thunder, Clippers, Celtics, Cavaliers, Hawks, Mavericks and, most recently, the Spurs – all teams ranked in the top-12 in NET Rating – have all fallen to the improved Raptors in the first month-and-a-half. On top of that, two of the sturdiest punches thrown at the 24-1 Warriors have come from Dwane Casey’s team.
The team’s new found friskiness is a far cry from the pathetic whimper the 2014-15 season ended with: a sub-500 record after a rocking 24-7 start, followed up by a listless sweep at the hands of the Wizards. So what’s changed?
On the margins, the contributions from a more pass-happy DeMar DeRozan, a FIBA-esque Luis Scola and superb sixth man Cory Joseph have been key. But let’s not kid ourselves – svelte Kyle Lowry is the iron core that powers the mechanics of the entire Raptors team. He’s been phenomenal to start his fourth season north of the border.
Maybe the best way to sum up Lowry’s start is to say that he’s been the closest any mortal has come to replicating what Steph Curry has done this year. Obviously Lowry is stationed a few base camps below the heights Curry has reached during his current run of form, but that doesn’t mean Lowry hasn’t been brilliant. He’s knocking down 41 percent of his threes while mastering the art of getting his shot up in traffic, despite giving up size to virtually everyone in the NBA. He sits fourth in Win Shares with 4.3, fifth in Win Shares per 48 minutes, second in steals per game and his PER sits at a mark of 25.0 that is far and away his career best. He’s improved to the point where it would be an absolute stunner if he doesn’t make his second consecutive All-Star start on his home court this February.
It’s understandable to be wary of Lowry’s scorching start. Last season he carried the Raptors early on as DeRozan missed 21 games with a groin injury. But the burden he carried through December clearly weighed on him as the calendar flipped to 2015. His shot didn’t have legs, he missed a couple handfuls of games down the stretch with assorted ailments, and the Raptors’ play subsequently faded off as well.
But before dismissing Lowry’s first quarter this season as a roaring fire that will eventual peter out, it’s worth noting the vast improvements in his game, and the glaringly obvious change that might be responsible for bringing them about.
Lowry’s more slender look isn’t just a matter of the Raptors new jerseys being more flattering – he significantly re-shaped his body over the summer. As his teammate Patrick Patterson put it on Raptors media day in September, Lowry’s always been “a short, chunky, bulldog, fat kid.”
That’s not the case anymore, and it’s led to a 23 game stretch that far surpasses the heights he reached in the same number of games to kick off 2014-15.
|First 23 Games||
It’s incredible what a healthy back and legs that aren’t rubber will do to someone’s shot. If Lowry hadn’t gotten swole over the course of the summer, it might be easier to pencil him in for a significant regression. But because his body looks more capable of withstanding the grind of an NBA season, we may have to get used to this torrid pace being the new normal for the Eastern Conference’s third-best player this season.
Lowry’s game has become more streamline this year; he’s taken on the style of play that must have his former GM Daryl Morey stewing. Last season, 26.4 percent of Lowry’s shot attempts were two pointers from outside 10 feet. This season he’s stepped away from the mid-range – just 14.4 percent of his attempts have come from that area of the floor as he’s redistributed his attempts to high-efficiency spots outside the arc and in the restricted area.
He’s benefited greatly from not having to initiate everything on offense for the Raptors. DeRozan has added an excellent drive-and-kick element to his game this season. Couple that with the presence of Cory Joseph in a lot of two point guard configurations, and Lowry has been freed up to work as an off-guard more regularly. The results have been glowing. In catch-and-shoot situations thus far, Lowry is hitting 49.5 on 3.8 three-point tries per game. Compare that with last year’s 35.3 percent on 2.6 attempts a night, and it’s clear the lessened ball-handling burden is helping Lowry flourish.
With his improved shape, and the help of added distributors, this career-best pace for Lowry seems sustainable. That doesn’t mean there aren’t red flags, though.
Even at his new peak condition, the risk of injury and/or wear and tear looms over the Raptors best player – and the whole team for that matter. The nervousness stems from Toronto’s insistence on playing to the level of their competition is going to catch up with the team eventually. For as many unlikely wins the Raptors have accrued this season, there are just as many annoyingly poor showings against obviously inferior teams.
Toronto’s list of losses includes the likes of New York, Denver, Phoenix, Sacramento and Orlando – and that doesn’t include the times the team has narrowly skated by Milwaukee and the Lakers (x2). Friday’s game against Milwaukee was a prime example of the Raptors inability to shut down weaker opponents. Toronto led the Bucks 49-31 at the half, and looked primed to give their starters a much needed breather in the late going. Instead, the Raptors let Milwaukee crawl back into contention, Lowry and DeRozan were forced to play 35 minutes – including some grueling, high-leverage ones – as the game drew close in the fourth and there was no reprieve to be had.
As was mentioned off the top, Toronto’s been bitten by injuries early and is operating with a super-short rotation – a problem amplified by the cavalcade of prospects occupying the end of the team’s bench who aren’t NBA-ready. With Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll out of the line-up, Lowry and DeRozan are shouldering most of the offensive load. Eventually, such a burden will come around to bite Toronto.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Lowry and Joseph have formed a top-notch two-man combo. In 353 minutes of shared court time, the Lowry-Joseph tandem has posted a spectacular +17.2 NET Rating, rolling over the opposition on both ends of the floor. Therein lies the problem. If Joseph and Lowry are clearly the Raptors best back court pairing, it would be optimal for them to share more than the 14.7 minutes they’re playing together on a nightly basis. But because of the Raptors’ roster construction, that isn’t realistic – there is not another ball-handling option to oversee the second unit offense when Joseph spends his time flexing his muscles with the starters.
All of this is to say the Raptors – who do have noticeable holes when it comes to their bench wings and a lack of supreme talent at the four – should prioritize adding a tertiary ball-handler to augment the roster. Doing so would allow Casey to preserve Lowry in the middle of games for a precious few extra minutes here and there, and also allow the Raptors to run out the murderous Lowry-Joseph duo with more regularity – a move that would open up even more catch-and-shoot chances for Lowry, limit the onus put on Lowry to run the offense, and perhaps make it easier for the Raptors to stomp on the necks of weaker opponents.
Who knows who may become available, or what kind of financial juggling the Raptors might have to do to add a reliable third point guard, but it should be at the top of Masai Ujiri’s in-season to do list. Kyle Lowry has been among the NBA’s most outstanding players this season, and he needs to be protected.