It’s almost impossible to get anyone to agree on anything these days, and this is especially true in the sporting world. To a lot of fans, a large portion of their enjoyment of sports comes from the discussions of – and disagreements regarding – the vast multitudes of interpretations that exist when thousands of people watch a single event or series of events through their own personal lense. We see examples of this constantly among the Raptors fan base and blogosphere, where questions abound:
- Is DeRozan a max player?
- Should Patterson start?
- Is Valanciunas just kind of bad or really bad or is he actually great?
- Should the team have brought back Biyombo?
- How long do we have to wait before we call Bruno a bust?
- Who gets those backup center minutes?
- Is Norman Powell for real?
- Why is Terrence Ross?
When it comes to the Raptors there may be only two universally accepted truths: Andrea Bargnani was completely terrible and Kyle Lowry has been incredible. If you watched the Raptors last season the only question regarding Lowry is not whether he was great, it’s about degrees: was he a top 5, 10 or 15 player? There are no questions about whether he was the driving force behind the Raptors success, just about the level of contributions made by the rest of the rotation. In a world where nobody seems to agree on anything almost everybody who cares about the Toronto Raptors agrees about 2016 Kyle Lowry to an extent. This is a big deal and a great compliment to him.
Raptors blogs have written ad nauseam about how great Lowry was last year and everyone who watched gets it so I’m not going to get into that except to say that it was the greatest season individual season in Raptors history. Vince Carter may have been more exciting and Chris Bosh may have had seasons with better individual statistics but in terms of impact on both ends and propelling the team to new heights nobody in franchise history has come close to what Lowry did last year, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that it came from the point guard position. The most interesting part of watching Lowry in this coming season will be seeing how – or perhaps more appropriately, if – adjustments are made to keep him performing at a high level as he gets older.
For a player like Lowry, who is plenty athletic but far from being as freakishly long or explosive as other elite two way players, there is a physical toll paid excellence. It requires sacrificing his body in ways that other NBA players may never have to – not much of a concern for a 25 year old but it’s different for a player who will celebrate his 31st birthday before the playoffs begin and will be looking for a longterm deal at season’s end. At some point Lowry’s style has to become a little less “reckless hockey player” and a little more finesse oriented and that probably needs to happen sooner than later. Dropping the weight was a good start but if his play on team USA was any indication we haven’t seen the last of Lowry diving for loose balls on consecutive possessions and drawing charges on much larger players going at full speed.
So where does that leave us for this season? We know that Lowry isn’t going to change on his own, but if the team wants to invest in him going forward there are things that they should be doing to help him sustain a little longer.
Off the Ball Opportunities
I know that he’s a point guard so this seems counterintuitive and is easier said than done but this would be really beneficial to both the Raptors and Lowry. Spot up shooting is a skill that tends to age well and Lowry is one of the best in the game at it:
That’s our Lowry, 6th in the NBA in catch and shoot eFG% with an absurd 67%. Lest that be dismissed as an outlier, in 2014 his catch and shoot eFG% was 64%. It dipped to a still-solid 53% in between those two seasons but the sample size makes it clear that this is a big strength for him.
The Raptors best backcourt combos(as judged by net rating) for the last 3 years running have involved Lowry and a PG or combo guard in Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams or Cory Joseph. These lineups give Lowry more of an opportunity to play off the ball where he either destroys teams with his shooting or uses his gravity to open up easy opportunities for teammates. This is a low physical impact way to allow Lowry to continue to have a large impact on the game. Either DeMar DeRozan needs to develop into the kind of playmaker that will allow Lowry to get spot up opportunities more often or Lowry needs to play more minutes with Cory Joseph.
Reduce Lowry’s Minutes
The Raptors really need to look at staggering DeRozan and Lowry more to preserve both players. They both play a very physically demanding style so if they are going to be the backcourt of the future the Raptors need to do everything they can to preserve them while keeping the team effective. If you’re looking for a model to emulate the best option would clearly be the San Antonio Spurs. They’re getting quality minutes out of 39 year old Manu Ginobili and 34 year old Tony Parker, two players who have a lot of mileage on them after years of consistent deep playoff runs and international play.
A big part of the Spurs aging backcourt being so effective at their respective ages has been the way their minutes have been staggered. When you play your two best guards together you likely get diminishing returns to an extent while they are together and a team that struggles to generate offense when neither player is operating at their peak effectiveness- sound familiar? By reducing the minutes they play together and maximizing the minutes they play with everyone else you are potentially keeping the team performing at a consistently high level and getting precious rest for each player. Bringing Ginobili off the bench was the perfect way for the Spurs to do that – if you have a limit on how many minutes you want them to play together fewer shared minutes at the beginning means more shared minutes at the end. Obviously converting one of your best players into a supersub is not a solution that would work for every team, but staggering their minutes more is something the Raptors need to look at. It could allow them to limit the minutes of both of their star guards to something in the much more reasonable 31-32 mpg ball park.
The Raptors also need to trust their bench more. By all accounts Delon Wright can play so give him regular opportunities against real NBA competition. It’s okay that he’s inconsistent and prone to making mistakes because consistency isn’t something that players just conjure out of thin air – it’s something they develop as they play. They don’t need to find him minutes in every game but if they jump out to a 10 point lead against a basement team in December give the kid a shot to hold down the fort while Lowry gets some precious rest. If that adds up to even an extra 100 minutes of rest for Lowry over the course of a season it’s worth it, even if means they drop a couple of games they may have won had they run with Lowry for his normal 35-40 minutes. The Raptors coaching staff needs to start looking at the long game, reducing minutes for the established guards and seeing exactly what they have in the kids on the bench.
Kyle Lowry is amazing and part of me hopes he never changes – there is something very appealing in the thought of an older Lowry continuing to throw his body around the court and outplaying the youngsters in the league by sheer force of will. The pragmatist in me knows that this is likely to end up in a later-years Dwyane Wade scenario where Lowry shows flashes of greatness in between increasingly longer stints with ice packs on his knees and regular midseason vacations. I also realize that none of what I suggested is likely to happen because coach Dwane Casey has already come out and said that he may have to work Lowry hard again. My dream of watching Lowry age gracefully as he transitions from full time superhero to long range bomber/part time superhero will probably go unrealized but if the Raptors want to maximize their (hopefully) inevitable long term investment in Lowry these are things they should look at sooner than later.Follow @raptorsrepublic