As an observer of any professional sport, it’s always really easy to say “If [Player X] could just make [Fundamental change to their game Y], then they’d be so much better”. The reality is that for most athletes, that fundamental change is almost impossible to achieve. For Kyle Lowry, though, these changes appear routine.
NBA stars don’t typically blossom overnight. That’s just not how it works. Self-improvement is slow, meticulous, and not guaranteed. Basketball is kind of Darwinian in the sense that evolution is a very lengthy and unpredictable process. As a general rule, basketball players are only capable of chipping away at their weaknesses like a sculptor chips at a statue. They hope to one day create something remarkable.
Every year, though, there are a handful of players who defy that rule. That’s what the Most Improved Player award exists to celebrate – the most sudden, drastic, and unexpected improvements. Most players will never experience that kind of overnight mutation. Even fewer can do it more than once.
This year, Kyle Lowry is doing it for the fourth time.
2006-2010: On the bench
For the first four years of his career, Lowry’s offensive style looked nothing like it does now. 41.6% of his shots came at the rim, and about 35% of his shots were from midrange. It’s actually kind of remarkable that his efficiency through 141 games in Memphis (53.5 TS%) wasn’t worse when you consider how one-dimensional he was.
He was nonexistent from deep (25.8 3P%), just an okay free-throw shooter (73.9 FT%), and he actually really wasn’t that good of an interior finisher. He only converted on 50.9% of his shots at the rim, far below his now-59.8% career average. Oddly, his scoring in Memphis was almost entirely sustained by career-high mid-range shooting that he has failed to replicate anywhere else. And for a point guard, his passing wasn’t all that special, averaging just 3.6 assists to 1.5 turnovers as a Grizzly.
It didn’t help that he was viewed as “uncoachable”, and after some friction between him and new head coach Lionel Hollins in 2009, Lowry was traded to Houston. Through his first 96 games as a Rocket (and four years in the NBA), he looked like the same player he’d been in Memphis. There were no all-star games on his horizon.
2010-2013: First wave – Shooting
All of a sudden, Kyle Lowry figured out how to shoot. In just one offseason, he improved from a 27.2% three-point shooter to a 37.6% three-point shooter. This was the first mutation.
If you’ve been in the league for 3+ seasons and are sub-30% from three, which Lowry comfortably was, it is typically a long and difficult road to becoming a serviceable shooter. There are many who never develop a three-pointer.
For Lowry to go from non-existent from range, to an actual threat at decent volume? In just one offseason? That’s a feat that very few NBA players can claim to have done.
That still wasn’t enough to steer him out of familiar territory.
The Rockets brought in head coach Kevin McHale in 2011, who Lowry immediately clashed with.
Then, after being sidelined by a midseason bacterial infection, he lost his starting spot to Goran Dragic. Houston wasted no time trading Lowry to the Toronto Raptors that summer.
By the time he arrived for his first season in Toronto, almost all of the faint whispers of his high ceiling had been silenced. He was forced to compete with incumbent Jose Calderon for minutes, and even though Calderon was traded in the mid-season Rudy Gay blockbuster, neither Lowry nor the Raptors really found their footing.
2013-2015: Second wave – Maturity
And now, we’re finally at the part of the story that every Raptors fan should already be familiar with.
Something happened the following year that nobody saw coming. The team was 6-12, their best player had just been traded for spare parts, and Lowry himself was on the cusp of being traded to the Knicks – when everything came together. Kyle Lowry went from “uncoachable” to the vocal leader of the Toronto Raptors. And much like his jumpshot, he did it overnight.
The leap that Lowry’s game took that year was as remarkable, and unexpected, as any I’ve ever seen.
It’s very rare for any 27 year-old, career role player to suddenly lead their rock-bottom team to the fourth seed in the conference. It’s especially rare when they’ve had a long history of emotional issues. It’d be kind of like if Lance Stephenson became an all-star this year.
But Kyle Lowry did it (interestingly, former understudy Goran Dragic did almost exactly the same thing that year). And then he did it again the next season – earning his first-ever all-star appearance just weeks before his 29th birthday.
The unbelievable nature of what he’d accomplished, however, was diminished by consecutive first round exits. Considering his age, and the fact that nobody ever expected him to become this good in the first place, most assumed that Lowry, and thus the Raptors, had peaked.
2015-2017: Third wave – Scoring
Studies have shown that NBA players typically peak at about 25 years-old.
And yet, Kyle Lowry was 29 years-old when he first averaged 20+ points per game over a full season. He averaged even more as a 30 year-old.
Once again, an extremely rare feat.
Lowry’s minutes took a huge leap to facilitate that initial 21.2 point per game season, as he averaged a near-league leading 37.0 minutes per game on a career-high 26.1 usage percentage. Conventional wisdom says that players will get more fatigued when you dramatically increase their responsibility, and thus their efficiency will suffer. Despite this, Lowry only got more efficient, finishing the season with a then-career-high 57.8 TS%.
His minutes then saw another slight increase in 2016-2017, so how did he respond this time?
Well, until his wrist surgery at the all-star break, there was nobody in the NBA hitting more threes than Kyle Lowry. Not Steph Curry; not Eric Gordon; not anybody.
His shooting throughout this season was well-publicized, and this year marked the first time that Lowry was ever seriously discussed as one of the elite three-point shooters of the modern NBA. Remember, he was a sub-30% shooter for the first ~250 games of his career.
He scored 22.4 points per game, converted on 41.2% of his threes, and carried a monstrous 62.3 TS%. His efficiency alone this year was almost crazy enough to deserve its own subheading.
The most mind-blowing thing about this season, in my opinion, was the huge increase in the efficiency of his interior scoring. He managed to convert on 68% of his shots at the rim, by far the highest of his career. Admittedly, it was on pretty low volume, but still. For any guard, that is near-unrivalled efficiency. Literally. His interior efficiency was significantly higher than noted elite scorers like Steph Curry; Isaiah Thomas; Kyrie Irving, etc.
At this point, Lowry has become one of the best players in the NBA, but there’s still a problem. The Raptors rely on him too much, and as a result, his body is routinely breaking down before the playoffs even begin. Lowry’s already 31 at this point – he can’t possibly get any better, right?
2017-Present: Fourth wave: Passing
The 2017-2018 stat-line seemed to confirm the news: Kyle Lowry has finally left his prime.
It didn’t matter that he was still as efficient as ever. It also didn’t matter that he was playing less minutes than he had in years. Many saw the six point tumble in Lowry’s point per game average and took it to mean that the 31 year-old was old news. It didn’t help that the best postseason performance of his career was hidden by most of the rest of his team failing to attend the 2018 NBA playoffs.
But now, with the 2018-2019 season well underway, it’s clear that Lowry had at least one last unexpected mutation left up his sleeve, and it’s perhaps his most impressive: the ability to dominate a game by passing.
He’s averaging a career-high 10.4 assists per game, which makes him the current NBA assist king, and he’s doing it despite only having a 19.2% usage – his lowest since the 2010-2011 season. What’s also significant is that he’s playing almost three minutes per game less than he was two years ago, and that disparity should only increase as the rest of the team returns to full health. Despite this huge reduction in on-court opportunity, he remains an on/off darling with a career-high +16 net rating.
Put simply; he’s gone from a workhorse to a pony, yet he’s still dominating games at the same level as before.
This is what makes Kyle Lowry such a special player. He has a knack for re-imagining his game at a moment’s notice. If he can finish this season averaging 10 assists or more, he will have completed one of the most unprecedented jumps in passing rate of any player in the history of the NBA. Yes, even greater than what Steve Nash did as a 30 year-old.
It’s a real shame that Lowry’s highly unusual career has been mostly overshadowed by playoff misfortune. Very few players have managed to thrive in as many different areas of the game as he has – I mean, I haven’t even mentioned what a shockingly good defender and rebounder he is for his size.
The point is, Kyle Lowry is a very special talent, and I wonder how long it’ll be before more people clue in on how much of a ridiculous outlier his career has been.