While most of the NBA media has been spending their time fawning over the generational talents that are Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook it has gone somewhat unnoticed that Toronto Raptors starting point guard Kyle Lowry has been off to an incredible start to the season. He’s lead the Raptors to an 11-6 start in which they played 12 road games, four of which they lost by five points or less. With averages of 20.5 PPG (2nd amongst Eastern Conference point guards), 4.6 RPG, and 6.5 APG Lowry has once again vaulted himself into the conversation of the top five point guards in the league.
If one were to simply glance at Lowry’s numbers there would appear to be no dramatic improvement in comparison to last season’s stats, but it is without question that we are seeing a shift in the way he is approaching the game. This can be attributed to some additions/subtractions made to the roster as well as changes Kyle made himself, all of which have contributed to him developing a more astute command of his skills. Let’s evaluate some of the factors that have played into this.
Getting In Shape
The ten year veteran out of Villanova entered this offseason in pretty bad shape after his body began to break down on him during the last few months of an otherwise stellar season in which he earned All-Star Starting honours. As Lowry sat at the podium of his exit interview, one day after being swept by the Washington Wizards in rather embarrassing fashion, he made it clear that he would not let the drop off in production after the All-Star break happen next season. Turns out he wasn’t bluffing.
In early August we were blessed with this gem of an Instagram post from Kyle O’Quinn showing off a slimmed down and super-toned Kyle Lowry and the entirety of the fan base (and JJ Redick) lost their minds. Fast forward to late November and the renewed commitment to his health and fitness that Lowry spoke about in April is finally paying dividends on the court. The 6’0″ point guard is noticeably quicker on his feet and after cutting roughly 20 pounds his body is bound to suffer from less wear and tear throughout what might be a extended post-season run.
Heading into this season there was some speculation as to whether or not Lowry would be able to be as effective in his unusually physical style of play without the extra size and weight he used to overwhelm defenders with. Let’s put that to rest. His rim attacking tendencies do not appear to have changed given that he has attempted 105 free throws, ranking him number one in the East among point guards, the exact same amount he totalled across the first 17 games last season. This isn’t indicative of any change, but if any conclusion is to be drawn from this it’s that he’s equally if not more effective at driving than he was thus far last year regardless of how much weight he’s lost.
*Interesting stat: The Toronto Raptors backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan get to the free throw line more frequently than any other duo in the NBA. With 255 combined attempts on the season the Northern tandem is in the lead by a reasonable margin, with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder behind them at 214 attempts.*
When evaluating how Kyle Lowry’s impact has changed one must also consider the situational variables in the equation. For instance, in this year’s version of the Raptors, Lowry is usually on the floor with more talented offensive players from a positional perspective, with Demarre Carroll and Luis Scola being the key additions in this respect. Teams now have to game plan for a potent scorer at each position. Now an opposing team must account for Carroll’s versatility in terms of putting the ball on the floor but also being able to knock down three pointers, as well as Scola’s craftiness around the hoop. This doesn’t mean that Lowry, like DeRozan, won’t still be the primary focus of their opponent’s defensive game plan, but now they have to divide their attention amongst more threats at risk of getting exposed.
Another underrated aspect of how the new pieces affect Lowry’s impact is how well they set screens. Bismack Biyombo in particular has proven to be very good at setting hard screens that have resulted in help defenders trying to over compensate for the primary defender that Biyombo has effectively taken out of the play. Scola is a veteran player who is fundamentally sound in all of the major big-man skills and screen-setting is no exception, but we’ve come to expect this from him now. It is also worth mentioning that Jonas Valanciunas has always been solid in this area, but this year he’s rolling more confidently after setting a pick which has made him an even more effective screener when combined with Lowry as the ball handler.
The Cory Jo Effect
Cory Joseph is almost the perfect compliment to Kyle Lowry. No, he IS the perfect compliment to Kyle Lowry. Who better to offset a talented – but trigger happy, shoot-first, point guard who loves to gamble for steals and is kind of vertically challenged? Let’s break down the impact of Canada’s Own Corey Jo.
On offense Lowry has been able to play off the ball more than he ever has since becoming a consistent starter because of the trust the team has in Joseph being able to handle primary ball handling duties. He makes very few mistakes and is adept at driving to the hoop and finishing if defenders try to pressure him. His presence on the floor opens up Lowry for more spot-up opportunities and as a result 17% more of his three point filed goal attempts have been assisted this year. That figure jumps to 19% for two point field goal attempts. It is very rare for player that’s been in the league for this long and has been a primary scorer on the same team for four years now to adjust the way he scores so dramatically. What makes this significant shift in the nature of Lowry’s offensive game more interesting is that his usage rate of 32.3 is identical to the usage rate he finished with last season. This shows that the increase in assisted shot attempts is the result of real adjustments made to his offensive approach and not just a result of Lowry taking more shots overall.
On the other end of the floor the Corey Joseph effect just keeps on giving. When the Raptors deploy their two-point guard lineup it is usually Joseph that assumes the defensive responsibility of guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player. Thanks to his size, speed, and acute attention to detail the Canadian guard is a very serviceable defender at either backcourt position. This allows Kyle Lowry to match up with a player that may allow him to exert less energy on that end of the court and thus advances the team’s effort to preserve their star player. This also frees him up to play the passing lanes and as a result he’s been the NBA’s steals leader through 17 games with an average of 2.7 each night.
Put simply, Kyle Lowry is now playing to his strengths more than he ever has. He’s equally as talented as he was, just now he has narrowed his offensive approach to his areas of expertise; attacking the rim, shooting threes, engaging in the pick and roll, and little in between. He’s taken advantage of each of the team’s new pieces and adjusted his game to thrive under these new circumstances.
Yes, he’s still predictably impulsive with his transition three point attempts. Yes, he also still argues with the refs like he plays for the Clippers. All things considered though, we’re talking about a player who has steadily improved in each of his years with the Raptors and has emerged as a perennial All-Star in the East. He’s the leader of a team that ranks 5th in the league on offensive efficiency and 9th in defensive efficiency and would appear to be bound for their third straight playoff birth. Lowry is third in the NBA among all point guards in PER with a rating of 24.51, behind only Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Another incredible stat – he’s 3rd in all of the NBA in win-share, and real plus minus, ahead of LeBron James while barely trailing Curry and Westbrook. If Curry and Westbrook make up the first tier at their position, then there is an argument to be made that Kyle Lowry is right at the top of the second tier of talent. Is that how we’ll feel come playoff time? It’s hard to tell, but one thing is for certain; This guy is flat out balling right now.