He plays basketball the right way. He gives it his all, you know. And I’m so used to it. And you know he has a good heart. And I know that I haven’t done anything wrong to him. I didn’t trade him. (Masai Ujiri)
Almost everything is straight in the Kyle Lowry universe. His team, the Toronto Raptors, have the best record in the NBA and are on pace to win 65 games. Lowry is leading the NBA in assists, the first time in his career. He is making a strong case at season’s end for 1st team All-NBA, another Lowry first. He is ranked 5th among point guards (Real Plus-Minus) but that’s not to say Lowry is doing things brand new.
Last season, he was ranked 9th among point guards, had an offensive rating of 120 and made 39% of his threes. This year, Lowry is putting his fingerprints all over the best team in the NBA. In his 13th year, he is elevating his game even more.
So with all that is good in the Lowry world, and with no one complaining that Lowry is the 7th highest paid player in the NBA, particularly not Raptor fan, with all that is going on like he wants it to go on, what’s with the feelings?
DeMar DeRozan. Lowry best friend is not in Toronto but in Texas.
I applaud loyalty on every level. It’s an outlier in professional sports, particularly in the front office with the dudes in suits. Too many examples exist of teams doing what is best for the team and not the player, which is, sort of the job.
This past summer, the Raptors front office left the friend zone and doubled down in the business zone. When all was said and done, the Raptors besties backcourt was over. It taught Lowry a lesson NBA players are slow to heed. Business first. Business is always first.
Absent his best friend, the facts are the facts. The Raptors couldn’t win with DeRozan. They tried. They did it all. They changed the offense. They made DeRozan the go-to player. They insisted he improve his three ball and defense. But none of it mattered in a LeBron James Eastern Conference.
DeRozan had to be the one to move. Lowry was due to make $30 million per year and no team had the money to absorb that nor were they willing to pay that kind of money to a 32 year old point guard who flames out in the postseason. More importantly though, the Raptors needed Kyle Lowry more than they needed DeMar DeRozan.
With a best friend hangover, the expectations were varied. No one thought Lowry would solidify his argument for top-5 point guard after Steph, Westbrook, Kyrie and Dame Lillard, surpassing Chris Paul. But here he is.
Starting with Charlotte in the third game of the season, Lowry had a nine game stretch of double digit assists, the high(s) coming against Milwaukee and the Lakers, 15 assists in both. At Atlanta, he had 17 assists. His plus/minuses are equally impressive. +25 (Charlotte), +26 (at Lakers), +29 (at Utah), +23 (at Chicago), +29 (at Atlanta).
The Raptors with Lowry as their undisputed leader are 4th in scoring, 3rd in fast break points, 2nd in shooting percentage, 7th in assists, 8th in scoring defense, 5th in shooting percentage defense, 7th in 3-point defense.
Still, there are some troublesome areas that point to the Raptors being a great regular season team but not built for a postseason run. Forget Lowry’s playoff struggles. The Raptors don’t protect the rim, are not strong rebounders and don’t have a strong post up presence in the paint. They play faster than they did a year ago with DeRozan and his mid-range jumpers. But in the postseason when everything slows down and you need a solid half court offense, what then?
The Raptors have teased us enough. The addition of Kawhi Leonard means they have a bona fide superstar, a two way player that can change a playoff series but we have to see it first.
Regardless of what they do in May and June, the Kyle Lowry reality check has fueled him to take his game way up. The often feisty Villanova guard has had a NBA career that had him trying to prove himself in Houston and he was usually in a bad mood. Feistiness can have a negative edge that makes everyone else want you gone. Lowry could be hard to deal with despite being likeable. His rep was he needed confrontation. Once he arrived in Toronto and the organization believed in him, he began to lead with his talent. It is that talent, edgy, driven, competitive, that has the Raptors dominating the first quarter of the NBA season. Can they keep it up?
It’s easier to answer can Kyle Lowry keep it up without his best friend?
Yes. His career has been about this exact moment. The turmoil in Houston. The playoff suffering. The rebuilding himself into an All-Star. As for the Raptors part of things, they will let us know during the playoffs what exactly happened this summer. Was it a trade that set them up for the next decade? Or, a splashy summer story that ended the way Raptors playoffs always do. Misery.
Either way, Kyle Lowry will be front and center of all things We Are the North. Whether the Raptors get to the Finals or lose in the second round, Lowry had a lesson in who do you love. Organizations love no one. And still, he benefited.
A savvy move by the front office, one Lowry thinks of as betrayal, reminded Lowry and every other NBA player it is business out here. It’s always business.