I have a working theory: the best hockey player on the planet is Kyle Lowry.
There are some holes in it.
Primary among them is that the Toronto Raptors point guard can’t skate, has never played hockey, and, other than watching Leafs highlights with his sons, doesn’t really follow hockey. Given he has a full-time job and is 33, none of these things are going to change.
But I believe deeply in my premise.
Lowry’s ability to make decisions at lightning speed, willingness to battle for every inch on every play, not to mention his overall package of skill, would translate to any sport, I have no doubt.
It doesn’t hurt that he just happens to have a perfect build for the sport too.
Picture a taller Sidney Crosby with an extra 30 pounds to work with, almost all of it in his thighs and glutes. And in a sport that rewards relentlessness more than almost any other quality, Lowry would fit right in.
I have told Lowry about my theory, that all the qualities that have made him a six-time NBA all-star would have transferred to the ice while his short-comings – mainly being barely six-feet tall in a game where the average height is six-foot-seven – wouldn’t matter a bit.
“You’ve told me this before,” Lowry said to me Sunday night. “But I don’t follow the theory.”
I remain undeterred.
I was thinking about all this again as I watched the co-tenants at Scotiabank Arena go about their work on consecutive nights this weekend.
I couldn’t help but think about what the Raptors have and what the Toronto Maple Leafs are missing: Kyle Lowry.
No team is about one player, but it’s fair to wonder – who is the Leafs’ version of Lowry? Who among their collection of top-paid stars combines not only world-class skill but world-class will?
Or put another way: how lucky are the Raptors to have Lowry in the flesh – a high-IQ bowling ball that knocks over every obstacle in his path unless it’s coming straight at his chest, in which case he takes the charge.
On Sunday night, the Raptors held the visiting Indiana Pacers, a potential first-round playoff match-up, to 81 points on 32.6-per-cent shooting in a 127-81 win that was a blowout by the end of the first quarter. Lowry was still drawing charges though. He also had 16 points and 11 assists for his sixth-straight double-double, and added five steals setting the tone for one of the best defensive efforts of the season by the second-best defensive team in the NBA.
“I say this a lot, his compete level, I’ve never coached or seen anybody play as hard as this guy does in basketball,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse after the game. “It’s the ultimate compliment and it rubs off on the other guys, and not only does he do it that way, he plays it smart, he knows the coverages, he knows the opponents, he studies film, he gives his body up, right? All those things kind of transfer to the other guys … leadership, right?”
The Leafs’ lack of Lowry was one of the unavoidable takeaways from their bizarre loss on Saturday night.
For the uninitiated: the visiting Carolina Hurricanes were leading 3-1 midway through the game when the second of their two goalies had to leave due to injury. Enter the EBUG – the emergency back-up goalie the NHL requires the home team to provide the visitors in the lightning-strikes scenario both of its goalies can’t play.
The Hurricanes were left trying to protect a slim two-goal lead against one of the most talented teams in the NHL while having David Ayers – 42-year-old former fringe minor leaguer who drives a Zamboni – guard the crease.
In a basketball context this would be an NBA team losing its most important player early in the third quarter and having to finish the game with its equipment manager on the floor.
As you may have heard, the Leafs – who have invested more salary in their offensively gifted core-four forwards than any team in NHL history – couldn’t get it done, losing 6-3 in what may have been the most humiliating loss in their 102-year franchise history.
One loss doesn’t define a season but as losses go it defined plenty about why a team with the talent the Leafs have is touch-and-go to make the playoffs and not expected to do much when they get there.
When things get difficult – physically or mentally – they tend to shrink. And watching it you couldn’t help but think about how sharp the contrast is with the Raptors.
Widely expected to fade after Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left in free agency not long after the clean-up from the championship parade was done, the Raptors have shone. Lowry has made sure of it.
“I just go out there and do my job. I’ve been here long enough now where I think I’ve established myself in the NBA for a long time where I think these guys follow what I do as a leader and a player,” he said. “And I try to empower everybody on our team to be vocal, to lead and to be one, cohesive unit. I’ve always tried to empower everybody and not say ‘it’s mine.’ It’s all of us.”
The Raptors have won 17 of 19 and have the third-best record in the NBA in the most unlikely of circumstances. While the Leafs seemingly crater under the weight of expectations, the Raptors keep exceeding them.
They’ve done all this while ranking in the top-five in man games lost to injury all season. If the Leafs don’t get production from their top talent, they lose.
The Raptors go to Los Angeles and beat the Lakers and LeBron James and Anthony Davis thanks to a combined 51 points from Fred VanVleet, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher all of whom went undrafted.
“When you look at what characteristics you want to have when you’re picking your team, I always say where there’s compete level, first of all, and how much do you give a darn,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “When the ball goes up, are they competitive? Where is that level? … It’s huge. That’s what I kind of keep saying about our guys. We’ve got a bunch of guys who have a super high level of compete in them, and it leads to our success.”
It’s who they are and what Lowry’s example has helped them become.
It’s been an ongoing theme as Lowry – in his eighth season in Toronto – has the Raptors gunning for their seventh-straight playoff appearance under his watch, this time defending their NBA championship.
This is what former Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chief executive officer Tim Leiweke – who in many ways kickstarted the championship era at MLSE, with TFC and then the Raptors breaking what seemed like Toronto’s championship curse thanks to initiatives he spearheaded – had to say six years ago, as the Raptors were gearing up for their first post-season appearance on their current run and the Leafs were flaming out.
“If we can get Kyle Lowry … to be the heart and soul of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and if we can get the Leafs to understand that kind of intensity, we’d change the culture quick,” Leiweke said while being interviewed by CBC personality George Stroumboulopoulos.
Six years later, Leafs fans are still waiting, and it remains true: the toughest, most competitive athlete in a traditional hockey market doesn’t play the sport. If only he did, is the thinking Leafs fan’s lament.