The Toronto Raptors will be facing off against the cream of the NBA genetic lottery winners on Monday night in Milwaukee and Tuesday night against Philadelphia — youngsters so big and fast and gifted that even by the standards of a league swimming in athletes as rare as Sumatran tigers, they stand out.
In Milwaukee it’s Giannis Antetokounmpo – as dangerous in the open floor as Russell Westbrook, except he’s seven-feet tall – in a meeting between the NBA’s only undefeated teams. On Tuesday back at Scotiabank Arena it’s the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, who masquerades as a 7-foot-3, 300-pound shooting guard when the urge strikes him, cruising the floor alongside Ben Simmons, running the point at 6-foot-10.
But on either night the Raptors will have the best player on the wood – and it won’t necessarily be Kawhi Leonard, who has shown himself in full command of his own exceptional combination of gifts in his first season in Toronto.
The best Raptor so far this season and the one the very best players in the NBA right now is Kyle Lowry, the stocky six-footer who can barely palm a basketball and has gone 705 games and counting without dunking, per basketball-reference.com. His next throwdown – should it ever come – will be the third of his career.
But get past the window dressing and Lowry, 32, has never played better and is as big a reason as any for the Raptors’ red-hot start.
“He has been amazing,” Raptors forward C.J. Miles gushed Friday night after Toronto’s win over Dallas. “Just the way he is orchestrating things. Not just him making shots, but the way he is getting guys shots, getting them in their spots, seeing mismatches, taking advantage in transition, finding driving lanes or his pull-up threes. He’s really confident with any three because if there’s any space he is letting it go. He’s making us go. That’s what he does.”
This time a year ago Lowry was struggling as he tried to grasp the nuances of a new offensive approach that required him to move the ball sooner and generally have it less. After three all-star seasons commanding the ball (measured by usage rate) for about a quarter of the Raptors’ possessions he was down to about 20 per cent. Per NBA.com’s player tracking data his number of touches had fallen off a cliff and to top it all off – related or not – he was shooting poorly, connecting on 37.2 per cent of his field goals and 31.9 per cent from deep through seven games as the Raptors started a pedestrian 4-3.
This year? A win against the Bucks Monday night and Toronto will extend its franchise-record winning streak to start the season to 7-0 and be the only undefeated team in the NBA. Lowry has been a force, averaging 19.8 points and 10.3 assists per game, the latter number leading the NBA – even more impressive given his assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.4:1.
He’s taken up residence among the league’s very best shooters as his 19 triples ranks seventh in the league and his percentage – 52.8 – is fourth among players averaging at least five triples per game.
As result in a league of thoroughbreds it’s the 14-year veteran who can’t jump and has to be vigilant about his weight who ranks second in Win Shares – tied with Kevin Durant and trailing only Steph Curry – and ninth in Value Over Replacement Player, sandwiched between Durant and LeBron James. While Curry, Durant and James have seven MVP awards between them, Lowry can at least argue he’s the MVP of October.
With head coach Nick Nurse in charge, Lowry seems to have found a perfect balance between his ball-dominant ways of old and the ball-moving Nurse has emphasized – last year as an assistant and this year in his first season as head coach.
Lowry’s touches are back up among the league leaders. At 76.8 touches per game he’s comfortably in the top 20, right in the same neighbourhood as the league’s other elite scoring playmakers – Curry, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and John Wall — and his total time of possession is in the league’s upper echelon as well. But he’s getting rid of the rock too as his 30.7 front-court touches – 67th in the league – would indicate.
“He’s really good, he’s really good,” said Nurse. “I just think each year that goes by he starts being able to pick out things and see it more clearly. He really, as the game goes, I think he sees the reads maybe one time and then the next time he remembers it down the floor and sees that the counter, maybe, to that read is there and he’s really good at finding the right person, too, to kick it out to a lot. “
On time and on target is the point guard mantra, and Lowry is delivering flawlessly as his 12 assists without a turnover on Friday night would indicate.
“He controls the game so much,” said Miles. “He has the ball so much. He is pressured. Guys are doubling him on pick-and-rolls, bigs are jumping at him, guards are switching up their coverages. He has to see what the other eight guys in the possession are doing besides him and his guy. For him to be able to do that [and not turn it over] is terrific.”
It’s not only Lowry’s shooting but the extreme range that he shoots with that seems to have contributed to his assist totals. He is one of 19 players averaging at least two made threes from beyond 25 feet – or 15 inches or more beyond the three-point line – and ranks fourth in accuracy at 48.3 per cent.
With his teammates stretching the defence to the corners and Lowry dragging defenders well above the top of the arc, the floor has opened up and Lowry is hitting open spaces going downhill. As he peaks in his mid-30s, more than a quarter of Lowry’s shot attempts (26 per cent) are coming at the rim, a percentage he hasn’t come near to over his last nine seasons.
The better he shoots, the quicker Lowry seems to get and the beneficiaries are his teammates, who get left open as defences collapse, only for Lowry to find them.
“[His shooting] gives him his driving lanes and if they’re moving people to him then he can see exactly where the coverage comes from,” said Nurse. “Usually when the help comes that’s the man who’s open and then they rotate him and then it’s like [being a] quarterback a little bit. One guy gets covered and you know where your secondary read is.
“He’s really good at that.”
In a league full of younger athletic specimens otherwise rare in nature the old man, everyman, Lowry is – as a matter of fact – one of the very best.