Raptors need improvement from Kyle Lowry to cash in on open East

Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry talks about his and the teams early struggles with finding their rhythm and coach Dwane Casey praises his stars for sticking with the new plan and continuing to learn from it. Courtesy: NBATV Canada

You can see the season the Toronto Raptors could be having, may yet have, as plainly as the slowly healing scar under Kyle Lowry’s left eye.

In five wins – two at home, three on the road – Toronto presents themselves as a deep, energized team offering plenty of support to two established all-stars. They are generous with the ball and fierce without it. They have a new, eye-pleasing style – they pass! – and more hands to do the heavy lifting. In their wins they’ve looked like a team that can routinely mow through the opposition. Even with a 5-4 record their net rating of 5.4 is seventh overall in the NBA and they are eighth in both offensive rating and defensive rating, the only team in the league’s top-10 in both categories.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference so far lacks any order or definition. “It’s wide open,” says Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. The three-time defending conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers have little to offer outside of LeBron James’ still considerable majesty. It’s hard not to conclude that opportunity isn’t simply knocking, it’s vibrating, buzzing, beeping and otherwise sending every conceivable variety of alerts.

When will the Raptors get the message? And when will Lowry get with the program?

For as promising as wins at Portland and Utah have been, along with their early season tendency to bully lesser opponents, they’ve already let opportunities to stake out their claim as a force to be reckoned with slip away. Failing to hold late leads against San Antonio and Golden State on their recent road trip and a complete no-show by about $100-million worth of payroll – well, Lowry and his $30-million a year was there for 12 minutes before getting tossed — against a wobbling Washington Wizards team playing without John Wall would be top of the list.

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A little more focus, and little bit of luck and a few more threes – Toronto shot a combined 18-of-71 (25.3 per cent) from deep against the Spurs and Warriors – and they could be sitting 7-2; maybe even 8-1.

But they’re not and we’re about to find out if those early missteps turn out to be merely an early case of the sniffles rather than a season-long flu.

With a road-heavy early schedule the Raptors tend be slow starters. They were 8-6 last year before winning six straight and signaling their intentions on their way to a 51-win season and they were 7-6 two years ago before they won a club-record 56 games.

Lowry, the Raptors all-star point guard is as responsible as anyone for the Toronto’s failing to make the most of their opportunities to this point, but whether his issues are the change in his role or merely his struggles to execute aren’t quite clear yet.

After practice Monday he didn’t want to discuss the merits or the details of his rapid-fire ejection in the second quarter against the Wizards the night before and dismissed his admittedly sore back as an issue in his early season inconsistency.

But he hasn’t been shy about his struggles to find his footing in a retooled offense, designed to integrate more players into the attack than simply him and DeRozan. Four years of their two-pronged attack being blunted in the playoffs is enough.

The changes haven’t been subtle. Through nine games Lowry has seen his usage rate has drop from an average of 25.5 per cent during his three all-star seasons to 19.9 this year. He’s no longer looked upon to keep cycling through an endless loop of pick-and-rolls, but he hasn’t quite figured out what to do with all his free time off the ball.

“I think the way we’re moving the ball, the ball’s not in my hands as much,” said Lowry. “They want me to just try to get everyone involved and for me, I’ve been used to having the ball in my hands. I always pass the ball but more so I don’t have the ball. I can’t read the defence as much as I usually could before.

“Last couple years coach would give me the game for the first five, six, seven minutes of the game. I could feel out the game and get passes off and get everyone involved and now it’s like everyone has to be involved from the jump. For me it’s getting off the ball, moving and cutting and it just hasn’t been there for me yet.”

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Lowry isn’t imagining things. According to NBA.com’s player tracking data, the number of touches Lowry is getting per game is down from 85 per game to 69.9 and his front court touches are down from 70.3 per game a year ago – tied with LeBron James – to 28.6 per game this year, which has him sandwiched between Jerryd Bayless of the Philadelphia 76ers and Skal Labissiere of Sacramento.

So yes, it might be an idea to get Lowry the ball a little more.

But is it just the system?

It’s worth remembering that this time a year ago Lowry was tripping over his own shoes with all the touches he could ever want. Through nine games last season he was shooting just 18-of-63 from three – and that included a 5-of-11 night when he was otherwise 1-of-9 from the floor.

Through nine games this year? He’s shooting 18-of-55 from three for 32.7 per cent. His scoring (11.9), rebounding (5.0) and assists (6.6) totals are down year over year when he was averaging 17.3/5.3/6.8, but those dips are likely more to do with his minutes being down from 38 per game to 30 per game this year, which is also part of the Raptors grand plan.

And if there was anyone who you would think would have a hard time adjusting to a system that requires less time holding the ball it would be DeRozan, who had a career year last season with a fat-cat usage rate of 34.3. He’s down to 31 per cent this year, or roughly 10 per cent, and he’s seen his front-court touches drop from 58.7 last year to 39.1, and his minutes have been shaved, too. And yet on a per/36-minute basis he’s been able to keep his scoring totals close – 27.2 to 25.0 – even while taking 3.5 less shots a game.

It’s a bit of surprise because it was anticipated DeRozan might be the one who would have to adjust more and perhaps more slowly.

“[The new system] should be easier for Kyle, because he is a great three-point shooter. Coming down the floor, off the dribble, he’s one of the best in the league,” said Casey. “There’s a time in the schedule when his body clock turns on and he starts knocking them down. So, again, it should be easier with him because he does have the ball in his hands and there’s a lot of triggers that we have. He has the freedom to call and run, where DeMar is really relying on the ball finding him and the ball zipping around, zinging around and finding him in time and place. It should be easier for Kyle than DeMar.”

So far that hasn’t been the case.

Which brings us to where the Raptors are and where they should be.

The numbers say the Raptors are poised to make a run at the Eastern Conference crown now.

Lowry, mired in his own funk, isn’t sold on the potential of the new-look Raptors though. Not yet.

“I haven’t seen enough,” he said. “I think we’re inconsistent right now. We’ve played some good games. We’ve played some bad games. I think we’re too inconsistent to even get a feel right now. Once we get our consistency together I can give you a better answer then.”

With Chicago in town Tuesday and New Orleans on Thursday the Raptors have a chance to build some momentum before road games in Boston and Houston – two of the NBA’s hottest teams – that will be difficult tests.

The toughest test of all for Lowry might be keeping the faith if his offence continues to flag while he’s asked to do more with less.

If he doesn’t figure it out soon the Raptors’ chances to put themselves at the front of the class in the East could slip away without him recognizing how close at hand it might be.

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