- Can the Raptors hold down the fort with Kyle Lowry on the sidelines? More importantly, will Toronto keep the band together if the team fails?
The Raptors’ already-faint Finals hopes were dealt a serious blow Monday when the team announced All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry would undergo surgery on his right wrist, likely keeping him out of the lineup until the playoffs. The injury has both short- and long-term consequences for the Raptors, who loaded up at the trade deadline in an attempt to loosen the Cavaliers’ kung-fu grip on the Eastern Conference.
Let’s take a look at how Lowry’s surgery affects Toronto now and in the future.
Short-term impact: Can Raptors still challenge Cavs?
With Lowry out, the Raptors are unquestionably losing their best player. While DeMar DeRozan earned early-season plaudits for his scoring heroics, Lowry is the fulcrum of Toronto’s fourth-ranked offense. The point guard was averaging career highs in points (22.8 per game) and three-point shooting (41.7%) before his injury. Lowry’s efficiency buoyed DeRozan’s midrange attack, and his ability to penetrate off the high pick-and-roll is a key cog of the offense.
The Raptors’ offensive rating drops from 116.3 to 106.9 with Lowry off the court, per Basketball Reference, and their defensive efficiency slips as well. Overall, Toronto is a staggering 12.7 points per 100 possessions better when Lowry is on the floor. He’s been the best point guard in the East so far this season, ranking second overall in real plus-minus.
Cory Joseph will assume most of the minutes at point guard now, with Norm Powell possibly seeing an uptick in playing time as well. Both are obviously not as dynamic as Lowry. Joseph has at least been having a career-best season from three, and his perimeter touch will now be needed more than ever.
With Lowry out, DeRozan takes control of the offense. While DeRozan has a knack for hitting tough shots, his style of play hardly seems conducive to long-term success without his backcourt mate. Spacing will become extra important, and Toronto may experiment with smaller lineups featuring P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson and Serge Ibaka in the frontcourt. The issue with playing small will be defense, something Toronto has already struggled with this season. It may seem counterintuitive to turn games into track meets without your starting point guard, but trying to run and gun with their new pieces could end up being the Raptors’ best option.
Ultimately, as the regular season enters its final stretch, expect the Raptors to mostly stay afloat. The offense likely won’t reach its normal heights, but Toronto may still have enough to outscore most opponents as long as the defense does not completely fall apart. A return to form at protecting the rim from Ibaka would be particularly helpful if the team hopes to play small.
Unfortunately, staying afloat has its own negative consequences. After acquiring Tucker and Ibaka, the Raps had a realistic chance at fighting for the No. 2 seed in the East. Moving out of the 4–5 area of the bracket is imperative in the East. If Toronto finishes fourth or fifth, it would likely be facing Cleveland in the second round of the playoffs, and no one wants to see LeBron that early. Lowry’s injury means the Raptors’ Finals path could become much more treacherous than before, with Boston and/or Washington also potentially standing in their way.
Long-term impact: Future hinges on Lowry
Lowry is a free agent after this season, and his latest injury makes Toronto’s future a bit more complicated. If the team flames out in the playoffs, will it be because Lowry never fully returned to health? Or because the roster is still flawed? Lowry will be on the wrong side of 30 this off-season, and the Raptors will have to determine if he can still be their franchise centerpiece moving forward. Lowry’s past playoff struggles could also be a sticking point for Toronto, and now the organization will have to mull over injury concerns as well.
Lowry is far from the only important impending free agent. Tucker, Ibaka and Patterson all have expiring contracts this summer, too. Lowry’s injury robs Toronto of getting a long look at its new core, and deciding who to keep around will become that much tougher. Ibaka is 27 but his defense has showed signs of slippage, yet he will still likely command a max salary (or close to it) on the open market. Patterson is making a paltry $6 million this season, and his value will skyrocket under the cap boom. Tucker may be the most expendable of the three, but then the Raptors will again be on the search for a three-and-D player to matchup with LeBron.
Toronto can throw money at everyone and ride with their current core, but Lowry’s injury means the Raps will do so with a certain level of uncertainty. Would two rounds of the playoffs be enough for Masai Ujiri to decide on keeping the band together?
It’s an unenviable position for the Raptors to be in right now. The basketball gods were really unkind to Toronto this time, especially considering the Raps did their best to put together a complete team for the postseason. Maybe Lowry comes back in time for the playoffs, the improbable happens and in late June we’re all eating some Indian Chinese in downtown Toronto. It's more likely, however, that the Raptors will struggle on the court, and the franchise’s decision makers will have to make some big gambles this summer.