So strange is the start to Kyle Lowry’s season that an uneven performance against the Celtics on Sunday—in which the All-Star point guard’s play faded gradually into the background—made for one of his stronger efforts yet. Lowry is stuck in the mire of less. Less attacking, less scoring, less foul drawing. Less responsibility, less license, less playing time. The contrast is transfixing. When a player this tenacious goes muted, the blank space where every scoring crescendo used to be becomes glaring.
Lowry is not at all the type to idle in the background. That he’s done so with some frequency is a blinking indicator light on Toronto’s otherwise efficient offense. Even as Lowry posts a five-year low in points per game (13.4) and a three-year low in true shooting (54.9%), the Raptors are making do. Their offense has been reoriented to rely less on both Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and less it has. Neither star has the same measure of control in an offense with this much increased ball movement. That relief may be healthy, but it has sometimes left Lowry rudderless.
The approach Lowry is accustomed to has shown its postseason limitations clearly. As such, Raptors coach Dwane Casey instilled an offense with new processes and new goals. Side-to-side movement became a priority, resulting in 20 more passes per game according to NBA.com. Toronto sculpted a more modern shot profile, vaulting from No. 22 in three-point rate (the percentage of their field goals taken beyond the arc) to sixth. Traditional pick-and-roll play—a premise that accounted for almost 40% of Lowry’s possessions last season, according to Synergy Sports—was phased out in favor of continuity-based sets.
“We’re not running as many pick-and-roll plays,” Lowry said last week, per Josh Lewenberg of TSN Sports. “We’re running a few, some in transition drags but when other teams score, we’re in our open series and it’s kind of getting the ball, moving and cutting and reading. Right now I’m just trying to figure it out.”
When Lowry tries to “figure it out,” he looks the part of a floor general. This is not necessarily a compliment. One can admire Lowry’s commitment to this new offense while still lamenting his lack of direct opportunities. The old Lowry produced by force of will. This version plays things according to the system. We know Lowry is thinking about the game differently because of all the mismatches he leaves on the table. Plodding bigs have switched on to him at times with no punishment. Shaky defenders have wound up guarding Lowry in transition only for him to give up the ball, unprompted. Those decisions make Lowry, one of the game’s great opportunists, almost unrecognizable.
The changes have reallocated what were creative opportunities—pick-and-rolls, dribble hand-offs, isolations, etc.—into dependent ones. Lowry spends an increasing amount of his time as an overqualified spot-up shooter. His working that way can help the Raptors. In doing so, however, even one of the league’s more efficient offenses can suffer from the opportunity cost. Is there really no way for the Raptors to move the ball, flow through their offense, and empower to Lowry to attack as he once did? While there are bound to be costs in a team changing its style of play, one can imagine a conceptual middle ground that doesn’t displace the best player involved.
This might be the least assertive Lowry has ever been. His free throw rate has cratered to a clear career worst—a drop that has naturally been linked to changes in how the league is officiating continuity. Lowry used to wring a few Hardenesque free throws a game out of created contact at the point of the screen. When a well-intended defender would chase him through a pick-and-roll, Lowry baited the contact and then coughed up a shot. As those plays are ruled now, Lowry would not be awarded free throws. This costs Lowry, though it’s worth noting that he’s drawing significantly fewer fouls of all kinds. The issue isn’t simply that Lowry isn’t getting to the line, but that he isn’t applying pressure. His lack of drawn shooting fouls, down from 2.4 per game last year to 0.6 this year, are a mere symptom.
The reality is that Lowry no longer has the same opportunity. Hackneyed sports tradition would tell you that he needs only to be more aggressive. But if you take the ball out of a point guard’s hands, discourage him from attacking off the dribble in the way that made him successful, and cap his minutes, to boot, you deny him the fundamental means to produce. Toronto has gone a step further by changing its rotation, denying Lowry the chance to rack up points with and against second units.
Lineups featuring Lowry and three or four bench players have been the Raptors’ secret weapon for years. Even when the starters would play opponents to a loss, Lowry and a cast of smart, hard-working teammates could make up ground and then some. Without DeRozan around to collaborate with, Lowry shot more often and drew more free throws. The starts of the second and fourth quarters were where Lowry ate and, often, where Toronto won its games.
One of those trends has held: Lowry still tends to create more when he plays without DeRozan. The rub is that he almost never does. Over 90% of Lowry’s minutes have come with DeRozan on the floor this season, up from 61.3% last season. Those fertile stretches to open the second and fourth are no longer his jurisdiction, deferred instead to third-year guard Delon Wright. Lowry rests then, thus accounting for his six-minute drop in playing time relative to last season.
In a certain sense, the Raptors are making Lowry’s life easier. Point guards his size tend not to age well, and at 31 and counting, Lowry is officially on the clock. Limiting his minutes makes sense. (Even more so given his injury history.) Sharing in the burden of shot creation could extend Lowry’s career. Yet in doing these things, Toronto has denied at least some of what makes Lowry so valuable. They’re still winning games (7-5 through Monday), but last year (+8.2) the Raptors won Lowry’s minutes by four times their current margin (+2.1). At some point, that difference comes home to roost.
When Lowry re-signed with the Raptors back in July, all parties involved seemed to be opting in for more of the same. That hasn’t at all been the case. Toronto’s efforts to diversify its offense, while commendable, have tweaked its continuity. The coaching staff is the same. The roster is largely the same. Yet for Lowry in particular, so much is new—from his role in this system to his place in the rotation to the rules of the game itself.
Give it time. If there is one thing the evolution of the Raptors has taught us, it's that Lowry will not be contained. His game breaks free. It expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but: Lowry finds a way.