Last week I raised the question of how the Toronto Raptors were going to improve this upcoming NBA season. Considering they did not make a splash in free agency, any leap would have to come from one of Toronto’s existing young players. Fortunately, the roster has no shortage of those. I already analyzed swingman Terrence Ross as a prime candidate to morph into a breakout player; his improvement from year one to two shows an optimistic trajectory.
Even with substantial gains from Ross, though, his ascension alone is not enough to elevate the Raptors to the kind of level they hope for in the East. As I sit and wonder, the pessimist in me thinks that after Kyle Lowry’s breakout season where he seemingly put everything together in mind, temperament, and play, there is little potential left to tap. At 28, can the Raptors only count on a few subsequent seasons of what we saw last year?
I really shouldn’t be complaining if that is the case. Lowry was great this past year. Even if he wasn’t the best player on the Raptors it was easy to see that he was the most important. He attributed much of it to just growing up and getting his priorities straight. The Raptors could spend the next few seasons doing worse than 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game, along with a defensive approach that would be the envy of nearly all the coaches in the NBA.
The Miami Heat wanted Lowry badly. He was going to be the chip that convinced LeBron James that he could still squeeze a couple more championships out of that core. He was coveted elsewhere, too, not only in free agency but also during the season when the Raptors were struggling with an identity crisis and Lowry could have been had for the right price. Once they flourished after the Rudy Gay trade, Toronto knew that they had to resign him to put the right message out there, but I don’t think shrewd general manager Masai Ujiri would make that kind of commitment if he didn’t believe that Lowry had even more to give.
While Lowry is sixth among point guards in PER at 20.20 and 25th overall in the NBA, I do see a couple of spots where I think he can tighten up his game.
Lowry took more than six threes a game last season and connected at a reasonable 38 percent clip. Given his last four seasons have all hovered around this number, it can be expected that he will continue that pace. But his midrange percentage was 33.3 percent. There is obvious room for improvement there, perhaps as Lowry becomes a little more measured in the shots he takes, maybe in trying to avoid contact more.
And that’s the other point. As I watched the playoff series against the Nets and saw DeMar DeRozan’s shot not falling and Terrence Ross too scared of making a mistake to make an impact, it was clear that Lowry felt like he had a bigger responsibility. He was driving in, often going one-on-three, and getting knocked around like a rag doll. I could see it was more out of desperation than a measure of his offensive repertoire , but he does draw a lot of contact to begin with. No one with his quickness or savvy should be shooting a tick above 30 percent, so I fully expect him to make whatever adjustment he has to make to become more efficient in that range.
There were also too many times that Lowry would ignore Jonas Valanciunas on the pick-and-roll and instead throw up a contested shot. Valanciunas was far from a finished product in those situations and his getting the ball on the move too often resulted in an awkward catch-and-move that I can’t really describe as anything but stiff. However, he will certainly improve in that arena and Lowry should feel more comfortable utilizing him as a result. Ideally, he should avoid some of those inefficient midrange numbers which seem to be the only issue on an otherwise breakthrough season.
Of course listening to Lowry talk during the season showed that he didn’t gather any more skills overnight. It was attitude. It was outlook. I have no idea if he has anywhere to grow there. But I’m sure as hell not betting against him. He had already been written off as a problem child and an uncoachable lost cause before last season.
Let’s hope just getting further in the playoffs is enough motivation this time around.