Before Masai Ujiri arrived in Toronto, his much-maligned predecessor as General Manager, Bryan Colangelo, made a brilliant trade with Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey. In July of 2012, Morey agreed to send point guard Kyle Lowry to Toronto in exchange for Gary Forbes — who has yet to play an NBA game since the trade — and a first-round pick.
By moving on from Lowry in the summer of 2012, the Rockets were in fortuitous position to make The Infamous James Harden Trade a few months later. In addition to having newfound space in their offensive scheme for a ball-controlling guard, the Rockets also included Toronto’s first-round pick in the package they sent to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Harden. (The pick was eventually used on Steven Adams.)
The only problem was that, once he journeyed North, Lowry evolved from a consistent starter into an All-Star-level player. With the clock perilously close to July 1st, Lowry is being discussed as a free agent talented and respected enough that the Miami Heat are considering signing him, which would necessarily be on a large contract.
In his twelve-plus months at the helm of the Raptors, Ujiri has been unafraid to trade away players who Colangelo had made large financial commitments to. Andrea Bargnani was almost immediately jettisoned to the New York Knicks last summer, and Rudy Gay was dealt to Sacramento in the beginning stages of last regular season. But Lowry’s quantum leap in productivity convinced Ujiri to keep him around. After finishing ninth in shot attempts per minute on the 2012-13 Raptors, this year Lowry was the team’s second-leading scorer, behind DeMar DeRozan, not to mention his team’s de facto on-court leader.
Lowry ended up being a significantly more efficient value, dollar-for-dollar, than Harden was this season:
Harden earned more than double what Lowry earned, but Harden certainly didn’t double Lowry’s value. While Harden is certainly the better offensive player — his efficiency goes up and up with each of the many (cheap!) foul calls he gets — Lowry provided more space on the court and on the cap sheet for other valuable players to produce. (I also think that the comparison to Harden is appropriate because both players play defense with the mindset of: “I’m saving my energy for what I can do on offense.”)
Since Lowry has timed his career year with his entry onto the free agent market, it’s also likely that he just hit the apex of his potential dollar-per-production efficiency. Many teams have been in pursuit of his services, and I for one am surprised that the Raptors are offering Lowry a long-term contract valued at twice the annual total of his previous deal. Most General Managers certainly feel no obligation in retaining players acquired by a previous regime, so Ujiri must see significant and hard-to-replace value in Lowry’s game.
Lowry demands the ball in his hands at all times as an offensive player. The play that the Raptors ran most often for Lowry was a pick-and-roll, which accounted for 38.5% of Lowry’s offensive possessions. Amir Johnson, one of Lowry’s cohorts in the Raptors starting lineup, is one of the best screen-setters in the league, and their frequent collaborations were astoundingly efficient.
As a ballhandler in the pick-and-roll, Lowry is a master at reading the defense and using the disruptive event of the screen to his personal advantage. Lowry is adept at using either “side” of the screen to do whatever it takes to keep his defender off-balance — and Lowry is almost immediately in the key whenever his man slightly falters off-balance.
Defending Lowry’s pick-and-rolls requires a total team concept. The defender who is guarding the screener — usually Johnson or Jonas Valanciunas — must not sag back to prevent penetration. Lowry is too adept at leading his own defender right into the screen, and can create a wide-open shot for himself if help isn’t coming.
The most effective way that I saw to defend Lowry was to blitz him with both defenders. As the Raptors’ first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets carried on, the Nets began blitzing Lowry through the screen more often. Instead of hitting the now-open screener with a pass, Lowry would put his head down and head for a corner, an unhelpful tendency that resulted in turnovers and circus shots:
Although it no longer appears likely, it was a hot rumor one week ago that Lowry would join the Miami Heat. And that could be for the best: Lowry on the Heat might not be a beneficial arrangement for either side. As stacked with talent as that team would be, there remains only one basketball for the team to share.
However — if Lowry were to join the Heat, his statistics would automatically improve because then he wouldn’t have to play them anymore. The Heat’s manic style of rapid-switching defense meant that they were well-handled to neutralize Lowry’s usually devastating pick-and-roll threat. In his four games against the Heat this year, Lowry scored 13.3 PPG on 37% shooting — well off his season averages of 17.9 and 42.3%.
I think some better solutions, for both team and player, would be:
- New York Knicks: While the Knicks have a quietly wizardly backup point guard in Pablo Prigioni, they just dealt Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks and no longer have a clear starting point guard on their roster. Since Knicks ownership is clearly unafraid to venture into the luxury tax, the new Derek Fisher/Phil Jackson braintrust would be wise to pursue a player, like Lowry, who plays quite the opposite of how Fisher did.
- Detroit Pistons: If Stan Van Gundy can manage to move Brandon Jennings and Jennings’ two years and $16.3M of salary (easier said than done), Lowry and his 38.0 3P% could be a great ringleader for Van Gundy’s three-ball-dependent offensive concept.
In truth Lowry would be a fantastic addition to most teams. They just have to be ready to give Lowry enough possessions with the ball in his hands in order for him to maximize his value.
(Photo Credit: John Maynard)