Kyle Lowry Is Dominating and Building an Early MVP Case
The All-Star point guard is playing the best basketball of his career for the powerhouse Toronto Raptors.
Photo by ERIK S. LESSER/EPA-EFE
The highest a Toronto Raptor has ever finished in voting for the MVP award was in 2007, when Chris Bosh placed seventh. He notched three third-place votes. Though an offseason trade for Kawhi Leonard was the franchise's obvious solution to its historical lack of MVP-calibre talent, it has been a Raptor who's resided in Toronto for six long years, their second-longest tenured player, who's stepped into the role. Like the titular characters in When Harry Met Sally, the Raptors' love interest has been in front of them the whole time. Kyle Lowry just needed a fresh start and new context. Through the early start of the season, Lowry has been the Raptors' MVP. And if he keeps his level of play up, he'll have a chance at winning the league-wide award.
Lowry has been a high-quality NBA player for a long time. In six seasons and change in Toronto, he's averaged per-game numbers of 17.8 points, 6.9 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, and just 2.6 turnovers. Only 19 players in history have averaged those numbers in a single season, let alone over a six-year stretch. It's clear why Raptors fans have long subscribed to the idiom of KLOE, which is short for Kyle Lowry Over Everything.
Pundits outside of Toronto, however, have never considered the four-time All-Star among the league's elite, but that may soon change. What he's been doing so far this season far outstrips anything he's previously put together. In other words, this is easily the best stretch of Lowry's career.
Lowry's current per-game averages of 17.9 points, 11.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, and 2.8 turnovers have never been accomplished over a full season. Combine that with his outrageous shooting efficiency and the Raptors off to a franchise-best start and looking like the best team in the Eastern Conference, and you're looking at a full-blown MVP candidacy. Lowry has already broken Damon Stoudamire's team record for most consecutive games with double-digit assists, and sitting only 701 assists shy of Jose Calderon for most in team history, there could feasibly be more franchise records broken before season's end.
Some of Lowry's dominance has simply been a continuation, or mild expansion, of his previous level of play. He's always been great at identifying any possible way to benefit his team. On defence, he's terrific at rotating, helping, digging into passing lanes, and generally disrupting offensive sets. He's once again leading the NBA in drawn charges. He cannot be posted up by any player in the NBA, including Joel Embiid. And even when he doesn't tally a statistic, he defends the rim as well as anyone his size.
On offence, he's a terrific cutter. Even without the ball he impacts plays by setting physical screens. He scuttles around off-ball, always able to free up space for his quick-trigger triples. With the ball, he's more than a great shooter, able to attack closeouts and finish at the rim. Once there, he's deadly, shooting a career-best 65 percent at the rim.
Within his fully-stocked arsenal of offensive weapons, Lowry's pull-up shooting is his most lethal tool—if a defender ducks under any ball screen, Lowry is as consistent as a cheetah in a footrace.
Take this, for example: Since 2016-17, Lowry has shot 40.5 percent on 553 attempted pull-up triples. Over the same time period, Steph Curry, arguably the greatest shooter of all time, has shot 39.3 percent on 672 attempts.
Lowry's diverse abilities have been under his command for years, so there are no reasons to expect that his hot start will cool as the year continues. He's not hijacking an outsized share of the offence, as he's only taking 12.5 shots per game, slightly more than last year but fewer than any other year of his career since 2012-13. His 33.9 minutes per game are manageable. He's shooting a sustainable 40.8 percent from long range, and he's doing it with far more space available on the court, shooting less contested 3-point shots from the year before. None of Lowry's numbers can be discounted due to a hot start.
In fact, the only area of Lowry's game that has improved by ridiculous margins has been his passing. Lowry's 41.6 percent assist rate is a career high (he's never before topped 34 percent), and he's doing it alongside low usage and turnover rates. He isn't averaging more touches or passes per game than in previous years, which means that he's maximizing his opportunities better.
The on-court context in which Lowry is thriving has changed, which has opened up the floor for Toronto's mercurial point guard. Because of his off-ball skills, Lowry fit like a glove next to former teammate DeMar DeRozan, who possesses unique talents as well as unique weaknesses. But playing alongside his best friend prevented Lowry from maximizing his abilities. Last year, Lowry played the majority of his minutes in lineups with only one other jump-shooter in Serge Ibaka, or with two when OG Anunoby replaced Norman Powell in the starting lineup. Though Lowry clearly was effective, too many offensive sets didn't offer opportunities for him to antagonize defences.
Here in a 2017-18 game against Brooklyn, Lowry wages a losing battle coming off a Jonas Valanciunas screen. Ibaka's defender sinks into the lane to take away any passing angle to the big man. Powell and DeRozan stand together in the weak-side corner, threatening nothing. Lowry is left with the choice of driving into a thicket to force a mid-range jumper or threading an impossible pass to Valanciunas.
This year, Lowry has played the majority of his possessions alongside three jump-shooters in Danny Green, Leonard, and Ibaka. It seems like he faces an advantageous situation whenever he touches the ball. With multiple shooters and only one true big on the floor at any time, Lowry's driving and passing lanes transform from narrow windows into wide corridors. He often finds himself with more space than he needs to slide his passes to rolling bigs. He's been able to leverage his creativity in unique ways beyond the pick-and-roll. Lowry is great even in the post and never commits to a play, always conscientious of how to create the best shot for his teammates.
Lowry is also masterful in transition. He uses a unique understanding of angles to create opportunities inaccessible to most players, and is fantastic at dishing the ball into space. Despite crowds of defenders, Lowry knows exactly what passing lane will be available and how to open it. He can wait an extra beat to give his cutter a step to get ahead of his defender, translating to buckets.
Or Lowry can hit his note a moment early to push the ball ahead before the window closes.
Superstars like Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, or even Leonard would be reasonable MVP choices. But for the first time ever, Lowry has forced his way into their ranks. Lowry's dominance hasn't resulted from being a second option beside a consensus top-five NBA player in Leonard. In four games without Leonard, Lowry has led the Raptors to a 3-1 record with wins over likely playoff teams in the Wizards, Lakers, and Jazz. All of those victories came on the road, with the wins over Washington and Utah coming on back-to-backs.
Lowry has surpassed the Lowry of old, who was no slouch. A slew of catch-all advanced statistics confirm Lowry's status among the league's best—he's top five in the NBA in Basketball Reference's win shares per 48 minutes, offensive box score plus-minus, and value over replacement player. He's No. 1 in the league in Jacob Goldstein's player impact plus-minus. And he's leading the NBA in assists by a mile.
Lowry has improved as a 32-year-old point guard, which is almost unprecedented. A Kevin Pelton study on ESPN found that short point guards decline far earlier than tall point guards. By age 32, short point guards should generally be washed. Lowry, instead, made the most difficult leap in the league: from All-Star to MVP candidate.
While most guards his age and size are supposed to fall into backup roles or make the career switch to TNT analyst, Lowry is playing better than ever. Other stars overpower opponents with unmatched size, strength or athleticism, but Lowry dominates with his brain, rarely able to match opposing point guards in size or vertical-leap. After a change in coaching and teammates, Lowry has become one of the world's best players, someone who impacts so many different areas of a game on a given night. Only Steve Nash has won an MVP award as a point guard in his 30s, but even he was bigger and younger than Lowry, though far less dynamic on defence. After years of moderate success, Lowry might be breaking the historical mold in more ways than one.