Perhaps we-overly optimistic Raptors fans, that is-fell victim to a case of ‘small sample-size hysteria' after the opening three games of last season; three games in which Kyle Lowry averaged 23 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and almost 4 steals. Here, for the cost of a 1st-round pick in a weak draft, was the Raptors' point-guard of the future: an athlete, a dynamic scorer, a tenacious defender, and a player who was willing, and able, to push the ball up the floor. In other words, everthing that the steady and uninspiring, Jose Calderon wasn't.
But yeah, three games.
By the end of the season reality had taken a fire extinguisher to the notion that Kyle Lowry was the most exciting Raptor since pre-villain Vince. Lowry got injured (he missed 14 games in all) lost his starter's job to Calderon, feuded with Dwane Casey, reclaimed his starter's job when Calderon was traded (and still struggled), and eventually put up some good numbers in the final, meaningless month of the season. Over 68 games Lowry averaged 11 points, 6 assists, and over 2 turnovers per game.
Point-guard of the future? In November the answer to that question was an emphatic YES. And now, in the summer of 2013: Yeah maybe, we'll see what Ujiri wants to do.
Let's just say that the excitement has been toned down a little.
Ultimately what we learned about Kyle Lowry last season is what Houston Rockets fans probably learned about him the season before: He's an extremely talented, yet very flawed point-guard. For everything great that he brought to the table-athleticism, speed, the ability to play great defense (in theory)-things that the Raptors were lacking with Calderon as their floor general, he took an equal amount away from said table. All too often, Lowry took bad shots early in the shot clock, was out of control on drives to the basket, turned the ball over, gambled on defense, and displayed the kind of petulance that's got him into trouble throughout his career.
But yet, Lowry remains a tantalizing prospect because of all his aforementioned upside. In his last season with Houston, Lowry played like a borderline all-star before a nasty bacterial infection derailed his year. And while he's developed a worrying reputation for feuding with his coaches, in his defense, he wasn't exactly placed in the easiest of situations last season. While Lowry was clearly Colangelo's choice to be the team's starting point-guard, Casey was never as enthusiastic about the Philadelphia native's game.
The high-risk/high-reward nature of what Lowry brought to the table wasn't as appealing to an old-school coach like Casey who preferred the steady, and generally error-free (on offense, at least) play of Calderon. Lowry's position as starting point-guard was always tenuous. Of course, he didn't help himself with some erratic play on the court, but he was hardly given a vote of confidence by a coach who didn't appear to have a whole lot of faith in his game to begin with.
So what's going to change for next season? Well, perhaps not a lot. Casey's still the coach-although coach and player have publicly stated that they have no issues now-and Lowry's backer (Colangelo) is out the door. But unlike the start of last season, Lowry has no established point-guard waiting in the wings to take his job if he slips up. He might be traded (I'll get to that) but probably won't be riding the pine.
In the past week the Raptors have signed Dwight Buycks (incidentally, the second-biggest Dwight-related pick-up of the offseason), an undrafted 24-year old out of Marquette, who played in France last season. Buycks (in case you're wondering, his name is prounounced Bikes), by the look of his D-League, French League, and recent Summer League exploits, can get to the rim and knock down open three-pointers, but who knows how well his game will translate to the NBA-level. And then there's the D.J. Augustin signing of a couple days ago. As Adam Francis has already discussed, at one-year, $1.2 million, Augustin is a perfectly acceptable signing. He's just not a very good player. Because he's undersized he has trouble defending, and he really hasn't shot the ball well for a few years now.
So Buycks and Augustin will vie for time as Lowry's back-up, which also translates to: Kyle Lowry is going to play 38 minutes a game, and if we want to make the playoffs, let's hope to God that he doesn't get injured. Masai Ujiri might not be that concerned about that eventuality, however.
While Ujiri hasn't explicitly revealed his hand regarding what he wants to do with this Raptors roster going forward, his wait-and-see approach suggests that he won't hesitate to blow things up if the Raptors make a 2012-esque start to next season. In a hypothetical fire sale, Gay and DeRozan's contracts would be tougher to shift, but given that he's on a very palatable expiring contract, Lowry might be the first on the chopping block if things don't go well. And with Buycks and Augustin splitting time as the starting point-guard, a free-fall down the standings would seem inevitable.
But while the 2013-14 season is important as far as establishing who the Raptors' point-guard of the future is going to be-or just as likely, who it isn't going to be-next season is huge for Kyle Lowry personally. And that's probably a good thing for the Raptors. If he isn't motivated now, he'll never be, so a good sign is recent reports out of Las Vegas indicating a chiseled physique and level of preparedness far exceeding last season.
Lowry's in the final year of his contract, has shown a ton of promise throughout his career, but as I've mentioned, has also gained a reputation for flattering to deceive. What's more, while he isn't exactly old, Lowry's not exactly young by NBA standards either. Lowry's 27 and will be 28 by the time next season finishes. This might be his final chance to show a team --the Raptors, or anyone else-- that he can run an offense, and demand the kind of contract that comes with that responsibility. There's a ton of great young point-guards in the NBA right now and (as Brandon Jennings is finding out) not a lot of teams desperately in need for one. Although the Raptors are one of those teams searching for a starting point-guard, Lowry's going to have to convince Ujiri that's he's worth investing in, post-2013/14.
It's clear that after Lowry the Raptors don't have a lot of options at point-guard and if he goes down with injury (given his history, not an unreasonable scenario), this team is in trouble as far as the win-loss column goes. The Dinos won't make the playoffs without him. But again, that's probably fine as far as Ujiri is concerned. There's no long-term money tied up in anyone at his position, and Lowry, at a key juncture in his career, should have all the incentive in the world to go out and perform next season.
And if he doesn't...well, on to the next point-guard of the future.