Leading up to the start of the 2014-15 season, we'll be asking 20 questions about the team. Some of them more serious than others. All of them hopefully interesting or at least enough to spark a meaningful discussion. After hours of brainstorming, we came up with a perfect name for these articles, we're calling them 20Q's.
Lowry was a leader last season, taking charge of a team that surprised everyone by making their first appearance in the playoffs since 2008. More of the same will be expected this upcoming season, so why is it that I think there will be a regression -- a word that makes almost everyone cringe -- in Lowry's numbers next season? And better yet, why is it that I think the decline in numbers might prove to be a positive for the team?
The Deron Williams Case Study
Consider Deron Williams in Brooklyn. In 2012, Williams opted out of the final year of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent. He was coming off a lockout shortened season with averages of 21.0 points and 8.7 assists per game. The team rewarded Williams -- who was 27 years old at the time -- with a five year, $98 million deal. In the following season, Williams saw his averages fall to 18.9 points and 7.7 assists in 78 games during the regular season. However, he improved in various relevant advanced statistic categories such as True Shooting Percentage (TS%), Offensive Rating (ORtg), and Win Shares (offensive and defensive).
From his contract season to the following year, there was not a case of regression to be made. However, we can find the evidence by looking at this past season. The Nets acquired Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, along with Andrei Kirilenko. Williams struggled with his new teammates and ended up averaging just 14.3 points and 6.1 assists per game for the season. His shooting numbers were abysmal in comparison with his career averages (.365 FG% 10-16 feet from the basket, .419 FG% for his career) and his assist percentage at 32.8 AST% was the lowest since his rookie season.
While the Raptors didn't shake up the core of their roster, GM Masai Ujiri did make some moves. He traded for Lou Williams, added James Johnson, and resigned Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson. That said, the team is still relying on the internal improvement of Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas to maintain the continuity achieved last season. In short, Lowry's Raptors, like Williams' Nets, will have a sizable arsenal of weapons to deploy.
To that end, the Raptors will benefit greatly from having a measured and more surgical Kyle Lowry this season. There were times last season when a great dribble drive sequence from Lowry would end in a frenzied 1-on-3 layup or step back attempt, while Valanciunas flailed his arms in the air and Ross lurked unheeded in the corner. It seemed almost as if Lowry could not trust anybody but DeRozan on crucial possessions. This could explain how Lowry's usage rate (22.9) skyrocketed last season.
With his contract year in the rear view, and an upgraded, playoff seasoned roster returning to camp, Lowry can and should move to trust his teammates and polish certain areas of his game. An improvement to his shot selection, including the elimination of insanely deep threes and reckless attacks to the rim could bode well for Lowry as he looks to take more effective shots and in the process increase his overall FG% (.423). Having an intense but smarter Lowry running the point next season would make the Raptors offense, which was already ranked ninth in offensive efficiency, that much more lethal.
The Tony Parker Effect
In order for the Raptors to improve as an overall unit this season, Lowry has to continue to build trust with his teammates and be the catalyst in their improvement as key cogs in the starting lineup. Last year's first round exit was proof of how strides (or lack thereof) during the season can be a big factor in any team's post-season run. Jonas Valanciunas, coming off a solid sophomore season in which he averaged 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds, started right where he left off in the playoffs posting a decent 10.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game and was crucial player for the Raptors throughout their first round series against the Nets. On the other hand, Terrence Ross, while showing flashes of his upside during the regular season, struggled to be a consistent contributor in the playoffs. With multiple teammates entering critical junctures in their young careers, Lowry will have to fine tune his game for the betterment of the team if he wants to be playing with a confident group of teammates in April. And unlike Williams and the Nets, Lowry will have the strength of team continuity to fall back on.
It's been done before. Tony Parker averaged 20.3 points and 7.6 assists per game in San Antonio's 2012-13 campaign that saw them lose in the Finals. The following season, with a similar team, his scoring average and assist rate dropped to 16.7 points and 5.7 assists a game. Parker's "regression" was often simply the result of making that extra pass in a kick-out sequence or calling the right play for a teammate, all in an effort to ensure key players progressed throughout the year to be ready for the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard, a key beneficiary of Parker's play last season, saw a jump in key categories during the regular season. In addition to scoring at a slightly higher clip, Leonard took more high percentage shots on the way to increasing his overall FG%. Parker's effect can also be noted in Leonard's advanced statistics where his PER and USG% also increased.
In the NBA Finals, the "Parker Effect" paid dividends for the Spurs. Boris Diaw went on to average his highest points per game in five seasons, while Kawhi Leonard had a dominant series earning the Finals MVP award.
The consensus is that regression is the worst thing that can occur to a player and, as a result, their team. Deron Williams suffered a cruel regression last year following a promising 2012 season and the Nets failed to make a deep playoff run because of his lethargic play. However, Tony Parker proved that a 'controlled' regression can contribute to roster improvement as a whole and in the long run, win championships.
Kyle Lowry's potential regression next season should be bode well for the Raptors because like Parker and the Spurs, both teams are looking to sustain a level of continuity that Williams never had in Brooklyn. There's still a chance Lowry might spiral down the same path Williams took but he will have an upgraded roster that has grown together and is ready to support him. With the current composition of the roster and untapped potential waiting in the wings, Lowry's regression might just be the best thing to happen to the Raptors next season.