Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been great this season. There is legitimate optimism that this team has improved enough to actually achieve some success in the playoffs. The team is winning (a lot).
But there should be some concern with how much the team is riding its best players this season, and especially lately.
Lowry and DeRozan rank 4th and 5th in minutes per game this season. There are about 450 players in the NBA - that means those two each play more minutes than 99% of the league.
Now, a good part of this is the league is getting smarter with player minutes - less and less you see 38-40 minute averages, and there are many players clustered at or around 35 minutes per game. Lowry and DeMar sit at 36.7 and 36.4 MPG respectively.
Now, DeRozan has proven again and again that he is a work horse and can handle big minutes, and there is usually one player per team up in that minutes range. There is little concern there.
But Lowry has historically averaged about 34 MPG, peaking at 36 MPG in 2013-14. He also ran about 36 MPG through the first half of last season before he broke down. That's the concern - risking more wear and tear, more injuries and general fatigue for Lowry could lead to a similar breaking down this season. Obviously no one wants that. But still, he managed 36 MPG in 2013-14 and was fine, so maybe this is not so big a concern?
I might buy that except for this. Lowry's MPG splits by month:
Month | MPG
Yes, he averaged 39 MPG over 14 games in January. That would rank most in the league over the entire season, and is well beyond what he has ever averaged before (the highest month of his Raptors tenure is about 37.5 MPG in 2013-14).
This minutes increase appears to be because of a recognition within the team that he is extremely effective with the bench unit. Unfortunately, an increase in minutes with them has not been off-set with a decrease elsewhere.
Prior to January, the various starting lineups had posted about 15 MPG together, with a -2.6 net rating. In January, those numbers are 14 MPG (a very slight drop but not much) and an even worse -3.6 net rating.
Lowry generally posts a very solid +6.6 net rating, in spite of the starters struggling so much. He's a guy you want on the floor as much as possible. Unfortunately, the current rotation choices being made put him on the floor the most with a lineup that he struggles with (understandably). Which means he's carrying massive minutes - both struggling along with the starters, and a bunch of minutes with the bench to make up for those unproductive minutes.
You can see the effect on Lowry's game, too. In general, in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Q's (when he is mostly away from the starting lineup) Lowry posts tremendous numbers.
2nd Q: 64 TS%, +10.6 net rating
3rd Q: 58 TS%, +3.7 net rating (there's a few minutes with the starters in there, obviously)
4th Q: 61 TS%, +14 net rating
But look what happens late in the game, in the final 5 minutes in close games.
Final 5 minutes: 54 TS%, +4.5 net rating
His shooting drops, his effectiveness compared to the rest of the 4th Q drops, and that's even with him playing with the team's closing lineups, which perform as follows this year (earlier, and then more recently with Patterson in for Carroll):
KL-CJ-DD-DC-JV: +15 net rating, 66 lineup TS%
KL-CJ-DD-PP-JV: +25 net rating, 75 lineup TS%
He's playing with killers to end the game, and yet individually struggles right at the end of games.
A good example of this is the game against the Pistons. Lowry played 10 of 12 minutes in the 3rd Q, and the entire 4th Q. Despite being extremely effective with the bench through the end of the 3rd and start of the 4th, building a 20 point lead with 6 minutes left in the process, he was left in the game. He seemed to hit a wall - he went 1 for 5 the rest of the way, scoring 2 points in those final 6 minutes. It didn't help that once his struggles started, to fix the problem, Casey substituted Scola, Valanciunas and DeRozan back in, recreating much of the dysfunction of the starting lineup.
There are a variety of solutions to get Lowry's minutes down. Change the starting lineup to one that works, so he doesn't need to play so much with the bench to make up for early deficits. Or just make substitutions much earlier. Or find a bench unit that works without Lowry (or a unit with most of the starters without Lowry so Lowry can get a breather then after he plays with the bench guys).
But a solution needs to be found. Lowry is in the best shape of his life, but that doesn't mean he can handle playing around 40 minutes a night. Even getting back to 36 MPG (although a couple fewer would be even better) would be a big step in the right direction.
So, what do you think? Should we be concerned about Lowry's minutes? What changes would you make in the rotation to manage minutes more effectively?
All stats per NBA.com and basketball-reference.com and up to date as of January 31st 2016.