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Player Preview 2017-18: What does Kyle Lowry have left to prove?

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He’s undoubtedly the best player on the Raptors, and one of the finest in franchise history. And yet, we still wonder where Kyle Lowry can go next.

Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

If there are questions about Kyle Lowry at this stage of his career with the Raptors, they revolve around his fragility — physical and yes, mental. The former is easy to summarize. Despite everything Lowry has done to rebuild himself, to trim down, to lead the healthiest life he can, there are still all those late-season injuries and breakdowns of the past to suggest his efforts may not matter. Still, that alone won’t stop Lowry from trying to overcome the league’s elite.

It’s the latter, the struggles of Lowry’s mind, that are more complicated to unpack, or even wonder about. A professional athlete experiencing physical injury is not nothing, but when it happens all we can do is wait for said player to heal and return to active duty. After the Washington sweep in 2015, Lowry knew he had to do something to buttress his career, so he got in the best shape of his life. In 2016 he played through some freak bursitis, and while his shot was off, his play-making and shot calling eventually coalesced into the catalytic force we’ve known them to be. (Cue the miracle Eastern Conference Finals run.) Sadly, 2017 drove Lowry back into the unknown — what could the Raptors have been if he hadn’t missed those 21 games due to a wrist injury? The same place probably, but we’ll never know. What we’re left with are the images and words of his unsettled demeanour from that post-season, the sense that Lowry’s frustration was boiling over.

After Game 3 of the Raptors-Bucks series, perhaps the most desultory experience in recent franchise history, Lowry was upset. The Raptors had just gotten embarrassed in Milwaukee, run off the court with extreme prejudice, 104-77, to fall behind 2-1 to the lower seeded Bucks. For the Raptors faithful and Lowry, it was a nightmare reckoning, the team once again playing from behind. The Raptors were supposed to be the superior team — to the sixth place Bucks certainly, but also to the 2016 ECF squad. In truth they were on paper perhaps the best and most balanced assemblage of talent since 2001’s much-vaunted team. But there was Lowry afterwards with his passive aggressive read-between-the-line quotes anyway.

“Put it this way, you want me... I guess, I’m gonna have to force shots,” said Lowry. “My teammates want me to be more aggressive so I’m gonna have to force more shots. Simple as that. Because I felt I made the right passes last night, but my teammates... I guess I’ll be forcing more shots. Let’s put it that way.”

Yes, let’s. It’s the kind of statement only Lowry could make, loaded as it is with surly implication and defeated mood. The Raptors don’t need or necessarily want Lowry to “force shots” or even to be more aggressive than he already is. Lowry, of course, knows this — he’s a risk taker sure, but with him it’s always a calculated risk. The tension is in what this quote means for Lowry in relation to the rest of his team. How could the Raptors’ best player be both such an inspiring figure... and so exasperated?

The central tenet of Lowry’s career to this point has been to maximize leverage. Since coming into the league, Lowry has been overlooked and underestimated. He’s been compared unfavourably to his peers, and is now being shunted aside for an incoming class of superior athletes. His best quality is in how he acknowledges these facts, internalizes them, and uses them to his advantage. And not just in a cliched “he plays with a chip on his shoulder” way — an aspirational mode which can be used to describe most players — but in a more practical sense: Lowry understands his limitations, understands what he can control, and, at his best, understands those same things in othersparticularly his opponents — better than most. It’s how he’s built himself into a top 30 (or perhaps top 20) player in the league: through will and intelligence, and a concrete grasp of how the smart application of both can make for a better result. It’s why his Raptors’ squads improve when he’s on the court, and often flounder when he’s off it. And how he always seems to be at the right place at the right time, despite not being faster, more agile, younger, or otherwise stronger, than most of his opponents.

So then, the struggle of Lowry comes in how he chooses to deal with other’s comparative lack of understanding. In that Game 3, the mounting frustration was etched in Lowry’s face, and his every sigh afterwards. He was out there running off every screen, firing up every shot, and guiding every play — but he couldn’t count on all of his teammates to execute the vision he had in his head. It’s the primary challenge for the best point guards, and every worthwhile team leader, to enact this ideal (and ethereal) vision. The situation feels more painful for Lowry however because he has to work so hard to gain his team those advantages in the first place. It’s why he continues to break apart in the process too. Putting the Raptors on his back maximizes the team’s chances for success just as surely as it increases his risk of injury.

It was not a surprise to hear Lowry say what he sought to improve this off-season. Shooting first, Lowry joked, because of course every player could stand to be better there. But then, some more meaningful introspection: “I would love to be a better leader. I think that’s one thing I want to really focus on is being a better leader. I’m more of a show guy, you know I go out there and do it. And I think that’s one thing I have to do a better job of is communicating with everyone else. You know, I may think something or see something one way and I need to communicate it better. I think that’s one thing I can help myself, I can help the team with.”

As Lowry’s career drives past its apex, this idea should be his guiding light. The Raptors will need Lowry to play a lot of minutes this year. They’ll need him to do a lot of the smart things he’s always done to get the team to a higher level. He’ll need to continue to be a “show guy.” With that though comes the knowledge that the best of Lowry is behind us. His physical state will never be more stable (or, sadly, any more superior) than it is right now, this risk of wear-and-tear injury ever-present. Nevertheless, as the Raptors prepare to gradually modify their offense into a more pass-heavy modern scheme, while enlisting a host of young players in key positions — players who have gotten only the briefest feel for post-season intensity — it will fall to Lowry to bring it all together.

The easy cliché here still applies: as Lowry goes, so go the Raptors. If there was ever a reason to watch Toronto basketball then, this would be it. Can Lowry do all of these things — drive the team in a new direction, become a better leader, and preach his specific level of understanding — while the hands of father time swing against him? And what will the result be if he succeeds?

Let’s watch.