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Numbers Game: Time for Some Optimism?

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There’s been some negativity floating around the Raptors of late. Is there really a reason for it though?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors have had a rough go of it ever since the All-Star break. Losing a player like Kyle Lowry, especially for a team with a guard-oriented offense like Toronto’s, is incredibly difficult to overcome.

And the Raptors have struggled since the break. Haven’t they?

What They Are Missing

Kyle Lowry is fantastic. And he’s more important to this team than he would be to almost any other team. By any measure he’s a fantastic overall player.

This season, Lowry has been responsible for 12 wins above replacement (by ESPN’s RPM), good for 6th in the entire league. He’s earned 9 win shares (from basketball-reference), good for 11th in the league. He’s posting a 23.1 PER, 25th in the league. He’s really good. It makes sense the team would struggle without him.

But even more than that, he’s the key to the Raptors’ systems. The Raptors need spacing for their primary and secondary scorers to go to work inside — DeMar DeRozan and usually Lowry, and then Jonas Valanciunas. We’ve seen a pattern all year that any lineup that surrounds those players with as many shooters as possible will put up gaudy offensive numbers.

And a big part of that is Kyle Lowry. He leads the team in 3PA per game (7.9, the next closest being Ibaka and Carroll with 4.5), in 3PM per game (3.3, again over Ibaka with 1.8) and is one of two players shooting over 40% from long range (again, Serge Ibaka). Thank goodness for that Ibaka trade, right?

But even with Ibaka’s prowess, he’s providing only about half the shooting Lowry usually does, and more importantly, he doesn’t replicate the threat of Lowry’s shooting at the point of attack on pick and rolls. Lowry ranks 6th in the league in pull-up three point attempts per game with 4.5, and his shooting percentage on those shots is better than any of the top 18 players in the league in pull-up three point attempts, at a blistering 42%.

Lowry has always been a score first point guard, but he’s also the closest thing to a consistent distributor the team has — his 29% assist rate is by far the highest on the team. No other player breaks 20%, including the point guards that have stepped into his minutes (Joseph 19%, Van Vleet 18%, Wright 16%). Joseph’s hasn’t grown much in the lead guard role either, at only 21% since the break.

But How Much Are They Missing It?

The Raptors before the break, even with the injury-riddled slump leading into it (with key players like DeRozan and Patterson missing time), had posted an excellent 110.9 ORTG (4th) and a middle-of-the-pack 106.0 DRTG (16th).

Since the break, the offense has fallen apart. Sitting at a 105.4 ORTG (17th in the league since the break), the team has stopped scoring without Lowry. Role players aren’t getting as many clean looks, and even open looks have stopped falling. DeRozan has to carry a ridiculous load, and although he’s been solid, the team has fallen apart without him. Valanciunas has been very hit and miss, with some games going very well with a bigger role, and in others having little impact at all, as Lowry was the guy most likely to get him the ball.

But here’s the good news. The other change that happened over the break, is not only did Lowry go out, but the Raptors also swapped Ross and Sullinger for Tucker and Ibaka, two dramatic defensive improvements. And although Lowry has also been key defensively for the Raptors (105.1 DRTG with him on the court, 108.8 DRTG without him), they’ve made up enough ground to actually stay afloat over this stretch.

They are sporting a 102.8 DRTG since the break, good for 7th in the league in that time. That puts them at a surprising slight positive net rating (+2.7, 9th) without Lowry, which usually translates to roughly .500 basketball. And they’ve exceeded that expectation as well, with a 6-4 record since the break.

Recent ugly losses to teams below them in the standings like the Bucks, Hawks and Heat have coloured the perception of the team’s play of late. In reality, they’ve grabbed quality wins as well against Boston and Washington, and overall have treaded water nicely without Lowry.

And if Lowry can come back and re-ignite that offense, and the defense can maintain its new form, watch out. This team could get fun to watch again — very, very quickly.

All stats from NBA.com unless otherwise noted.