Chauncey Billups, known as Mr. Big Shot in NBA fan circles, built a career through hard work and patience. While not a star out of the gate coming from the University of Colorado, despite being drafted third overall by the Boston Celtics, he hung around — playing for five teams in five years, including a 20-game stint with the Toronto Raptors in his rookie year. After an inconsistent, albeit decent start to his career, he finally got his chance after signing a multi-year contract with the Detroit Pistons — a move that would change his career trajectory instantly.
Like Kyle Lowry, it took the combination of career experience and the perfect environment for him to succeed. Though he played the best basketball of his career during his first three seasons in Detroit, he wasn’t named an All-Star until his fourth season in the Motor City, at the age of 29. This began a string of five straight All-Star appearances with both the Pistons and the Denver Nuggets, whom he led to the Western Conference Finals with Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, and Nene in the 2009 NBA Playoffs.
Billups became a safety valve for a high-powered offense on a Denver team which featured Carmelo Anthony, Nene and JR Smith off the bench. George Karl utilized Billups in a way where he wasn’t a featured focal point of the offense; he became the ultimate opportunist, taking shots when left open and using simple off-ball movement that gave him easy looks at the basket. Unlike Lowry, he didn’t bully his way into the paint and get beat on by bigger players constantly — although he did shoot an average of six free throws per game during his prime — he was crafty, and more importantly, a smart offensive player.
This is what Lowry needs to emulate if he intends to stay productive toward the end of what is expected to be a five-year $205 million contract. Like Billups, he’s both smart and crafty, meaning he has the ability to adjust to a new playing style. Now, this isn’t all Lowry’s responsibility — it’s on the coaching staff to recognize the need to place him into a more reserved role; a player with the ability to strike like a cobra, but with the patience to know when to strike.
Continuing the physical style that made him a star may give him just two more years of high-level production before he falls off of a cliff. As a primary ball-handler in an ancient offensive set (one that will undoubtedly change next season) Lowry is tasked with being a lead scorer. Adopting a new offense, one which hinges on ball movement and secondary scoring options, will be the first step in increasing the longevity of Lowry’s career. However, it all depends on who management decides to put next to their All-Star guard.
Hypothetically, if the coaching staff were to elevate a scorer from the bench unit, someone like Norman Powell, into the starting lineup to help carry the load on offense, Lowry could greatly benefit by becoming a tertiary scoring option, instead of being one of the two primary options. And even better, if Toronto is able to resign Serge Ibaka, there is yet another offensive weapon that would be featured in place of Lowry. The idea is to play Lowry in such a way that lowers his usage while increasing his efficiency, much like how Billups was used in Denver.
The most obvious way to prolong his level of productivity is to reduce the absurd number of minutes he currently plays for this team. Despite having one of the best backup point guards in the league, for the last two seasons, Lowry has played an average of 37.2 minutes, good for second in the league over that span. Playing that many minutes at 30 years old is dangerous, and Toronto has dodged a bullet in that he was lucky enough to not have suffered a severe injury.
Despite not incurring a career-threatening injury, health has always been a concern for Lowry during his Raptor years. In five seasons, Lowry has missed an average of 11 games per season while in Toronto, and he’s often been out of sorts down the stretch. In order for the team to maximize his ability to stay on the court during the upcoming contract, the coaching staff needs to rely on the bench and limit their star point guard to under 35 minutes per game.
With the emergence of Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet, two players the team seem to be committed to long-term, this shouldn’t be a problem. Cory Joseph may be on the trading block this summer due to his cap-friendly contract and excellent production. However, Wright may not be ready for full-time backup duties this upcoming season. Management needs to evaluate the probability that Wright will be able to provide the necessary production, consistency, and leadership with the second unit if Joseph were to be dealt.
Of course, this entire project hinges on Lowry returning to Toronto next season, which is not a definite at the moment. While he will have plenty of suitors come July 1st, the Raptors can and will offer him the most money of everyone interested, making his return highly likely. But, if Toronto wants to get the most from their star through the life of his deal, the coaching staff needs to change his game-plan significantly. Let’s see if this is part of the Raptors’ “culture reset.”