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Player Review: The Franchise, Kyle Lowry

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Don’t let his ill-timed injury fool you: Kyle Lowry was incredible this season.

Toronto Raptors v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Kyle Lowry’s 2016-17 season will be forgotten, a victim of the memory-wiping syndrome recency bias tends to cause. Were it not for a pair of inopportunely timed injuries that ultimately contributed to the Raptors unceremonious exit from the playoffs, Lowry might still be lauded as the best point guard in the Eastern Conference. Instead, his career season will be remembered, ultimately, as a disappointment. Rather than the fan base clamouring for the Raptors to swiftly re-sign him this summer, some (incorrect) folks seem at peace with the idea of Lowry signing elsewhere as a free agent this summer.

Lowry’s wrist injury, which sucked the juice out of the reinvigorated Raptors just hours after Masai Ujiri made moves at the deadline, will always be shrouded in mystery. When and how did it take place? Was it really the result of an awkwardly positioned night of sleep? Why did he compete in the three-point contest if it was hurt? We’ll never really know the whole story. That reality is made all the more frustrating due the fact that, regardless of the how and why of the injury, it derailed perhaps the best individual season in franchise history. Missing 21 games, it’s no shocker that Lowry was left off the All-NBA rosters at season’s end. Getting shut out of the voting entirely, though, is a cruel result for a guy who, when healthy, was once again the driving force of a 50-plus win team.

Here’s a look at how Toronto’s best player performed this season.

The Good

As has become annual tradition since 2013, Lowry was the most important player on the Raptors this year. Age-30 seasons are supposed to be the plateau before the steady decline of a player’s career, not the time for significant growth. Lowry laughed in the face of time this year, setting an even higher bar than he established during his Third Team All-NBA worthy showing in 2015-16.

More than anything else it’s been the smoothing of his three-point stroke that has stimulated Lowry’s growth over the last four years. Nylon didn’t stand a chance against him this year. After being merely very good from deep since his early days with Houston, Lowry joined the ranks of the elite this season (disregard his score in the three-point contest). Attempting the sixth-most threes per game in the league (7.8), Lowry shot a blazing 41.2 percent. Before his wrist surgery, he was on track to finish as high as fourth in the NBA in total three-point makes. Lowry reached previously unseen levels of efficiency. Not unrelated: so did the Raptors.

History seemed within Toronto’s grasp early in the year. Before a January swoon meddled with the numbers, the Raptors were chugging along as the league’s most efficient offense — 113.5 points scored per-100 possessions — through November and December. Behind the near-historic offensive start was Lowry and his patented pull-up threes — shots on which he shot 42.2 percent on the year. For comparison’s sake, Steph Curry, the king of the pull-up, shot just 36.5 percent on triples off the dribble.

John Wall might finish the season with the Best Point Guard in the East championship belt, which is a bizarre thing to care about when you type it out like that. Before the All-Star break, however, Lowry left little debate — he was the undisputed king of advanced metrics among East guards; by most criteria, he was a top-10 player in the entire league.

Toronto was at its crummiest this year when Lowry sat, posting a meager +0.7 NET Rating with him sitting and/or injured — the lowest mark on the team. When he was on the court and running the show, the Raptors looked like a team that might be a threat to the Cavaliers. On the back of a 112.8 / 104.6 / +8.2 on-court efficiency slash line, Lowry finished the season 18th in the league in cumulative plus/minus, in just 60 games.

We’ve run out of ways to describe Lowry’s importance to the Raptors. A full season of Lowry leading Toronto’s revamped supporting cast might have been one-seed material in this year’s East. Folks, Kyle Lowry is good.

The Bad

Poor timing was the only bad thing Lowry brought to the table this season. There was no more crushing moment this season than when the news alert of his impending surgery dinged onto the phones of Raptors fans. DeMar DeRozan went nuclear, and the Raptors transformed into a defense-first slog of a team good enough to go 14-7 in Lowry’s absence — spawning a slew of awful takes along the way.

His return, while within the expected timeline, didn’t allow enough time for the fortified Raptors to coalesce. Lowry and Serge Ibaka never discovered the type of pick-and-pop chemistry that had salivating potential, and Lowry took time to settle back in on offense. Masai Ujiri, not one for excuses, mentioned how much of a hindrance the timing of Lowry’s return was to the team’s cohesion in his season-ending press conference.

Against the Cavs, it seemed as though Lowry was leaving the rust behind him. He was alone on the list of Raptors who played well in Games 1 and 2. In six and a half quarters, he scored 40 points on 25 shot attempts to go along with 16 assists. With Game 2 still within reach, Lowry went down with an ugly-looking ankle injury, as did any hope for a competitive series.

Injuries are part of life in the NBA. Plenty of stars missed time this past year. Lowry just happened to be the least lucky of those stars when it came to the timing of his ailments. Kyle Lowry Over Everything except random strokes of bad luck, apparently.

The Verdict: A-

You can make the argument that a long-term commitment to Lowry might sentence the Raptors to a gradual slip into a full scale rebuild over the course of the next half decade. Durability — not some perceived inability to hack it in the playoffs — is an amply-stuffed piece of carry on baggage that Lowry can’t simply leave at home.

Lowry is, however, the Raptors’ most important player; a perfect tip of the spear for a modern NBA offense and the dictator of where the Raptors’ ceiling as a team lies. Toronto isn’t prolonging its streak of 50-win seasons without Lowry in red, black and white next season. A core of DeRozan, Ibaka and the rest might be good, but not good enough to justify keeping together. With the LeBron-sized road block suppressing the ceilings of the rest of the East for the foreseeable future, the destiny of these Raptors is probably that of a perpetual runner-up at best. Lowry is the way to keep the party interesting, even if the Raptors never ascend beyond the level of bridesmaid.

Sure, he’s heading into his 12th season, and yes, his durability questions persist. But his injury-shortened career-year was evidence that there are still plenty of classic Kyle Lowry Eff You games left in his tank.