It’s the December 23rd, 2016. Jonas Valanciunas sets a brush screen on Shelvin Mack and quickly slips towards the rim. Mack loses his man, Kyle Lowry, for a fraction of a second, and Lowry promptly triggers a 3-pointer. He’s 28ish feet away from the basket and fading to his left. Mack recovers for a partial contest.
It’s March 20th, 2018. Kyle Lowry sets a brush screen on Nikola Vucevic and quickly pops out to the 3-point line. Vucevic loses his man, Jonas Valanciunas, for a fraction of a second, forcing his teammate to leave Lowry and tag Valanciunas. Valanciunas turns and fires the ball to Lowry, who is wide open at the top of the arc.
Of course, both plays ended in identical fashion. As a wise man once said: “this game has always been, and will always be, about buckets.” Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors got buckets then. They get buckets now. Nothing has changed.
Everything Has Changed
When Masai Ujiri called for a “culture reset” at the start of the 2017 offseason it wasn’t exactly clear what he meant. Was it coaching staff changes? Player personnel changes? Play style changes? All of the above?
After a while it became clear that the “culture reset” was going to be a stylistic change, the same players and coaching staff were going to be back, but the team was going into the season with a focus on three-point shooting and ball movement. Plenty questioned whether the changes would stick, with the majority of the scepticism directed towards Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan. Understandably so, I might add: Casey’s offensive system had massively de-emphasized ball movement and DeRozan’s refusal to shoot three-pointers had become central to his identity.
The last person anyone was concerned about was Lowry, who had been making perennial appearances in the three-point shooting and assists leaderboards for several years. The culture reset seemed perfectly tailored for him.
Then the season got underway. DeRozan started hot; his improved passing ability helped quickly convince fans that the culture reset was for real. Casey, maligned for years by the vast majority of the Raptors fanbase, saw his public perception do a lightning fast 180°. He went from “should have been fired years ago” to “Coach of the Year!” in just a few short months.
Lowry, meanwhile, lurched out of the gates. He spoke openly about not being comfortable with the Raptors’ new system. His jumper was way off. He had fallen off statistically in just about every major category.
Assists Without Ball Movement
I want to take a break for a second and talk about John Wall, All-Star point guard of the Washington Wizards. Wall has ranked at least top three in the league in assists per game for five consecutive years now. No other active player has such a streak, not Russell Westbrook, not James Harden, not Chris Paul. He is widely considered one the the best passers in the game.
The pass is typically seen as the quintessential unselfish act in basketball. You have the ball and then, out of a desire to help the team, you surrender it to a teammate so they might do with it as they will. John Wall, as previously stated, is an excellent passer. Yet Wall is also, in my opinion, a very, very selfish basketball player.
To exhibit what makes Wall so selfish I’m going to re-iterate the second sentence of the last paragraph with a little added emphasis. You have the ball and then, out of a desire to help the team, you surrender it to a teammate so they might do with it as they will. Wall is incredibly ball dominant. NBA.com has tracked individual time of possession for five years. Wall has lead the league in the stat three times in that span, never finishing outside of the top five. The Wizards have had other capable ball-handlers in that time, Bradley Beal chief among them, but every time the Wizards bring the ball up the court it’s Wall, moving at a walk and calling out the plays. Asking for a screen, driving, pulling back out, asking for another screen, driving again. The ball undeniably sticks with him, he’s a great passer, but he actively discourages ball movement.
Let’s look at that sentence for a third time, with a different added emphasis: You have the ball and then, out of a desire to help the team, you surrender it to a teammate so they might do with it as they will. This sentence fails to describe an enormous portion of John Wall’s passes. Wall does not often pass the ball for his teammates to do with it as they will. Wall’s passes are akin to orders: by passing you the ball he’s telling you to shoot. NBA.com has a stat called “potential assists” which records the number of times a player makes a pass and the pass’ recipient immediately attempts a shot. Wall is second in the league in potential assists, but only 24th in the league in passes made. He trusts his teammates to make shots, but it’s unclear whether he trusts them to do much else.
I’m going to stop blasting John Wall now, because this isn’t a “hate on John Wall” piece, it’s a “celebrate Kyle Lowry” piece. The point I’ve been trying to drive home is thus: it’s possible to feel uninvolved in the offense even if you’re receiving passes. It’s possible to rack up assists without ball movement. The Raptors’ culture reset wasn’t about getting more assists, it was about fostering ball movement and a team culture where players trusted one another. If you want a player to feel involved in the offense then giving them agency is more important than giving them shots. Make them decision makers, not shooters.
Lowry and DeRozan played in a similar fashion to Wall for several years leading into this season. They dribbled the air out of the ball on every possession. They passed — both were among the leaders at their respective positions in assists per game — but their passes carried the expectation that the recipient would shoot and do nothing else. When DeMarre Carroll left the Raptors this past off-season he voiced several complaints about the team culture, but he never complained about a lack of open spot-ups.
The old Lowry’s perfect fit with the culture reset was merely surface level. He passed, but he didn’t encourage ball movement. He made good decisions, but he was often the only player on the floor making real decisions. To make the reset work he would have to change everything.
Style vs. Execution
Last season DeMar DeRozan generated the majority of his shots via either isolation or pick-and-roll plays. This season DeMar DeRozan has, again, generated the majority of his shots via either isolation or pick-and-roll plays. There’s been a slight shift, last year he got 58 percent of his shots in PnR or iso sets, this year it’s 54 percent, but for the most part DeRozan plays the same style of game as he did last year.
What’s changed for DeRozan is the execution. The sets may be the same but they way he operates within them is very different. If you duck under a screen against him he might trigger a three-pointer. If he gets into the paint he’s more likely to kick the ball out to a shooter than he is to take a contested floater.
This shift was important for DeRozan because he still only scores on roughly league average efficiency. DeRozan is the least efficient scorer in the Raptors’ starting five on a pure points per shooting possession basis. By passing up tougher shots and instead kicking to an open teammate he’s dramatically improving the Raptors’ offense. An open three-point shot from Serge Ibaka, Lowry or even Valanciunas is a higher quality look than a contested DeRozan runner.
This change from DeRozan was an enormous step in the right direction for the Raptors’ offense, but, as mentioned above, the Raptors weren’t attempting to up their assist totals, they were trying to change their culture. They were looking to update their style, not just alter their execution.
That’s where Lowry comes in. Relative to last year Lowry has nearly halved the number of shots he generates for himself in the pick-and-roll: he’s gone from over eight per game to just four and a half. Lowry was incredibly effective at generating shots for himself in the pick-and-roll last year: among players to average three or more pick-and-roll possessions per game he was the most efficient in the entire league. Between seasons his focus was finding new, equally efficient ways to generate shots for himself, ones that involved his teammates as more than just screeners and floor spacers.
That play was awesome, right? Not only does JV throw down through heavy contact over an elite shotblocker, he does it to tie the game and beat the buzzer!
I think what makes this play most impressive, though, is that it wasn’t run for Valanciunas. The play was designed to get a three-point shot for C.J. Miles, who gets denied the ball due to some excellent defense by Jason Terry. The part where Valanciunas turned, dunked and saved the game for the Raptors — he made all that up.
Prior to this year Valanciunas had acted almost exclusively as a finisher within the Raptors’ offense. He excelled in the role, able to compensate for the fact that he played mostly below the rim with both his ability to finish strong through contact and his exceptional craft from the short mid-range. For years he rated among the league’s top roll men and cutters in terms of efficiency, however, there was a large section of Raptors’ fans and analysts who felt that Valanciunas was capable of doing much more. There was a constant outcry to get Valanciunas more involved in the offense, to get him more post touches, to find him more consistently on the roll.
For many, the idea of using Valanciunas as a rim runner was a “square peg, round hole” situation. Dwane Casey had previously won a championship with Tyson Chandler, a low usage dunk-everything roll man, as his starting center and now, it seemed, he wanted every big man to be Tyson Chandler. Valanciunas’ skillset deviated so enormously from players like Chandler that it just felt wrong when the Lithuanian was squeezed into a Chandler-esque offensive role.
This has been Valanciunas best year in the NBA, he’s made huge strides on both ends of the court. The most immediately obvious step forward is Valanciunas’ addition of a three-point shot. Perhaps more important than the outside shot is that, despite averaging a career-low in minutes per game, Valanciunas is averaging over an assist per game for the first time in his career. Valanciunas is finally being consistently involved in the Raptors’ offense as a decision-maker.
Surprisingly, this increased involvement has not meant more low-post touches for Valanciunas. In fact, his post-ups per game have dropped off considerably from past years. The Raptors’ have instead worked him in as a ball-handler at the elbows and at the top of the arc, using him in dribble hand-off sets like the one shown above.
Despite the fact that the above clip showed him working with Miles, Valanciunas’ partner in the vast majority of these sets has been Lowry. Valanciunas has assisted on 31 of Lowry’s field goals this year, nearly doubling the number of connections the duo had last year.
When he gets the ball above the arc or at the elbows Valanciunas is presented with a variety of options, even if the intent is that Lowry ends up taking the shot. Take this play from the Raptors’ game against the Houston Rockets, for example:
Watch Norman Powell as Valanciunas gets the ball at the top of the arc. Powell starts a cut to the basket just as Valanciunas receives the ball, giving Valanciunas a choice to make between the cutter and the shooter.
Here Valanciunas looks off OG Anunoby cutting from the corner to find Lowry as he runs a hard curl around a Serge Ibaka screen.
And in this inbounds play Valanciunas is given the option between DeRozan, the inbounder, cutting baseline and Lowry popping open for three.
The decisions being made by Valanciunas are fairly simple, but they demonstrate a level of trust in the big man that simply wasn’t there in years past. Valanciunas has more than repaid that trust, showing flashes of brilliance offensively (like his game tying dunk) and an increased effort level on the defensive end.
The Other “Bench Dad”
The Raptors starting lineup contains four veterans who had, up until this year, essentially played one way their whole careers. Coming into the year they were expected to change their style of play dramatically and they exhibited, understandably, a fair bit of resistance to the new Raptors’ system.
The Raptors’ bench, on the other hand, embraced the “new culture” immediately. The bench consisted mostly of younger players who struggled to fit into the old Raptors’ system. The new system gave them more freedom, allowing them the opportunity to use elements of their games that had been suffocated in their previous tiny roles. The up-tempo, freewheeling style proved a perfect fit for Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl all of whom showed off ball skills and passing ability beyond what even the most hopeful Raptors’ fan might have foreseen.
Holding it all together is the veteran “bench dad” C.J. Miles. Despite demonstrating precocious ball skills the youngsters coming off the bench did not begin the year with any proven shooters in their midst. Without the spacing provided by Miles they often found themselves dribbling into double teams and passing into clogged lanes. Miles also provides the bench with a destination for their otherwise somewhat directionless offense. The chains of drives and kicks which their half-court offense so often consists of are supposed to end up in the hands of an open Miles.
Miles is also, most of the time, the first member of the Raptors’ bench to be subbed out. The player who replaces him is frequently Kyle Lowry. “Lowry + bench” units have been a fixture on the Raptors for several years, previously they created an environment in which Lowry could dominate the ball while surrounded by quality ancillary players like Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross and Bismack Biyombo. This new, more sparsely used Lowry plus bench unit is a very different kind of lineup.
Lowry turbo-charges the bench’s identity, giving them the same spacing that Miles usually provides in addition to a fourth capable ball handler. Despite being a proven All-Star playing alongside four guys on their rookie deals Lowry is willing to take a step back and fill Miles’ role as a key cog in the bench’s machine. He lets VanVleet, Wright and Siakam do the majority of the ball-handling, while he does the dirty work.
To get his buckets with the bench Lowry does his best Miles impression, constantly shifting around and looking to take advantage of inattentive defenders while Wright and VanVleet handle the ball.
The bench group has become known for their ability to get out in transition, and Lowry is certainly willing to run for his buckets as well.
And, when the bench’s offense fizzles, he’ll be an All-Star and bail them out of trouble.
That Lowry, an All-Star for four consecutive years, is able to fit in so seamlessly with the bench’s style is remarkable. When Lowry’s co-star DeRozan plays with the bench he adopts the style that All-Stars typically do when they play with a group of guys who are lower than them in the team’s hierarchy: he dominates the ball and takes on an enormous portion of the offensive load. This style has been effective for the DeRozan plus bench units, but not as effective as Lowry’s willingness to step back and let the bench do their thing.
Timing Is Everything
It’s technically true that you can run an NBA offense without making judicious use of the pick-and-roll. However, the Golden State Warriors exist in a realm unto themselves, playing a bizarre brand of future basketball that no mortal team dares mimic.
For everyone else, the pick-and-roll is the most heavily relied upon method of generating half-court offense. Kyle Lowry has cut down on the number of pick-and-rolls he runs, but the simple play remains an integral part of his game. However, to adapt the play to the Raptors’ new culture, Lowry has made a tiny, but nonetheless crucial, alteration to his play in the pick-and-roll: He’s timing his passes earlier.
This slight change makes an enormous difference when it comes to creating a sense of agency for the team’s big men. Rather than simply making them finishers, the early passes put them in “short roll” situations, where they catch the ball with a variety of options. Do they find a cutter like in the above clip? Do they look for a shooter spotting-up in the corner or on the wing?
Do they put the ball on the deck and go up strong themselves? Do they pull up from mid-range?
This has been the Raptors’ primary way of involving notorious ballstopper Serge Ibaka in the offensive decision making process. It allows Ibaka to catch the ball at his sweetspot, the elbow, meaning they can’t go wrong even if he does immediately take a jumper. When he instead puts the ball on the deck and makes a nice big to big pass, well, that’s sometimes even better.
A Cut Below
Lowry puts in work off the ball, constantly shifting around when not involved in the main action, trying to free himself up for a three-pointer, but he does not cut nearly enough. None of the Raptors guards do: Lowry, DeRozan, Miles, VanVleet, Wright and Norman Powell have combined for 76 shooting possessions on cuts for the year, less than one per game. Cuts are something that Miles and Lowry especially should use more often. Their reputations as three-point threats force defenders to play them tightly on the perimeter, a quick change of direction towards the basket could catch defenders off-guard.
With Valanciunas proving himself as a decision maker at the elbows running a more improvisational offense akin to Golden State’s seems within reach. Having a big take the ball at the elbow and survey the floor for cutters and shooters alike would be a fresh look that the Raptors could use to throw off opponents at the starts of games. It’s also a look that would mesh neatly with the skills of the Raptors’ bench players. Integrating jazzier plays of that nature is one of the next steps in further modernizing the Raptors’ offense.
Nothing Has Changed
Considering the sweeping changes he made to his game it’s remarkable how little has changed for Lowry from a results perspective. Last year Lowry was an All-Star, a highly efficient volume scorer, an elite distributor, and the Raptors’ best player. None of those things have changed; since his brief slump to begin the year, Lowry has essentially returned to the same statistical levels as past years.
But Lowry has managed all of this despite completely overhauling his approach to shot creation, a testament to his status as one of the NBA’s most versatile players. As he ages Lowry will need to continue to evolve his game to remain among the NBA’s elite, but, if this season is any indicator, it seems like change won’t ever slow him and the Raptors down for long.
All stats per NBA.com, as of April 8th, 2018.