Kyle Lowry took a step back last year. That’s not to say his impact (or even necessarily his skillset) dropped off, but rather that Lowry willingly altered his role to a more supportive one, in order to help fuel the Raptors’ “culture change”. We saw fewer hard drives to the rim and more quick dimes to the roll man from Lowry. There was more running around without the ball to get open and less pulling up for a jumper out of the pick-and-roll. Glimpses of the old, more aggressive Lowry seemed to shine through only when the team needed him most. In games where his co-star DeMar DeRozan was floundering, Lowry took the initiative to drive hard to the hoop, unafraid of contact, and pulled up from three with impunity.
With the Raptors overhauling the top end of their roster Lowry may find himself needing to unearth “vintage Lowry” a little more often. Kawhi Leonard at his best is every bit the volume scorer DeMar DeRozan was, but, coming off an extended absence, there’s no guarantee he’ll come out of the gates able to handle the massive offensive load that DeRozan shouldered last year. Furthermore, newcomer Danny Green adds a player to the Raptors’ starting lineup who is largely limited to spot-up shooting at this point in his career, increasing the burden on the Raptors’ primary initiators. If Serge Ibaka is headed to the bench to act as the Raptors’ backup centre, then that leaves both OG Anunoby and Green as players in the Raptors’ starting five who add very little in the way of shot creation.
Jonas Valanciunas can surely be expected to soak up some of the vacated offensive possessions, but Lowry will need to chip in as well. It often seemed like when Lowry initiated a pick-and-roll last year he had absolutely no intention of scoring whatsoever, which will likely need to change. Valanciunas has a little more juice than most roll men, if you get him the ball in a good spot he has a reasonable chance of scoring it even if you haven’t attracted any help defense, but Lowry showing some intent to drive will be necessary to keep the Raptors’ pick-and-roll from becoming too predictable.
And yet, this need to fill an offensive void must be balanced against the need to keep Lowry healthy and rested. Lowry’s less aggressive playstyle resulted in him taking less contact around the basket and this, along with a decrease in his minutes, likely resulted in him having the most efficient playoff run of his career last year. Lowry is a young 32, having played only a marginal role for much of the early part of his career, but he is 32 nonetheless, and an additional minutes decrease may be in order to preserve his body, especially with the emergence of Fred VanVleet as one of the league’s premier backup point guards.
Offensively, Lowry will need to work to establish a connection with Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is a great pick-and-roll and isolation player, but much of his best work in his MVP candidate seasons came running off screens or curling to the basket. Lowry may never establish a connection quite like this with Leonard:
But he still needs to be able to get Leonard the ball at his spots and trust in Leonard’s ability to create transition opportunities, much like he’s done with DeRozan in years prior.
Defensively, Leonard’s arrival should make Lowry’s role simpler than its ever been in his time in Toronto. Lowry’s one-on-one defense has begun to slip with age, it’s started to feature a great deal of lazy, half-hearted swiping whenever Lowry feels like the opposing ballhandler has a step on him. With DeRozan needing to be hidden off ball, Lowry nonetheless had to handle difficult defensive assignments night in and night out in prior years. That load should largely be lifted this year, as Leonard can handle the tough individual assignments while Lowry shifts to more of a team defense role.
Lowry led the league in charges drawn last year for a reason, he has excellent anticipation defensively, and when playing off the ball he should be able to force a large number of turnovers. He also sticks to shooters like glue when engaged, his ability to pester Wizards’ shooting guard Bradley Beal before Beal even caught the ball played a major role in the Raptors’ first round victory against Washington this past year.
For Lowry, every year from now on will be about continuing to age gracefully, finding the right way to maximize his skillset even as his physical tools start to diminish. Fortunately for him, he’s exceptionally well positioned to do so. Three-point shooting, Lowry’s calling card, is often the last skill aging players lose, and basketball IQ, arguably Lowry’s biggest strength, never goes away. The face of the Raptors’ franchise may be different, but the engine that’s powered the team’s best years should keep right on humming.