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Player Preview: Kyle Lowry, for now, for another year, and forever

Fresh off officially signing a contract extension in Toronto, we look to the year ahead for the Toronto Raptors’ captain, Kyle Lowry. What else does he have left to prove?

2019 NBA Japan Games: All-Access Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Given the choice, Kyle Lowry will always take the belligerent option. Off the court and away from the cameras, he is no doubt a swell guy — has any teammate ever had a bad word to say? have you seen his recent and ongoing charity works? — but Lowry also takes a specific pleasure in taking people to task, challenging them, and subverting expectation.

Case in point: before their run of four preseason games began, the Toronto Raptors went through training camp in Quebec City. And while Lowry was still recovering from thumb surgery, he was on hand with the team. Nevertheless, did he take the court during their open scrimmage to receive the well-deserved adulation of the crowd? No, no he did not. That’s perfect Kyle Lowry.

This story sounds vaguely negative, but I’m using it to illustrate a point. The narrative heading into training camp, through preseason, and now as we sit here just a few short days away from the official start of the season, is that Kyle Lowry will be reeling from his championship hangover. The worst case scenario was in play on Tuesday after his first practice back. “It was great to be back out there,” said Lowry. “I need a couple oxygen tanks, I had to take a couple breaks, but it went well. It was the first time I’ve done anything, basketball up-and-down like that since June 13th.”

That’s four months of off time for a player who, as has been joked about on Twitter, looks like he gained 20 pounts after getting a haircut. But then, with the mere suggestion of a hangover, there came the usual Lowry fire. The cameras were on him and there was no way he was going to let someone — anyone — tell him how things were going to go from here on out. Not after he helped Toronto win a championship, and not after he officially signed a $31-million, one-year contract extension to continue on as the leader of the Raptors.

“If you think anybody on our team is not motivated then you’re wrong,” said Lowry. “We all got something to prove every single night we step out there. That’s the one thing about our team, everybody’s always got something to prove.”

Were you expecting something else?

Role on the Team

Uh, Lowry is the captain, the out-and-out, always-in-control leader of the Raptors. Even when he’s off the court, Lowry is the guy who directs, and the team is essentially made in his image — scrappy, eking out margins, always underrated — now, perhaps, more than ever.

Once again, Lowry will be tasked with doing a few things for the Raptors. Let’s run through a partial list:

  • Continue his mind-meld with Marc Gasol so both can direct the Raptors’ offense and defense, even as they get older and less effective against the league’s super athletes;
  • Keep Serge Ibaka happy with a steady stream of pick-and-pop opportunities;
  • Play on- and off-ball with Fred VanVleet as the primary guards on the team;
  • Shoot the three-ball at a high rate (>7.0 attempts per game, with a >35 percent accuracy);
  • Organize the team’s new wing rotation featuring Norman Powell (who he’ll have to keep in check), Stanley Johnson (whose career he may have to save), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (who he’ll have to keep in double-check), and OG Anunoby (who hopefully stands to benefit the most); and
  • Oh yeah, and Lowry will have to defer — at least in part — to Pascal Siakam, who is now the no doubt number one offensive option on the Raptors.

The thing to remember here of course is that Lowry has undertaken versions of this role over his seven-year run in Toronto. He’s been asked again and again to provide what the Raptors need while also maximizing the talent on hand (which in years past has sometimes been a tall order). While the case is easy to make that this year’s squad is not a championship calibre roster, it won’t be Lowry’s fault if/when they fall short.

Needs Improvement

To a certain extent, this is a big ask but Lowry will have to improve his scoring for the 2019-20 season. This is a problem for two reasons. One, Lowry is turning 34 this season, and most undersized point guards become less voluminous in their scoring as they get older. For the Raptors, Lowry’s peak points-per-game production was back in those halcyon days from 2015-17, when he and DeMar DeRozan were the entirety of Toronto’s offense (with, yes, a few Jonas Valanciunas post-ups tossed in). There literally was no one else on the roster who could produce points with the ball in their hands at the top of the circle as reliably as that pair could. But those days are gone.

Which brings us to problem number two. When Lowry was asked to score that much, it inevitably wore him down. The slog of those 2016 and 2017 postseason runs confirms that. And Lowry’s wipeout in that latter year, when all of his efforts were just not enough, indicate that even if he bumps his scoring average up from the 14.2 points per game of last season, it may not matter. The key will be rediscovering the balance between those two poles — the one that worked as a third option beyond Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard, and the one who did everything for the Raptors. This isn’t an “improvement” as such, more of a refinement. Much like Gasol’s new role, whether or not Lowry can master his new equilibrium will decide the fate of the Raptors.

Expectation

Still, Lowry will be Lowry, sense of belligerence and all. He will continue to be the king of the court in Toronto, even with the rise of Siakam and VanVleet. and be in complete control of who is doing what while in the flow of a game. He’ll also no doubt bust some chops in the process.

What’s more, Lowry enters this season as a champion, and has locked his place and status in Toronto for the next two seasons for sure (to say nothing of his legacy beyond that). That’s a comfort for him, and for the broader mood around the team. At this point, everyone knows what Lowry is and what he brings to the team — and that’s enough.

In short, Kyle Lowry over everything.