After losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol to free agency, the Toronto Raptors pivoted quickly, picking up Aron Baynes, Alex Len and DeAndre’ Bembry.
Bembry has defensive upside and will likely function as a depth wing, while Baynes and Len have both carved out nice careers as solid frontcourt players. Baynes especially, a San Antonio Spurs product and 2014 NBA Champion, will provide value with his mega screens, defensive physicality, and much improved floor-spacing three-point shot.
While fans may not be entirely blown away by these moves, especially with Baynes and Len replacing favourites Ibaka and Gasol, arguably the two best centres in Raptors history and key members of the championship squad, we do have to consider one thing. The Raptors aren’t just getting two journeymen bigs with so-so careers in Baynes and Len. They’re getting Baynes and Len plus Kyle Lowry. And depending how much playing time he sees, this goes for Bembry, too.
Anyone who’s watched the Raptors for the last eight years (or even just last year) is aware of Lowry’s innate ability to maximize his teammates’ talents and elevate their games to new levels. He’s like a six-foot, ball-handling performance enhancing drug. We don’t need to see his on-off numbers to know what he does. How he uses his computer brain and veteran craftiness to make every player around him that much better. We witness it every game.
It’s the main reason why each and every year the Lowry-plus-bench lineups are quite effective despite often defying all basketball logic. It’s like some sort of anomaly. A glitch in the Matrix. No matter who Lowry shares the floor with — a rookie, a G Leaguer, a third-stringer, the ball boy — it’s going to be a problem for the other team.
Simply put, this is: The Lowry Effect.
There’s no clearer example of this than the Raptors’ improbable 30-point comeback versus the Dallas Mavericks in December 2019. We all know the story by now. And by story I mean legend. Down 30 points with just 14 minutes left to go, Lowry led a Chris Boucher-Terence Davis-Malcolm Miller-Rondae Hollis-Jefferson lineup to an historic victory. Not exactly a murders’ row of NBA players.
Is there another PG in the world who could’ve coaxed this team to a 40-10 run? No. Not with this lineup. No way.
According to ESPN, over the last 10 seasons, prior to the Raptors’ comeback, teams that were trailing by 20+ points heading into the 4th quarter were 3-1,667 – a .002 winning percentage. In other words, it’s the kind of thing that only happens in Hollywood.
Lowry is a pass-first point guard — happy to facilitate and see others succeed because all he cares about is winning. Not too many point guards today can see the floor the way he does. The list probably starts and ends with Chris Paul.
Lowry’s the master of the drive-and-kick, pick-and-pop, and pick-and-roll to get his teammates clean, open looks. Baynes stands to benefit greatly as Lowry’s new pick-and-pop partner, especially as his three-point shot continues to improve. There is also great pick-and-roll potential with this tandem if Nick Nurse so chooses.
Lowry has a doctorate in keeping his dribble alive, scanning the court with his Terminator vision until he finds an open teammate that nobody else sees. He also pushes the ball up the floor like very few do, setting up teammates before opposing teams can set up their defense. And he’s an underrated screener, taking full advantage of his caboose and sturdy lower half to screen players or nudge them out of the way in the paint.
Everyone remembers Kawhi Leonard’s monstrous dunk on Giannis in the 2019 East Finals-clinching Game 6 versus the Milwaukee Bucks. What you may not have remembered or even noticed is how Lowry subtly clears out Giannis, thus enabling Leonard to posterize the crap out of the Greek Freak.
Consider the case of Norman Powell. The eye test would suggest that Powell is much more effective as a starter than coming off of the bench. Why? It’s not because he gets to hear his name called before taking the court. It’s predominately because, as a starter, he gets to play a heck of a lot more with Lowry. Often the less dribbling and thinking Powell has to do, the better he is. So instead of trying to handle the ball or create his own shot with the second unit, Lowry can set him up for an open three or drop a pin-point pass as he dives to the rim.
Another player who’s been an annual beneficiary of Lowry’s genius is the aforementioned former Raptor, Serge Ibaka.
Ibaka is now a Los Angeles Clipper, signing for two years, $19 million. To anyone who’s been paying attention, this should have come as no surprise. If you really think about it, Ibaka suiting up for the Clippers was inevitable given that (a) the Toronto Raptors weren’t offering Ibaka that second year in order to keep max cap space open for 2021, (b) Ibaka’s pal Kawhi Leonard is the Clippers’ de facto GM, (c) the Clippers are better positioned to win the title than the Raptors, and (d) it’s L.A. In other words, the writing was on the wall in big red and blue letters.
Really, the only surprise is how much money Ibaka left on the cutting board. The Clippers getting his services for the mid-level exception is thievery at the highest level. Also, the fact that his contract is on par with bigs like Tristan Thompson and Montrezl Harrell, and somehow significantly below that of Steven Adams, is a crying shame.
Sure, there are times when Ibaka’s three-point shot is so off that you’d think he was allergic to nylon. Or there are times when he seemingly has bricks for hands, fumbling routine passes in the playoffs at inopportune times. And after playing like an All-Star for the first two games of the 2018 playoffs versus the Washington Wizards, he inexplicably forgot how to play basketball.
But despite some inconsistencies, he has shown up when the Raptors’ backs were against the wall. When you least expected it, there was Ibaka, suddenly turning the game around. In fact, there would’ve been no Leonard four-bouncer in Game 7 versus the Philadelphia 76ers if it wasn’t for Ibaka. Gashed forehead and all, Ibaka put up 17 points, eight rebounds and three assists. And he was a game-high +22 while also drilling a giant 4th quarter sidestep three right in Ben Simmons’ eye.
He was also one of the few Raptors who could actually score on the Celtics in the recent second-round Bubble series. The Celtics were giving the Raptors the mid-range and featured undersized rim protectors in Daniel Theis and Robert Williams. Ibaka took full advantage, nailing two-point jumpers and powering his way inside.
Plus, he’s coming off arguably his best season in the NBA, averaging career highs in points and assists and near career highs in rebounds and three-point percentage.
So it’s only natural that a lot of basketball pundits have been praising Ibaka’s signing up and down the Twitter and podcast spheres. On the surface, it seems like the perfect move for the Clippers. Out goes a one-dimensional, rim running, defensive sieve in Harrell. In comes a two-way, floor spacing, rim protector with a championship pedigree. And if the move makes Leonard happy, all the better given that the two-time Finals MVP can walk in a year.
However, there’s a good chance that the Ibaka the Clippers are getting won’t be the same Ibaka who suited up for the Raptors for the last three plus seasons.
No, it’s not because of his age. Though that could also be a factor given that he’s a near-seven-footer who’s put a lot of miles (or kilometres) on his 31-year-old body. And he’s going into his 12th NBA season. That doesn’t even take into account his international play or playoff runs.
No. It’s largely because for the first time in four seasons, Ibaka will take the floor without the best point guard he’s ever played with — Kyle Lowry. And yes, if we’re talking pure point guards, that includes Russell Westbrook.
Serge Ibaka was a good, two-way player even before he was traded to the Raptors in 2017. But no doubt he’s a much better player now than when he first arrived north of the border. He’s become a more complete player, improving steadily over his three plus seasons with the Dinos. While a lot of Ibaka’s success as a Raptor was the product of him putting in the work, including developing a more consistent three-point shot, as well as a positional shift from power forward to centre under Nick Nurse, his upward trajectory was helped out significantly by Lowry’s Midas touch.
As with Powell, Ibaka has seemed more effective and engaged offensively whenever he started versus playing with the second unit. That’s because Lowry and Ibaka developed quite the chemistry — the likes of which can be found on the periodic table somewhere between titanium and gold. They became the perfect pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop partners (say that five times fast). The number of open threes or long, mid-range twos that Ibaka nailed thanks in part to Lowry are impossible to count.
Lawrence Frank, Clippers President of Basketball Operations, would’ve been aware of the special connection between Ibaka and Lowry had he paid attention to anyone other than Leonard while taking up residents in Scotiabank Arena during the 2018-19 season.
As it turns out, sharing the court with one of the better playmaking PGs in the league can do wonders for your offensive game. Unfortunately for Frank and the Clippers, as it stands now, they do not feature a point guard who approaches Lowry’s caliber. Patrick Beverley is a scrappy defensive-oriented guard, while Lou Williams tends to have a score-first, assist-buckets-later mentality. And while Leonard has improved his passing game, he’s obviously nowhere near the distributor Lowry is. So, with the Philly floor general now out of the picture, Frank has essentially ripped out Ibaka’s feeding tube without bothering to replace it.
There are two point guards in recent NBA history who have had similar effects on their teammates — Steve Nash and Jason Kidd. While Lowry isn’t on the same level as these two Hall of Fame PGs, he does give his teammates a similar scoring boost.
We’ve seen it happen time and time again with Nash and Kidd. A seemingly successful player leaves their orbit and suddenly their numbers take a nosedive.
Let’s take a look at a few cases where this was evident. But, of course, there are other factors to consider that might affect a player’s stats, such as injuries, age, usage and playing time. Amar’e Stoudemire, for instance, put up monster numbers with Nash’s Suns, caught the injury bug after leaving Phoenix for New York, which is why I’ve excluded him here.
The Nash Effect
Perhaps no player in NBA history outside of Magic Johnson and LeBron James have had more influence on their teammates output than Steve Nash had on the seven seconds or less Suns, circa 2004-2007.
As the core players of this era started to drop off, either by moving on or being shipped away, their numbers also dropped off. These players were never the same once they left the scoring heaven that was the Steve Nash-Mike D’Antoni system. It seemed liked the further away certain players got from the desert, the more their offence dried up.
1. Quentin Richardson (2004-05)
Richardson only spent one season with Nash — Nash’s first of back-to-back MVP seasons. And what a season it was for Richardson. He averaged almost 15 points per game, which was the second best of his career. He never came close to matching this kind of scoring ever again.
But even more significant was that, with Nash at the helm, Richardson launched eight three-point attempts per game on 39 percent shooting. This doesn’t sound like much. But remember, this is 2004-05. Eight threes a game was a lot, unlike nowadays when players like James Harden and Steph Curry toss up eight threes before the first timeout.
Richardson, in fact, lead the league that season in both three-point attempts and makes. Eight threes per game was by far the most of his career. He never even remotely approached that number before or after his one season with Nash.
2. Shawn Marion (2004-2008)
Marion spent three plus seasons with the Canadian PG during the heart of the seven seconds or less Suns era. Marion made the All-Star team in each of his three full seasons with the team, while making the All-NBA Third Team in two of them. He averaged nearly 20 PPG, scoring a career-high 21.8 PPG in 2005-06 — a number that he never came close to ever again. Nor did he ever make another All-Star or All-NBA team afterwards.
According to Jack McCallum’s book about the Nash-D’Antoni Suns, Nash also assisted Marion off the court, keeping him focused on playing winning basketball instead of how much he was getting paid or which players were getting all the credit.
The Kidd Effect
Like Lowry and Nash, Jason Kidd was a pass-first PG, supercharging his teammates’ scoring abilities on a daily basis. And he did it for nearly 20 years. Many of his New Jersey Nets teammates, for instance, enjoyed career numbers while playing with Kidd. But they just never seemed the same in the seasons that followed.
1. Richard Jefferson (2001-2008)
In the six plus seasons that Jefferson played Robin to Kidd’s Batman for the Nets, which also happened to be Jefferson’s first seasons in the NBA, he averaged 17.7 PPG, including 18+ points for four of those seasons.
He followed this up with one more decent year with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2008-09. But then he fell off a cliff. He managed to hang on with a finger or two for a while, but just barely. In his post-Kidd career, which spanned 10 seasons, Jefferson averaged just 8.4 PPG, including just 14.3 PPG in the three seasons right after leaving the Meadowlands.
He managed to carve out a pretty nice role-playing career for himself, eventually riding LeBron James’ 6’9”, 250 pound coattails to an NBA Championship in 2016. But he was never the same player after Kidd.
2. Kenyon Martin (2001-2004)
Martin was Kidd’s running mate for just three seasons. But those three seasons were by far the best stretch of his 15-year career. He averaged 16.1 PPG, including a career high 16.7 PPG in both his second and third seasons with Kidd, culminating in his one and only All-Star appearance in his walk year.
Kidd propped up Martin, an average power forward at best, to the point that the Denver Nuggets happily backed up the Brinks truck when K-Mart hit free agency in 2004. They rewarded him with a whopping 7-year, $91 million contract, which, of course, he never lived up to. Not without Kidd setting him up for easy dunks and alley-oops on a daily basis. Martin only averaged 15+ points one more time in his career. Maybe Kidd should’ve received a percentage of his fat contract.
So will the new Raptors — Baynes, Len and Bembry — see a bump in their stats this season? With a healthy Lowry and enough playing time with the crafty vet, that will likely be the case.
Conversely, will Ibaka’s offensive output go down as a Clipper? My feeling is he’ll experience a drop-off from his Raptors numbers, especially the 15.4 PPG and 39 percent from beyond the arc that he tallied last season. While there could be other factors at play, like age, minutes and usage, I believe the majority of his decline will be attributed to the Lowry effect… or rather, lack thereof.