SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — There’s a too-simple explanation out there as to why the Toronto Raptors, now tied for the best record in the NBA after back-to-back road blowouts of the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz, appear to be the team most suited to ending the Golden State Warriors’ string of dominance atop the NBA.
That reason is Kawhi Leonard. When he’s been on the floor this season, the 27-year-old has looked more like the MVP candidate from 2014-17 instead of the injured and lost player from last year, his final season for the San Antonio Spurs. In seven games, Leonard is averaging what would be a career-high 26.1 points, a career-high 7.6 rebounds and a career-high 44.8 percent from three. He’s playing his typically menacing perimeter defense, which has been the finishing touch for Toronto’s incredibly versatile, balanced team that’s one of six teams in the NBA that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
It’s an accurate though facile explanation: You add a former Finals MVP and two-time defensive player of the year, a top-five player in the league who is an MVP candidate when healthy, and your already-really-good team suddenly gets a lot better.
But look a little bit deeper and the reason for the Raptors transformation – from a great regular-season team last year that won 59 games then swept by LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers, into a team that is 10-1 so far this season and feels built for a postseason run – gets a little bit more complicated.
First of all, the Raptors are 3-1 in games where Kawhi has sat, their only loss being to the Milwaukee Bucks. Name another NBA team that is that competitive when their star player is on the bench. (The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder are all nodding in agreement: It ain’t easy.)
Point is, the Raptors’ dominance extends beyond Kawhi. Far beyond. The top duo in the NBA in terms of net rating among duos that have played more than 200 minutes together so far is a Raptors duo … but it’s a duo that doesn’t include Kawhi. To go further, among the top eight duos in the NBA who have played more than 200 minutes together, six of those are Raptors’ duos. (The other two are, of course, from the Golden State Warriors: When Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are on the floor together, and when Durant and Draymond Green are on the floor together.) And only one of those high-flying Raptors duos includes Kawhi Leonard.
But the top four duos in the NBA all do include one name: Kyle Lowry.
We’re more than one-eighth through the regular season, which is certainly still small-sample-size time but is also well into an indication of what this season’s reality should be. And the Raptors’ reality is this: Because of the increased offensive spacing that stems from jettisoning DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl in exchange for the more versatile Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — both of whom are elite 3-point shooters — the floor has opened up for Lowry.
The intense 32-year-old has responded by putting up the best facilitator numbers of his career – numbers that are strikingly similar to Steve Nash’s numbers during his two MVP seasons for the Phoenix Suns.
Northern (green) lights
Check out what Lowry has posted so far in this spread-out Raptors offense: Lowry is leading the NBA with 11.5 assists per game. He ranks first in offensive rating among players averaging 20 minutes or more per game, and third in assist percentage and seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s scoring 17.9 points per game, hitting 3s at a 40.8 percent clip, averaging 1.5 steals and leading the NBA in oozing-from-his-pores confidence.
During Nash’s two MVP seasons of 2004-05 and 2005-06, the Canadian star averaged 17.2 points, 11 assists and just shy of one steal per game. He shot 43.6 percent from three. He was first in the NBA in offensive rating in both of those seasons among players averaging 20 minutes or more per game, and he ranked second in assist percentage his first MVP season and first in assist percentage during his second MVP season.
Basically, 2018-19 Kyle Lowry = MVP Steve Nash. (Plus, Lowry tosses in a splash of excellent, hustling defense. He is tops in the NBA in charges drawn and in the top 10 in loose balls recovered.)
Kawhi may be this team’s best player. But the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors are — without a doubt — Kyle Lowry’s team.
“He’s ultra-aggressive,” Raptors backup point guard Fred VanVleet told me this week after the Raptors easily handled the Jazz on the road. “The ball may be in his hands a little bit more this year. He deferred to DeMar quite a bit. DeMar’s a playmaker as well. Kyle’s just been finding his spots, picking his spots. He’s just in a really good rhythm right now finding guys. With all this spacing, that’s the way our offense is supposed to be played. As long as we’re making shots, they gotta respect the shooters.”
Respecting the shooters is not something opponents used to do against the Raptors. Two years ago, the Raptors, led by DeRozan, were a mid-range-heavy team compared to the rest of the NBA. They ranked 22nd in the NBA in 3-point attempts. Last year marked a sea change in philosophy; only two teams attempted more 3s than the Raptors. These Raptors have largely followed the same offensive philosophy as a year ago; last season they averaged 33.0 attempts per game, and this season they’re averaging 33.5 attempts per game as the rest of the NBA has further increased their percentage of 3-point attempts.
The Raptors rank third in the NBA in both effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage. A couple of Lowry’s teammates told me that it’s almost uncanny how Lowry appears to be inside his teammates’ heads this season, knowing where they’re going to move before they even do.
Shooting to the next level
The humble answer for Lowry’s individual success is that teammates making shots, it turns out, helps your assist statistics. That’s the way Lowry replied when I asked him about what’s different about his game this season, when he is averaging more than four assists per game over his previous career high: In his typically defer-the-credit sort of fashion.
“My teammates are making shots – it’s got nothing to do with me,” Lowry said. “What we’ve done the past couple years spacing-wise, the big fella (Jonas Valanciunas) stepping out, having Serge (Ibaka) at the 5, having positionless basketball, helps a lot. We’re just trying to continue to grow and work towards being the best team we can be later in the season. I enjoy winning games. So I enjoy it.”
Ibaka playing the center position has been one of the most noticeable differences with this year’s Raptors. Jazz coach Quin Snyder noted before those teams played that Ibaka seemed to be getting more and more comfortable with the shots he was getting – then Ibaka went out and torched the Jazz for 17 points in only 14 minutes. He’s averaging 18.0 points per game, which would be a career high.
But the increased spacing in the post-DeRozan era has proven a boon to other players as well. Pascal Siakam has turned into the Raptors version of a young Draymond Green, guarding five positions, creating offense, leveraging his athleticism. OG Anunoby has continued his excellent defense and upped his three-point shooting by more than one attempt per game. First-year head coach Nick Nurse has fiddled with starting lineup combinations, alternating Valanciunas and Ibaka depending on matchups.
“I suspected when I got the job and after the trade that we had about seven starters,” Nurse said. “And there’s only five spots. So I suspected there’d be a possibility for some movement. I also suspected Kawhi wouldn’t play every game immediately. So there was going to be one guy coming in and out. I guess I just feel like they’re all starters and they should all be given a chance.”
It’s difficult to find a weakness on the Raptors. As Snyder put it the other night, “They’re a team that has an identity.” Sure, they’re not at the Warriors level. Nobody is. But funny things happen over the course of an NBA season. If there’s one team that’s best positioning itself to win a title should the Warriors falter, it very well could be these new-look Raptors and their better-than-ever point guard, who for the first time in his career has a team that’s made in his image.
“His instincts to play hard almost amaze me nightly,” Nurse said about Lowry. “We’ve got an energetic team. We’ve got a deep team. That’s what we’re trying to do, play a bunch of guys and play with energy. (Lowry) really has got a lot of great alertness. He’s really into the games. You can see how locked in he is. That’s common for him. But again, he’s just seeing a lot more opportunities to deliver the ball to a variety of people. That is different. It’s spacing. He’s just seeing a lot more opportunities to dish the ball off to people this year. The spacing’s gotta be a big reason for it. His vision of what he’s seeing out there is changing a little bit.”
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