Kyle Lowry became the first star off the NBA free agency board last Wednesday when he inked a 4-year/$48 million deal with the Raptors. He announced his decision in style on Instagram. Lowry chose Toronto, where he’s played the last two seasons, over Houston and Los Angeles (Lakers), both of which reportedly made him offers. And yes, Lowry is a star.
Before Toronto traded Rudy Gay to Sacramento last October, Lowry averaged 15 points, 6.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game on 42/36/81 shooting splits. Once Gay left for the Kings, Lowry quickly filled the offensive void; for the six foot point guard, this meant a higher usage rate (the percentage of the Raptors’ offensive possessions that he used on a shot or a turnover) and, generally, more creative control over Toronto’s offense.
Lowry stepped in beautifully, upping his scoring average to 19 points per game while becoming a more prolific and accurate shooter from deep (before the trade he shot 36% on six attempts per game and after it he connected on 39% of his treys on 6.5 shots per contest).
He also became a better facilitator; he assisted on five percent more of his teammates’ made shots (from 30 to 35%) and tacked on an additional assist per game.
Most importantly, Lowry’s team improved: the Raptors scored a sizzling 108.8 points per 100 possessions post the Gay trade, a mark that would have ranked fifth in the league behind only the high powered (and high salaried) Spurs, Heat, Rockets, Clippers and Nets. Unsurprisingly, Toronto’s offensive surge led to wins. The club went 7-12 before the trade and 38-22 after it, finishing third in the East, when many thought the Gay trade had signaled an organizational restructuring (AKA tanking). Lowry and the Raptors took Brooklyn to seven games in the first round of the playoffs, a series that included a 36-point hot shot exhibition by KL:
Although the team lost, it proved that with minimal payroll and star power, Toronto could still contend in the spineless East.
Lowry’s contract is one a handful of other teams would have been happy to pick up. As Tom Ziller pointed out in one of his articles for SB Nation, the average annual salary of an Eastern conference all-star last year was $13.5 million, and that includes rookie deals which drag the mean down. At $12 million per annum, Lowry is a steal, especially with the premiums being paid for mid-level players such as Josh McRoberts ($6 million per year), Avery Bradley ($8 million per year) and Channing Frye ($8 million per year).
Part of the reason Lowry didn’t get paid more is because the point guard market is saturated; there’s a wealth of good 1s, a dearth of good shooting guards, and intra-league peer pressure to snag bigs who can shoot. Cash is being funneled out of the pockets of point guards to players who fill positions where shooting is scarce. But this is good for small market teams like Toronto, which might otherwise struggle to retain stars.
Lowry is by no means a perfect player. Although he hits a high percentage of his shots from beyond the arc, he struggles below it where defenders can more easily use their length to bother his release. At only six feet, Lowry relies on his speed to get to the rim, but at the NBA level, that can only get an undersized player so far. Check out his shot chart from last season:
Lowry struggled to get up quality attempts around the paint area, shot poorly from midrange, and only average at the rim. This carried over into the offseason, during which Lowry scored 21 points a game but also got blocked at the buzzer in game seven by a less than springy Paul Pierce:
Similarly, Lowry moves his feet well on defense and uses his strength to keep opposing guards out of the lane, but the numbers tell us he isn’t quite as effective as the eye-test suggests. SportVU cameras reveal that Lowry is in middle of the pack when he defends isolations and pick-and-rolls (allowing about 0.9 points per possession in both scenarios). Again, this is largely attributable to his height deficiency; a 6’3″ guard might not be able to beat KL off the dribble, but he can easily rise above him for a jumper. From a management and coaching perspective, this is something you can live with; a small guard who shoulders a big load on offense and is invested (but average) on defense is certainly worth big money, especially when you consider the checks that guys like James Harden and Kyrie Irving are cashing.
By signing Lowry, Toronto has locked up an elite backcourt for four years for about $22 million per year, a bargain by NBA standards. DeMar Derozan was an all-star last year and should continue to develop, and Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas have bright futures as well. Amir Johnson is an excellent defender around the rim and is more than capable of anchoring a defense. Toronto has the infrastructure to contend in the East for years to come, and with lots of cap flexibility and Masai Ujiri at the helm, the team is only going to get better. Watch out.