For the second consecutive offseason, the Toronto Raptors have evolved. Whereas last summer saw a franchise legend replaced by a superstar, this year's talent turnover is only made easier by the permanence of an NBA title.
Kawhi Leonard's 348 days as a Raptor were the most successful in franchise history, but his departure has forced the team to transition. Through all this change there has been one on-court constant: Kyle Lowry.
Now, for the first time in his career, Lowry can embrace being the clear face of a franchise.
Lowry's seven seasons in Toronto make him easily the longest-tenured Raptor. As the elder statesman and the only player on the roster that has represented the franchise in an All-Star Game - at least until Pascal Siakam makes his first - it would seem this is Lowry's time for a career year, at least in a statistical sense.
While a scoring boom is possible, Lowry has never been the type of player you rely on for 25 points every night. His role will expand a bit but it isn't in the best interest of him or the franchise as a whole for the 33-year-old point guard to suddenly undergo a dramatic change to the way he approaches the game.
Lowry has become the bridge between two eras. Both a foundation upon which a title was built and the remaining star here help to usher in a new core. He's still a great player - a top-ten point guard, someone likely to make his sixth All-Star appearance next February and potentially one of the top free agents next summer, but a team with him as their best player isn't a true title contender.
So, as Lowry has done for all of his career in Toronto, this season will be about finding a balance. Throttling in and out of the main offensive role when the situation calls for it. In all honesty, Lowry as the main offensive force doesn't sound all that threatening, but last season we saw a pretty substantial sample size to indicate he is capable of thriving in that role.
|Minutes||Pts/36 mins||Asts/36 mins||eFG%||USG%||ORtg|
|Lowry w/ Leonard||1269||12.1||8.7||48.5%||16.4%||116.0|
|Lowry w/o Leonard||944||19.1||9.8||54.9%||22.3%||115.2|
Remarkably, the offence as a whole didn't take much of a hit when Lowry was on the floor without Leonard. In fact, that 115.2 ORtg would have been the top offence in the league. That number isn't directly projectable to this season given the number plummeted when Lowry was off the floor and that the Raptors also have to replace Danny Green, but it is reasonable to expect that general trend of success should translate to this season.
Looking at Lowry individually, it's clear he took on a bigger role when Leonard was on the bench. Though again you can't directly extrapolate those numbers to a whole season - if Lowry can approach 19.1 points and 9.8 assists per 36 minutes that would be extremely respectable.
In most games, Lowry will likely have a similar role to the one Chris Paul had in Houston: often a secondary star but a player fully capable of leading the offence if called upon. Though that may sound lofty considering the general historical consensus of the two players, Paul averaged a pretty comparable 19.3 points and 9.0 assists per 36 minutes in his two seasons as a Rocket.
With all that said, Lowry does have some tweaks he can make to fully adapt to this new situation. For one, the Raptors will need him to replace some of the lost shooting of Green and Leonard. That duo made over 30 percent of Toronto's threes last season, and while Lowry's 3-point attempt rate has gradually risen over his career, the Raptors will need a boost from him to make up for that lost shooting.
While not a tweak per se, one area Lowry might need to increase his production is in his distribution. He was second in the league in assists at 8.7 per game last season and getting up to double digits is certainly on the table this year. If he can get there, those extra couple assists will be crucial for the offence.
63.9 percent of Leonard's made shots were unassisted last season but no other player still on the roster was above 50 percent. This team just doesn't have a ton of shot creators. While Siakam and Fred VanVleet should improve in that area, Lowry is going to have a lot on his plate to keep this a top-ten offence. Plus, considering that Russell Westbrook and James Harden are now likely to cannibalize some of each other's assists, Lowry is probably the favourite to lead the league in assists this year.
As a final piece, Lowry has to take it upon himself to get to the line more. As great as the Raptors were on offence, they were just 21st in free throw attempt rate last season and Lowry took his fewest free throws since 2009. With 43.1 percent of those attempts coming from players no longer on the roster, the Raptors are going to need Lowry to get to the line two or three extra times per game.
If everything goes right, this team still has a clear path towards being competitive. They should have an elite defence, solid offence and, if healthy, should absolutely make the playoffs; but the success of this season really shouldn't be measured by the number of wins.
The three highest-paid players on the roster are all in their 30s. Given how successful Leonard's resting schedule appears to have been last season, expect Nick Nurse to follow a similar plan for Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
The young core is on its way. It's only a matter of time before Siakam, VanVleet and OG Anunoby are the headliners of this team. But for the time being, Lowry now gets to be the face of the franchise and enjoy the honour of being the star who helped bring a title to Toronto.
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