Toronto’s Best Player Is Facing The Biggest Step Of His Career

Kyle Lowry doesn’t just have a chip on his shoulder. It’s more like a granite boulder weighing him down with bad luck, bad fate, bad juju or whatever superstitious doggerel you subscribe to. Whether it’s injuries or backups or injuries leading to backups, Lowry has consistently been barred from the elite point guards club he so clearly deserves to be included in. At this point, it’s not just his defense or his penetration or his efficiency as it is how genuinely hard Lowry plays on a night-to-night basis. He plays with so much effort you could say he’s playing angry, and while it’s commendable watching a guy giving everything he has on every night, there’s a reason he’s rocking a perpetual scowl on his countenance.

When Kyle Lowry came out of Villanova as the Memphis Grizzlies’ 24th pick in the 2006 Draft, no one expected huge things from him. During his first couple of years in Memphis, he didn’t do much to prove otherwise, while continuing to be stuck behind a string of average point guards. But then, after being traded to Houston in 2009, he finally broke out during the second half of the 2010-11 season. He was named Western Conference Player of the Week between March 14-20 in 2011 after leading the Rockets to a 4-0 record, averaging over 19 points per game along with over seven rebounds and seven assists. The stocky six-footer had finally come into his own. But his All-Star-level play didn’t last, and it’s been heartbreaking to watch him continually relegated to a second tier role because of injury and circumstance.

After backing up Chucky Atkins, Juan Carlos Navarro and finally, rookie Mike Conley Jr. in Memphis, the Grizz decided to part ways with Lowry during Conley’s sophomore season in 2008-09. Once in Houston, Lowry showed enough potential as the Rockets’ starting point guard that he wound up with a $23.46 million contract over four years before the 2010-11 season (as a restricted free agent, Houston matched Cleveland’s initial offer to Lowry).

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That first season he played really well, averaging career highs in every major statistical category while starting and playing more than 34 minutes a night for a surprisingly fun Rockets team. Then, after such a promising beginning in Houston, came a knee injury and a mysterious bacterial infection that kept him out of most of March last season. During that time, his backup, Goran Dragic, showed what he could do, and when Lowry returned in early April, his minutes were vastly reduced to make more time for Dragic.

This summer, in his bid to acquire Dwight Howard from Orlando, Houston’s saber-metric approved GM Daryl Morey dealt Lowry’s contract to Toronto for a future first-round pick and Gary Forbes. The Raptors seemed to have really lucked out before Lowry’s string of bad luck continued and he sprained his ankle against the Thunder earlier this year; he was out until November 20. After his return a little more than a week ago, he hasn’t been nearly the same.

To start this season, Lowry shot 24-for-44 from the field to go along with his incredible defense, passing and rebounding. It looked like he was finally ready for the monster season that would see him elected to his first All-Star team while garnering the ensuing praise that always follows. Except, since he’s gotten back from the ankle sprain, he’s gone 26-for-72 from the field while stumbling to mesh with his new Raptors teammates. There’s also yet another guard looking to steal some playing time from the unlucky Lowry.

The Raptors already had a pretty decent point guard, if not a really capable backup, before they lucked into Lowry this offseason. Jose Calderon is a member of the elusive and exclusive (sorry to get all Clyde on you) 50/90/40 club (over 50 percent from the field, 90 from the free throw line, and 40 percent from deep), which he achieved during the 2007-08 season. Currently, Calderon is still getting over 30 minutes a night either backing up Lowry, or playing beside him as an off guard. So not only does Lowry have to find his groove with his still new Raptors teammates, but he again has to contend with a more-than-capable backup that could rob him of much needed floor time. The anger Lowry sometimes lets peek out on his face might be a result of his tumultuous six years in the league, but it might also be what separates him from the rest of the pack.

Watching Kyle Lowry is a study in giving a crap. When he man-marks his opponent, there are very few guards that can handle his hard-nosed and borderline – late ’90s – hand-checking defense. He’s a whiz at picking opposing guard’s pockets (he’s currently fourth among point guards in steals, per Hoopdata), and his 6-0 frame is packed with 200 pounds of muscle, so you’re not gonna take him into the post and back through him. He shoots efficiently both at the rim and from long range (per Hoopdata), and he sinks his free throws. Through the first month of the season, he has the highest alternate PER (alternate includes actual assisted and unassisted field goals combined with Hollinger’s complicated PER metric) of any point guard in the league, even the highly-efficient Chris Paul.

Last night, as Lowry’s former team in Houston was stomping his current team into the ground, the camera panned to Lowry on the Toronto bench late in the game. It appeared for a split second like steam was emanating from Lowry’s bald dome, as if what he was witnessing had caused his head to spontaneously combust. His face was somewhat lax, with his tongue lolling out a bit, but his intensity was ever-present in eyes that never blinked as they took in the blowout. Earlier in the game, when his replacement in Houston, Jeremy Lin, stripped him of the ball from behind and it led to another Houston dunk at the other end, Lowry’s disgust with his own play was palpable. As the seconds ticked down to another Toronto loss, the fifth loss in a row since Lowry’s return from injury, Lowry looked like he wanted to deck a guy. While that might be the fuel that provides him an extra oomph of effort, we’d like to see him happy for a change.

Kyle Lowry has managed to channel his perceived anger into some of the most impressive advanced point guard stats in recent history. If he stays injury free for the remainder of this season, and doesn’t lose any significant minutes to Calderon, that disgust and anger that could’ve been roiling around inside him for the last few years could be just the thing to take him into the upper echelons of the point guard position in the NBA. Or it could be the very thing that leads to another disappointing season. We’re betting on the former, if only because we think if Kyle Lowry can catch a break, all NBA fans of hard-nosed basketball will be better off because of it. Kyle Lowry plays angry, and that’s not such a bad thing. Still, we’d like to see him smile on occasion too.

How good is Kyle Lowry? Is he elite?

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