If you want an idea of how much upheaval this team has experienced since last season, the guards are where to look. At this time last season, we were discussing the future of Jose Calderon and Jerryd Bayless, with the spectre of Steve Nash looming in the distance. Today, there is only one name to mention, and that's Kyle Lowry.
There is no doubt that Lowry has turned in a disappointing season with the Raptors. The full extent of his troubles can be found in my recent piece here, but suffice it to say that the Raptors did not get the return on their investment that they expected in year one with Lowry manning the point of attack.
While Lowry brought an array of talents from Houston to Toronto, what the Raptors needed most from him was consistent leadership for their young squad. Lowry came to Toronto with a reputation as a workhorse who held teammates to the same high standards that he held himself. Unfortunately, several events this season served to undermine Lowry's ability to truly lead this club. First was his penchant for reckless play early in the season. According to the National Post's Bruce Arthur, at the team's lowest point, Lowry was reportedly called out at a team meeting for his selfishness and me-first style of play. That tendency made it hard for Lowry and head coach Dwane Casey to mesh early on, so much so that Lowry was supplanted in the starting lineup by the ultimate team-first player, Calderon, right up until Calderon was shipped to Detroit at the end of January.
From there, it looked like Casey was intent on keeping Lowry on a short leash, which curbed his wilder tendencies but neutered him overall. Lowry has not been shy of late discussing his evolving relationship with Casey, but whatever their future is as a tandem, neither Lowry's play nor Casey's distrust helped Lowry establish a credible leadership position within the organization.
All that said, it would be shocking to see the Raptors decline Lowry's $6.2-million team option this summer, and it's very unlikely that Lowry is moved along in a trade considering his reasonable salary and the high expectations that the team had of him as recently as training camp. He may not have established himself as the future of the position for the Raptors this season, but he wasn't quite bad enough to warrant banishment, either. After all, his year-over-year stats aren't really all that disparate, and his assist rate has ballooned in the last couple of weeks.
Still, there are areas that Lowry needs to address before next season. While his assists have been on the rise, his shooting percentages have gone into a tailspin. Since the All-Star break, Lowry has shot 38.3 per cent from the field, 30.7 per cent from three and just 69.9 per cent from the free throw line. He has been given far less freedom than he had during his last two years in Houston and that is reflected in the offensive output he's offered since getting his starting job back. He has to be a standout three-point shooter, given the makeup of the roster and has to be a more efficient scorer, in general, if the team's wings are going to remain mostly unchanged heading into '13-'14. This team is starved for perimeter efficiency with Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan doing their thing, so Lowry has to help balance out their deficiencies, not exacerbate them.
Behind Lowry is a whole other conundrum. John Lucas III has had his moments (and the team can certainly use his floor-spacing abilities) but he is under-qualified to serve as a full-time backup point guard, especially given Lowry's spotty injury history. The Raptors brought in Sebastian Telfair at the deadline in an attempt to give the backup spot a more traditional look, but Telfair struggled with consistency and shot selection and looks like a long shot at best to return.
What the Raptors need behind Lowry is a steady, seasoned, pass-first option that can, ideally, make open threes and run the pick-and-roll effectively (no, they won't bring back Calderon). The trick is not to bring in too qualified a vet, though, because Casey has shown a willingness to displace core players in his rotation for veteran options when afforded the option (Lowry v. Calderon, Ross v. Anderson). As important as it is to have an NBA calibre platoon behind Lowry, it has to be clear that they are BEHIND Lowry. The Raptors need to commit to Lowry and he needs to commit to the Raptors. They need each other to reach their immediate goals (the playoffs for Toronto, a hefty payday next summer for Lowry) and that can't happen if Lowry has to spend another year skating on thin ice with Casey.
What really needs to happen this summer is for everyone to work towards unleashing the version of Kyle Lowry that the Raptors thought they were acquiring when they gave up a lottery pick for him last July. Lowry, by his own admission, needs to seriously up the quality of his play, Casey needs to structure the offence in such a way as to exploit his best qualities and the front office needs to ensure that the right compliment of players surround him. Last year, it felt as though everyone involved saw Lowry as such an ideal fit that he'd just slide right in and produce. Heading into next year, everyone involved now knows it's going to take a lot more work than that to make the most of this marriage.