NBA

Chisholm: Point guard controversy in Raptors land?

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Tim Chisholm
12/20/2012 3:05:59 PM
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In the short-term, what Jose Calderon has been giving the Raptors of late has been spectacular. Since Kyle Lowry injured his triceps, Calderon has averaged 14.4 ppg, 11.0 apg, 4.8 rpg and has shot 40 per cent from downtown, he's provided the kind of leadership that has been sorely lacking from the roster all season and, most importantly, the team has won four straight in a fairly convincing fashion.

Of course, long-term all of this is just about the worst thing that could happen to this club because... well, because they're the Raptors and they can't have nice things.

When the Raptors brought in Lowry this summer he was supposed to be the catalyst for any and all good that came from the team this season. He was an All-Star calibre guard that was going to team with DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas to form the backbone of the club's future. He was going to exemplify all the tenets that head coach Dwane Casey prioritized all while making Calderon so unnecessary that the team could finally feel safe unloading him knowing that the point guard position was well and truly taken care of.

Instead, Lowry played like a ball-stopping, defensive-gambling, low-percentage headache that has orchestrated only two of the team's eight wins and was reportedly called-out by his peers during a team meeting two weeks ago in Utah. Freed of his career-long battle with needing to prove himself to his employers (the team handed him the keys to the car on the day of his introduction), Lowry has played like anything but the team-first option the club needs at the point of attack and his play has been made to look all the more damaging with Calderon playing like his exact opposite and thriving.

There are now legitimate questions as to what to do when Lowry returns from his injury, which according to early prognostications should be any day now. Casey has put it on the record that Lowry (along with the injured Andrea Bargnani) will have to adapt to the way the team has been playing of late, not the other way around, but how exactly does Casey regulate that?

Let's say he does the smart thing and brings Lowry off of the bench to start - a move he can easily masquerade as an 'easing back into rhythm' decision - as a way to force Lowry to earn his way back into the starting five. What if he struggles to adapt while Calderon continues to thrive? How can Casey rightly justify inserting Lowry back into the starting lineup if he hasn't demonstrated any ability to adapt to the style of play that has seen the team (modestly) reverse its fortunes of late? What kind of message would that send to his young troops who need to learn that you have to buy-in if you want a plum assignment on the team?

Is there a way for Casey to simply thrust him right back into the starting five upon his return? If he struggles or continues to demonstrate the same tendencies that got him called out in Utah, does that not also undermine Casey's authority in his own locker room? Of course, Lowry could invalidate all these scenarios by actually moving the ball and playing smart defense, but that brings us to our second problem.

One of the reasons that the Raptors have had success of late with Calderon in the starting five is that all Calderon is really worried about doing is making sure that his teammates get the best looks possible on offense while trying not to be a negative at the defensive end of the floor. Lowry, while a capable passer, is not in Calderon's class as a playmaker. He's thinking attack first, pass second. One can argue that he should adapt, then, to the roster needs at hand, but then you'd be asking the team's best player to sublimate his greatest skills in order to cater to the inability of DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis and Jonas Valanciunas to create their own offense. Trying to get Lowry to play like Calderon completely negates the point of acquiring Lowry, but the fact is that Calderon's passing is making everyone else more effective by keeping them involved and the ball moving whenever he's out on the court.

According to hoopdata.com, Calderon currently ranks fifth in assist rate amongst point guards that play 15-plus minutes per game whereas Lowry ranks 37th. Lowry's 25.50 assist rate is actually his lowest since his days in Memphis, and while you could justify that style if he were hitting his shots, his shooting percentage, three-point shooting percentage and True Shooting percentage are all at three-year lows.

This problem is even further exacerbated by the fact that the other four starters on the club are terrible passers. It was no accident that Landry Fields was brought in to start alongside Lowry because he is actually quite good at acting as a facilitator and as a guy that keeps the ball moving, but of course he started the year terribly and hasn't played since having elbow surgery back in November.

Simply put, Lowry doesn't fit as well with these starters as Calderon does, and that's less a question of mindset than it is of skill set; it just so happens that Lowry's attempts to compensate have proven less than ideal so far this season.

You want the real damning stats, though? Because those come on the defensive end of the floor, where Calderon is handily thumping Lowry in the very area Lowry was meant to thump Calderon in.

According to 82games.com, Lowry is letting up a 17.7 PER to opposing point guards and the team is sacrificing 6.7 points per 100 possessions more when he is on the floor versus Calderon who is letting up a 14.0 PER to opposing point guards and the team is sacrificing 4.7 points per 100 possessions LESS when he is on the floor. Chew on that nugget for a second.

The reasons aren't even that hard to figure out. Lowry gambles a TON on defense, which affords opposing guards a lot of free trips into the paint, whereas Calderon - despite his inferior speed and strength - tries his best to work within the team's schemes which helps keep the whole stronger than the sum of its parts. In fairness, Calderon has also had the benefit of rarely sharing the floor with Andrea Bargnani, who is notorious for his indifference to playing help defense.

All of which routes us back to the problems facing Casey when Lowry finally returns to the lineup. In the long run the team needs Lowry at his best. Even if the club decided to keep Calderon for the entire season, he's sure to bolt in free agency next summer. Lowry is meant to be their future at the position and in the past he's shown he is more than capable of thriving in that role. However, if Calderon continues to vastly outplay Lowry, especially since he already has the advantage of suiting Toronto's starting five better, how does Casey continue to preach his team-first message if he puts Lowry ahead of Calderon in the team's pecking order? It's one thing to say that he has to earn it, but that puts him and the team in a very awkward position if he doesn't.

For now the Raptors are thrilled with Calderon's play and the wins it has brought, but just the same it has put a lot of people in the organization in a tight spot with regards to how to handle Lowry imminent return.

It's that old question of balancing talent against production, which fortunately for the Raptors they will have to face again in a few weeks when Andrea Bargnani returns from injury.

Happy holidays, Raptors fans!

Jose Calderon (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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