By: Dan Grant
The Toronto Raptors continued their pursuit of… something recently, as they landed hard-nosed point guard Kyle Lowry from the Houston Rockets, giving up what really amounts to a fart in the wind. Forgive me for being so candid (a fart joke in my first paragraph!), but Gary Forbes? A protected 1 st rounder? Depending on the protection (yet to be announced) these are acceptable losses for a consistent starting point guard.
If that’s what Lowry amounts to being.
You see the Raptors have an interesting history with point guards. Their first ever draft pick, one Damon Stoudamire (7th overall, 1995) was a point guard AND a star (a burgeoning star anyway), something that is difficult to find. Mighty Mouse, as he was known, captured the hearts and minds of the fledgling Raptors fans. The Raptors were bad, but Damon was good, even very good, averaging 19-4-9 (PTS-REB-ASTS) and nearly 40% from 3 on his way to winning the Rookie of the Year award in his first season. This while acting as the heart and de facto leader of what seemed to be a young and improving team. Until halfway through his third season, that is, when he asked for a trade. The reasons for this are varied, with Stoudamire in recent years blaming his own immaturity as a major contributor to the blow up.
Much and more has been written about the Raptors ability or lack thereof to keep/attract stars to Toronto. I’m not going to go into that here. But I do find it very interesting that after Damon, the Raptors never quite landed that catalyst point guard again. There have been fan favourites (Muggsy Bogues and Alvin Williams) capable veterans (Chris ‘how much time is left?’ Childs), insufferable ball hogs (Mike James), talented whiners unable to co-exist in a platoon scenario (TJ Ford) and Jose Calderon, who believe it or not, is the franchise leader in assists. Mark Jackson is the biggest name to ever wear the jersey at that position but he was dealt away after just 50 games. Throw in Jarrett Jack, a washed up Rod Strickland and the legendary Milt Palacio and you’re just about home. In fact, after Stoudamire, the Raptors have drafted just two other point guards in the history of the franchise. Think you can name them? I’ll give you about as long as it takes to read this sentence. 2nd round picks Tyson Wheeler (47th, 1997) and Roko Ukic (41st, 2005). That’s it. Any other point guard, including all those mentioned above, were acquired via trade or free agency. For a no longer young franchise (year 18!) that seems, at the very least, surprising.
That brings us to this off-season. Calderon, coming off back to back solid yet unspectacular seasons, has a very moveable expiring contract sitting at 10.5 million. He’s a distributor and a good teammate but his lack of lateral quickness stands in the way of his being a true starter. Jerryd Bayless has proven himself to be a capable backup, even if his body language at times resembles a 4 year old who has been told he has to go to bed. And then the whispers began. ‘Nash is coming’ ‘He wants to come home’ ‘we can offer him way more than anyone else!’ Raptors fans/media at large latch on like a hobo on a ham sandwich. Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo even went so far as to pre-emptively sign restricted free agent G/F Landry Fields to handcuff the ability of (supposedly) their biggest competition, the New York Knicks, rumoured to be a key piece in any sign and trade that would have landed Nash in the Big Apple. 3 years, 19 million bucks. Not chump change for a guy who played himself out of the rotation in New York during a horrendous sophomore campaign.
Then, as soon as it was sparked, the waters of harsh NBA reality doused the collective flame burning in the hearts of the aforementioned fans and media. Steve Nash is a Los Angeles Laker. He cites a combination of wanting to win and staying close to his kids in Phoenix as the reasons. Hard to fault the guy on either point. And for those indignant Canadians who think ‘coming home’ should trump those things, I think Jalen Rose said it best on his last podcast (ad-libbing here but imagine Jalen’s squawk) ‘Canada is large! Toronto is NOT Vancouver! Toronto is NOT going home for Steve Nash!’ The guy grew up in Vancouver and played in Phoenix and in Dallas. He has a house in New York. Toronto is not home for this guy. Get over it.
So as the Fields move was ostensibly made to land Nash, and the Raptors draft pick, Terrence Ross, is just the kind of athletic three point shooter that a Steve Nash offense craves, the question becomes whether the Raptors off-season moves prior to the acquisition of Kyle Lowry still make sense. And the answer is… kind of. Fields has glue skills that any team can use, defends his position well and can make open shots. Terrence Ross is athletic, hustles on defense and can shoot the lights out. Do these guys fit the team as well with Lowry running the point instead of Nash? The answer is maybe, but probably not. Does that mean these were poor moves? Absolutely not.
That brings us back to Lowry himself. Personally, I love him as a player. He’s tough as nails, he’s a top tier defender at the point guard position, his true shooting percentage of 56% last season reveals that he’s much more efficient than his peripherals (41-37-86) initially present and he fits beautifully into Dwane Casey’s defensive schemes. Any player that is described as a ‘pit bull’ is a player that’s going to give your team some defensive identity. He’s an improved three point shooter that often carried an anemic Houston offense that was devoid of a true scorer when Kevin Martin battled injuries and Luis Scola regressed. He rebounds fantastically well for his size and has been described with all the best kind of words: ‘Gym rat’. ‘Competitive to a fault’. And this year’s favourite NBA buzz word, ‘relentless’. Assuming that Calderon will be jettisoned, either via the amnesty clause or trade, he is also a much closer player, in terms of skills, to Jerryd Bayless, meaning that similar offenses can theoretically be run when either guard is on the floor, which is good for a team that is young and getting younger. [Editor’s Note: Bayless signed as a free agent with Memphis shortly after this column was written.] Lowry has a bargain basement contract for the next two seasons and he certainly makes the team better on both ends of the floor. Playoffs better? I really don’t think so. That’s the big picture problem. But small picture, the price certainly was right and given the historical lack of identity for this franchise at the point, it will be interesting to see how Lowry fares in both the short and long term.