February brought injuries to many key contributors in the NBA.
Kevin Love’s left knee, which required arthroscopic surgery, spawned an active trade deadline among Eastern Conference teams looking to dethrone the Cleveland Cavaliers. Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker each looked like they were taking the next steps in their journeys toward All-Star status before tearing their ACLs. Joel Embiid tore the meniscus in his left knee, then danced on stage at a Meek Mill concert, then was ruled out for the season because another MRI indicated the knee had more damage than initially pronounced (The Process can’t be stopped, it can only be contained). Kevin Durant suffered a bone bruise and MCL sprain against the Washington Wizards, and his absence could cost the Golden State Warriors the top seed in the Western Conference.
While all these maladies shake up the NBA landscape, none will match the impact Kyle Lowry’s wrist injury has on the Toronto Raptors.
The 30-year-old point guard is the catalyst to the Raptors’ success on the scoring end. With Lowry on the court, the team has an offensive rating of 116.3—a figure that would only trail the Warriors this season. Without him, Toronto’s rating falls to 106.7, which is identical to the Phoenix Suns’ 21st-ranked offense.
Lowry’s efficiency comes from his ability to play quintessential Moreyball. Nearly 75 percent of his shots have come from either behind the arc or in the restricted area. By comparison, Cory Joseph—his backup—has taken less than half his shots from those areas.
The Lowry-DeMar DeRozan pairing allows both players to maximize their impact. Lowry is versatile enough to play efficiently on or off the ball. He’s attempted 187 catch-and-shoot three-pointers this season and made 40.6 percent of his tries, per NBA.com, which leaves him ranked 27th among the the 88 players with at least 150 attempts. His presence on the floor gives Toronto a massive weapon, and when he’s paired with DeRozan, the potency of the offense is glaring.
Not many players find more success than DeRozan when driving to the rim with purpose.
The shooting guard can easily switch objectives between aggressively trying to finish at the hoop, finding a breath of space to get off a mid-range jumper and kicking it out to an open teammate. With both Lowry and the 2-guard on the floor, opposing defenses constantly scramble to contain the lethal combo. Leaving the former for just a second can bring defeat in the battle for the possession. But without him, help defenders can cheat and inch toward DeRozan, since the team’s other options are far less threatening.
Lowry’s ability to find teammates and put them in good position to succeed cannot be understated.
As Dan Favale of NBA Math previously noted, the Raptors’ starting point guard’s on/off assist percentage differential is the highest in the league; no other team benefits more from their starting point guard’s ball movement. DeMarre Carroll, for example, hits a higher percentage of his shots from the field when Lowry is on the court, per nbawowy.com. DeRozan is also among teammates who enjoy more success with the point guard playing.
Toronto sans Lowry can hold its own against mediocre teams, as it did against the Portland Trail Blazers and New York Knicks in the wake of the point guard’s surgery. Over the next 21 games, only seven of its contests are against teams with winnings records, but four are with the two teams—the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks—directly behind in the standings. We The North is unlikely to miss the playoffs, but falling further down the pecking order remains a possibility.
The Raptors were already sinking before the wrist injury sidelined Lowry, having lost 11 of their prior 16 games. Still, the franchise owns the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed, and how it performs during the remainder of the season will dictate whether it can make serious noise in the playoffs. With Lowry and the team’s new defensive additions, it could have contended for a top-three seed. But without the Villanova product, that would be a surprising accomplishment.
If the Raptors get locked into the 4-5 matchup, they’d likely square off with Cleveland in the second round upon advancement. If they fall even further, they avoid Cleveland until the Eastern Conference Finals, but they’d have to go on the road for a series against either the Boston Celtics or Washington Wizards. That’s a feasible path with Lowry back at full strength, but Toronto might not make it to Game 6 of the opening round if he’s not.
Lowry doesn’t just figure into any conversation about which injured player will be missed most by his team; he could also play a part in the MVP discussion.
Before his wrist injury, he ranked sixth in NBA Math’s total points added. He’s currently fourth in ESPN.com’s real plus/minus and seventh in VORP, all while leading the league in minutes per game. He likely wasn’t going to take home the award if he stayed healthy, but there are five spots on the MVP ballot. The man who deserved to start for the Eastern Conference All-Star Team, as I discussed recently in a piece for Hoops Rumors, would likely have been among the players receiving votes.
Durant also would have been in that vote-earning group, and Golden State will miss the 2014-15 MVP over the next few weeks. But he should be back in time for the playoffs, and given the incredible start, it’s unlikely anyone but the San Antonio Spurs passes them in the standings. In an effort to maintain their place, head coach Steve Kerr can recalibrate the rotation to make certain at least one of the healthy All-Stars is on the court at all times. Golden State could also opt to reduce the minutes of those standouts to keep them fresh for the playoffs since, regardless of seed, the Warriors remain favorite to win the title.
Toronto’s seeding matters, as it could be the difference between winning a couple playoff series or spending the beginning of May at home. In terms of the NBA landscape, that makes Lowry’s injury the toughest break of all the February woes.
Let’s hope March brings better health.