Kyle Lowry just did what very few players have done in the history of the NBA.
He had his best season as a pro, went into contract negotiations in his prime, and decided to sign with the Toronto Raptors. Several before him have come to the Great White North and gone again at the peak of their popularity. Damon Stoudemire. Tracy McGrady. Vince Carter. Chris Bosh.
Not Kyle Lowry.
Some have cited the taxes. Others have mentioned the cold. One even hated on the cable options. Regardless of the reasons, Toronto has had a 20-year history of whiffing on the big free agents (unless you count Hedo Turkoglu, which I pray you don’t).
On just the second day of this year’s free agency, Lowry and the Raptors changed that narrative ever so slightly when both sides agreed on a four-year, $48 million deal (with a player option in the final year). With all the speculation now out of the way, the one question that remains:
Was it the right move?
Lowry by the Numbers
Several teams are still clamoring for LeBron and Melo, but make no mistake; Lowry was one of the best free agents available, despite the comparative lack of fanfare and meetings that have been taking place in the courtships of the aforementioned superstars.
Lowry put up numbers last season that would certainly put him in the conversation as the best point guard in the whole Eastern Conference. At the very least, they make a strong case for his All-Star and All-NBA snub status.
He scored more than Deron Williams. He shot as accurately as Damian Lillard. He averaged more assists and fewer turnovers than Kyrie Irving. His 3.02 assist-to-turnover ratio was even better than the likes of noted assist gurus Rajon Rondo (2.97), Steve Nash (2.77), and Ty Lawson (2.72). He grabbed more boards than every NBA point guard not named Michael Carter-Williams. He stole the ball just as many times per game as Mike Conley, the previous year’s leader in total steals and All-Defensive honoree (second team).
On the more advanced metric side, he was 8th in the entire league in offensive win shares (8.4), 8th in total win shares (11.7), and 10th in win shares per 48 minutes (.197). He was 10th on our NBA Player Rankings with a nERD score of 10.7.
What kind of company does one keep up in that range of win share and nERD supremacy? Well, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Chris Paul, James Harden, and Stephen Curry are the only players in the whole NBA that ranked ahead of Lowry in each of those all-encompassing categories. That’s it. Six guys. Not a single one of which that finished lower than 2nd Team All-NBA.
Lowry may have a history of butting heads with coaches, ticky-tack injuries, and bad conditioning, but what he was able to do last year was flat out spectacular. Those particular issues were nowhere to be seen last season, as Lowry took over as the team leader after a trade that shipped out the team’s highest shot taker in Rudy Gay.
The Raps were 6-12 before the trade and went 42-22 after it, finishing with a franchise-best 48 wins and their first playoff berth in six years. Lowry, an offensive spark plug (offensive rating of 107.2) and scrappy perimeter defender (defensive rating of 102.6), provided an identity for a team that had been in need of one for years.
The Raptors finished the season ranked 9th in offensive efficiency (105.8 points scored per 100 possessions) and 10th in defensive efficiency (102.4 points allowed per 100 possessions), making them one of only four teams in the league and the only one in the East to finish top-10 in both. The others were three of the absolute best teams in the league in the Thunder, Clippers, and the title winning Spurs.
Considering how closely the team’s offensive and defensive ratings mirrored Lowry’s and the fact that he used an estimated 23.8% of his team’s possessions while he was on the floor post-trade, it’s pretty safe to assume that Lowry had a big hand in the team’s success. As a result, he got paid like it.
Is Lowry Worth What He Got?
If you decided to read anything written before that question, the answer should be a resounding “yes”. Even so, not everyone agrees with the price point for Lowry - even in his prime at age 28 - because of the aforementioned history of injury proneness, coach contentiousness, and butt chunkiness.
He might not be considered a number one guy on a championship-caliber team, but it’s not hard to make the case that he’s the number one guy on this particular Raptors team - or at the very least 1B to All-Star DeMar DeRozan’s 1A - and deserves to be paid like it.
Our very own Bryan Mears wrote a piece this week about the money the various players on the Miami Heat would have made this year if salaries were doled out after the season and were based on actual production during it. If Kyle Lowry had been paid using this model, he would’ve made out like a bandit this year.
The way Bryan broke it down was by looking at two advanced statistics that estimate the number of wins a player was considered to contribute to his team in a given season. The first was win shares and the second was our own nERD metric. He divided a player’s win shares or nERD by the team’s total wins and used the resulting percentage to calculate how much of the money that the team spent on players last year should have gone to the individual in question.
Lowry’s 11.7 win shares (WS) were the third highest total for a player in any season in Toronto Raptors history, trailing only Vince Carter’s 2000-01 (12.9) and 1999-00 (11.8) campaigns. Similarly, his 10.7 nERD score was the third best in our 15 years of data, trailing only Carter’s 2000-01 (13.4) and Chris Bosh’s 2007-08 (11.6).
With that in mind, you can imagine that the $6,210,000 that Lowry made last season - only the fifth highest salary on his team and less than John Salmons and Landry Fields made, for the record - was money well spent.
|Total||% of 48 wins||2013-14 Salary||Salary by Production||Difference
If you prefer win shares or our nERD scores as an all-encompassing statistic is your business, but they both suggest that Lowry played like he was worth roughly $10 million more than he was paid last season and even $3-4 million more than he’s set to make per year over the next four (an estimated $12 million per campaign).
Even if there’s a drop off in his production at the back end of his new contract, you have to imagine that the Raptors are perfectly fine with paying Lowry what he’s earned this season and what he could be worth if he’s able to play to the same level or better over his next couple.
Players that play at the level that Lowry did last season haven’t historically fallen in the Raptors’ lap at this point in their career. With the NBA reportedly headed towards a bigger salary cap and the first few inflated signings of the NBA offseason suggesting a turn towards a player’s market, this deal could’ve been far more expensive.
The Raptors had the inside track on paying Lowry the most of any team all along, considering that contenders like the Heat and Rockets didn’t have a lot to spend and Toronto always had the fifth year in their back pocket to dangle at Lowry’s feet if times had gotten tough. Regardless, making Lowry the eighth highest-paid point guard in the NBA at $12 million per year when he just played like one of the best in the league seems plenty reasonable for right now.
Given, there are a multitude of ifs and buts attached to the deal. Perhaps Lowry’s bump and grind style of play will lead to his body breaking down or his conditioning will slip now that he’s got his money coming to him. There’s also the fear that his compulsive competitiveness will lead to more butting of heads, whether it be with teammates or his coach.
The Raptors, GM Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwane Casey, however, don’t seem to share the same concerns as some pundits who have raised these concerns. They’ve all developed what seems to be a deep relationship with Lowry and have shown through this signing that they trust him as their star moving forward. At roughly $22-million combined over the next three seasons, they have locked up Lowry and DeRozan as one of the best and most cost-effective backcourts in the NBA. It’s not going to make them title favorites, but with a promising young core, it’s a start.
If the Raptors can follow up last season’s success and third-place finish in the Eastern Conference with a similar campaign, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic in Toronto. That optimism will now lie (at least partially) on the stocky shoulders of Kyle Lowry. After years of fighting with coaches, battling for minutes, and trying to prove his worth, we’ll now see if he’s ready to carry this kind of weight.