(Originally published on 12/14/18)
Let's forget about hoop for a second, fantasy or otherwise. Let's talk about friendship. I have friends. You have friends. We're all friends here. Friendship is greater than fantasy.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are best friends. They talk every everyday, like friends do.
Then their was the alleged betrayal by the Toronto Raptors. Promises may have been broken. Relationships were decimated. The boss supposedly lied. What was once built together in harmony was torn apart by individual greed and ambition. A faint chance at a championship was valued above loyalty. It was a perfect tragedy.
After hours of speculative podcasts and awkward summer media exchanges -- the season finally started and both Lowry and DeRozan excelled in their new situations. Sadness may have propelled their incredible play.
Then Lowry sat down with Rachel Nichols and stated plain facts about his work environment. His "controversial" (he didn't really say anything) comments coincided with a two-week (11/29/18 to 12/9/18) shooting slump. The Raptors went 3-3 during Lowry's slump and multiple general managers (PP 2020, FLI CITY, RICKY OLE' OOOPS) led a chorus of "broken point guard" narratives. Every night, it's Lowry this, Lowry that.
Lowry is currently ranked 30th in Fantasy. PP 2020 drafted him with the 32nd pick yet he's been amusingly calling for his benching for weeks.
That's how we got here. I try not to focus on the Raptors every week because my obvious bias and tendency to walk the company line on all matters of dinosaur business, but the crescendo of nonsense had to be addressed. This idea that Lowry is broken is false. It's simply not true. I've never seen Lowry play better than he has this year.
Lowry leads the league in assists (10.0), chargees taken (13) and intentionally jamming bigs in the paint to dismantle their defensive pursuit (all day). The force of the latter is equivalent a fullback block.
Both Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka are having career shooting years from the field thanks to the pick-and-roll chemistry they've developed with Lowry. When given a lane to the hoop, Lowry masterfully manipulates the refs by willfully giving up his body over and over again.
Defensively, he's a pest. He disables larger wings and bigs by violating their personal space and daring them to risk a charge by putting the ball on the floor. By my personal count, Lowry leads the league in poking the ball away from a player from behind when they aren't looking, usually immediately after a rebound or inbounds pass.
If this is what heartbreak looks like then I'd hope for all of our hearts to be shattered one day.
Which brings us to Lowry versus Clippers and Warriors on 12/11/18 and 12/12/18. Two masterful performances on back-to-back nights in which Lowry displayed the offensive wizardry of Steve Nash and the defensive prowess of ... of ... of himself, he's a top-three defensive point guard in the NBA.
Particularly, against the Warriors, Lowry played a perfect game. He stalled the offense on three possessions in the second half to get Danny Green easy post-up buckets over Steph Curry (mostly because the Warriors don't care yet and lazily switch everything). He didn't challenge Draymond on drives after a switch but attacked every other big with his patented fake hard drive to the right that leads to a turnaround free throw jumper. Each possession was a reaction to Lowry's vision, engagement and attention to detail. He directed, the other four players on the court followed.
Without Kawhi, during those eight games, Lowry is averaging 18.5 points, 12.1 assists on 45.3% FG and 34.4% from three.
Kawhi is the megastar but Lowry is still the Raptors' best player. The drama that has resulted from Lowry's perceived grumpiness is irrelevant compared to the magnificance of his game. Like Jeff Van Gundy said during the Raptors/Warriors broadcast: "I think his (Lowry's) crankiness drives him to be a better player."
So, why the slump? Why the fall in numbers with Kawhi in the linueup? Is Lowry sulking? Draining the energy from the team because he's no longer playing with his best friend?
There's a much simpler answer. Kawhi sort of phases Lowry out late in games. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Kawhi is the guy. The guy takes those shots late. Eventually, they will need to develop more robust sets for end-of-game situations. Individually, Lowry is peaking but he and Kawhi are still learning to play with each other.
But, Lowry should be used to this treatment because you know who else phased him out late in games? His best friend.
We'll get to DeRozan on the Spurs next week in part two of Friendship: A Heartbreaking Story.