Nobody wanted to call him a “head case,” but the scouting report was still out there. Kyle Lowry has undeniable talent, a track record of putting teams on his shoulders for quarters at a time, and more off-record whispers than a closed Hollywood set. He entered 2013-14 with an expiring contract, a team that was designed to lose, and a coach in Dwane Casey that didn’t seem long for Toronto.
For whatever reasons, all of them tightly packed and wonderful, the Raptors’ season went according to script. Casey excelled in the final year of his contract, new general manager Masai Ujiri held off on completely dismantling the team that former GM Bryan Colangelo left for him, and Toronto ended up winning its division. Along the way, despite trade rumors, Lowry turned in a career year, nearly making the All-Star team and strengthening his position as the go-to 2014 free agent target for teams looking for point guard help.
Of course, Lowry may not want to leave the confines of southern Ontario, as Ujiri looks to re-tool on the fly with his unexpected division winner. And to hear Kyle tell it, a figurative and literal look in the mirror helped turn things around, prior to 2013-14. First, he got his “hire a personal chef and trim the pounds”-game on point. Then, he re-focused his efforts in a productive, team-embracing fashion. From Cathal Kelly at the Toronto Globe and Mail:
A bunch of reasons have been mooted as the catalyst for this shift – a heart-to-heart with GM Masai Ujiri, getting married, having a kid. Lowry lists them all off.
“Sometimes, you have to admit to yourself that maybe you’re the one who needs to change,” he says.
“I’m happy,” Lowry says, trying to drill down to what this season means. “I’m not satisfied, but I’m happy.”
He should be. Toronto could end its season with 49 wins with a victory on Wednesday, with Lowry the driving force behind most of them. He’s averaging a career high in points and assists per game, his per-minute contributions have gone up across the board, and he isn’t dominating the ball as much in ways that take Casey’s offensive options away. He’s fitting in. He’s working within a team concept, we’ve heard absolutely nothing about him butting heads with either his teammates or coaching staff, and all of this is somehow happening in a contract year.
Now, the idea of free agents to-be gunning for a new contract in the months leading up to their previous deal’s expiration date is a bit outmoded – there is so much attention paid to this league in the modern era that chuckers can’t really get away with firing away without online ridicule hitting hard the next morning. But while Lowry’s three-point attempts per game have shot up this season, he truly does look less stressed in what should have been the most important season of his career. Yes, he’s in his prime, but he’s not pushing it.
And it’s been fantastic to watch. Raptor fans know this game, and they know how this league works. They went into 2013-14 fully embracing a Ujiri-led rebuild, and were more than chuffed when the 2013 Executive of the Year was able to deal away both Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay for draft picks and payroll relief. The fans were ready to start over. Again.
Here we are, though, with the Raptors shooting to secure a third seed in the East and the potential to take on the defending champions in the second round. The team held off on dealing Lowry, and though re-signing the point man to a contract that drags him into his 30s sounds a little dicey on paper, it doesn’t seem nearly as big a commitment as it did back in autumn. And that’s all on Lowry – in a good way, for once.
Listen, Kyle Lowry was never a team-killing malcontent. Lowry’s struggles came in the wake of him trying too hard, pushing too much, taking way too much on. For whatever reason, he’s mellowed out and his game has responded, and clearly the Raptors are riding the results to great acclaim.
Here’s hoping he sustains it, even past his 2014 free agent turn.
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