The Toronto Raptors are enjoying their finest season in years.
Well for starters, you could point to their improved defense (fourth in the league in opponents' scoring), or their more effective offense (10th in offensive efficiency), or even the departure of Rudy Gay (.368 winning percentage at the time of the trade).
But you’d only be scraping the surface by talking about those points. The real story in Toronto has been the play of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Not only have they both played at all-star levels since the Rudy Gay trade, but they've undoubtedly emerged as one of the best back courts in the league.
Give their individual play and team success, it's reasonable to expect some accolades to come their way. Although there's still plenty of time left in the season, it's never too early to make the case for players deserving of some hardware.
And boy, do these guys deserve some.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics acquired from NBA.com and ESPN.go.com
Most Improved Player
While Lowry was ultimately passed up by the coaches in favor of Joe Johnson in one the great surprises in All-Star history, the lack of recognition hasn't affected his play, as he’s actually increased his scoring output from 16.7 points to 17.3 points per game since then.
But that scoring increase pales in comparison to his improvement across the board this year. For his career, Lowry has averages of 11.4 points, 5.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds. This season with the Raptors, he’s increased those numbers to a career high 16.8 points, 7.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds, to go along with 1.6 steals per game.
Just in terms of points this season, Lowry has increased his average from his career numbers by 47 percent.
Night in and night out, he’s performed like a star, played within the team’s philosophy, and produced win after win.
Hard to believe Lowry was benched last season in favor of Jose Calderon and only played in a total of 68 games.
Sure, players like Lance Stephenson and Eric Bledsoe have made leaps and bounds from last season, but neither of them are the leader of their respective teams. The Indiana Pacers have Paul George and a host of veterans, and the Phoenix Suns have been led by Goran Dragic.
Yes, Lowry has DeRozan. But more importantly, DeRozan has Lowry.
All-NBA Third Team
DeRozan has been one of the best shooting guards in the NBA season. That’s not even up for debate. As far as 2-guards go, he's right at the top in terms of production this season.
But has he played better than both of them this season? You bet he has.
While Bryant and Wade have combined to play 49 games this season (just six for Kobe), DeRozan has played in 58 and has averaged a career-high 22.7 points, 3.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds.
Granted, given Bryant and Wade’s injuries it may be unfair to compare their production, so let’s see how DeRozan’s season stacks up against the other elite shooting guards in the league.
Kevin Martin? The Minnesota Timberwolves are currently out the playoffs and he’s averaging 19.2 points with a 42.8 field-goal percentage.
Monta Ellis? He’s played well, but is only averaging 18.9 points for the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks.
Joe Johnson? Please.
In fact, it can be argued that behind James Harden, DeRozan has been the second-best shooting guard in the NBA this season. At the very least, that deserves All-NBA consideration.
First team? Let’s say Harden. Second team? Wade seems reasonable.
Third team? It's got to be No. 10
If you've watched any Raptors games, the one thing you can surely count on happening is Kyle Lowry taking a charge.
Or two, or three.
Not only that, but he’s been the catalyst of the Raptors defense, which holds opponent to 97 points per game, good for fourth-best in the NBA.
Given the team’s impressive defense and Lowry’s individual brilliance on that side of the floor, it’s easy to see why he should be considered for a spot on either the first or second NBA All-Defensive teams at the end of the season.
It won’t be easy for Lowry to make such a team; after all, he was snubbed from the All-Star Game already. But if he can keep up his charges-taken total and keep the Raptors defense in the top five or 10 of most categories, he’s got a legitimate shot.
Aiding Lowry’s case is the fact that, after him, it’s not easy to think of many other point guards who are deserving of the honor besides John Wall, who’s been a key player in the Washington Wizard’s solid defensive play.
Rajon Rondo hasn't played in enough games. Neither has Russell Westbrook. Ricky Rubio is a clever pickpocket, but nobody’s scared of the Timberwolves defense. Stephen Curry? While he’s also a gifted thief, he’s hardly the player you single out for the impressive defense of the Golden State Warriors.
Lowry is often described as a bulldog by the Raptors announcers, and rightfully so. If you want a point guard who plays hard-nosed defense, is willing to put his body in front of bigger players and crashes the boards among the trees, then he’s your man.
He’s also All-NBA defense.