Yet, the Raptors avoided a seemingly inevitable self-destruction, and they did it thanks to the league's most combustible player.
With one month left in the season, Lowry is carrying the torch for a surprising Toronto team with an Atlantic Division lead and the third-best record in the Eastern Conference (38-29). When Lowry explodes now, the only debris left in his path are overstuffed stat sheets:
With his bulldog mentality channeled to the confines of the NBA hardwood, the 27-year-old is rewriting his basketball script—and changing the course of a franchise.
He Has Matured
Prior to this season, Lowry's stubbornness had always been more gift than curse.
Just six feet tall in a league littered with giants, he'd be nowhere without an unrelenting belief in his ability. But he couldn't separate confidence from arrogance, and his first NBA stop (the Memphis Grizzlies) lasted a shade over two seasons.
"He wouldn't let Kevin coach him," Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. "Kyle's greatest strength is the bulldog in him, and when that bulldog is channeled the in (sic) right direction, he's tough to handle on the floor. And when it isn't, he's tough to handle everywhere else."
An offseason swap landed him in Toronto over the 2012 offseason.
After a mildly successful debut campaign with the Raptors (11.6 points on 40.1 percent shooting, 6.4 assists), Lowry found himself at the heart of an organization in transition. Longtime general manager Bryan Colangelo was out, and Masai Ujiri—mastermind of the Denver Nuggets' larcenous trade of Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks—was in on a five-year, nearly $15 million deal.
The first order of business for Ujiri: meeting up with his mercurial floor general.
Lowry tightly gripped that chance like a life preserver. He had no other choice.
"I told him, 'If you squander this opportunity, this is it for you,'" Detroit Pistons guard, and Lowry's roundball mentor, Chauncey Billups told Wojnarowski. "I kept telling him, 'You going go (sic) Toronto was like me going to Detroit.' That was my last real chance, and that was the case for him there now, too."
"I had to look at myself in the mirror," Lowry told Wojnarowski. "I know what people are saying now, 'Oh it's a contract year,' but it's bigger than that for me. ... But I want to win. I want to grow. And to grow, you've got to be able accept coaching. You've got to be able to be coached."
Lowry opened himself up to his coaching staff and, in turn, opened himself to maximizing his natural gifts.
Talent had never been an issue. With his past issues now left in the past, Lowry has been able to let his play do the talking.
And, boy, has it sounded sweet.
He Has All-Star Skills
The NBA's 82-game schedule is supposed to be a grind, an endless stream of physical and mental tests capable of breaking down world-class athletes.
Through the dog days of winter, players are given something of a free pass for the occasional midseason malaise. As long as January's problems are corrected by April, the thought process goes, then no harm done.
There have been no such stumbles in Lowry's season. He was strong out of the gate and has only increased his speed since.
|Charting Lowry's Monthly Statistical Climb|
"You cannot have watched a series of Raptors games this season, particularly since the Rudy Gay trade and the team's subsequent resurrection, and not intelligently conclude that he has been Toronto's most valuable player," Eric Koreen of the National Post wrote.
The numbers say he's been one of the most valuable players in the entire league.
Only five other players have more win shares than Lowry's 10.3, via Basketball-Reference.com. Those five (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry) were all All-Star starters. Lowry wasn't even selected for the game.
Perhaps fueled by the omission, he's been nothing short of brilliant since.
He's scored at least 20 points in six of his last seven games (he had 19 in the other) and tossed out nine-plus assists four different times over that stretch. He kicked off this surge with a masterful 20-point, 12-rebound, 11-assist effort, his second triple-double of the season.
As good as he's been offensively, he might be doing his best work at the opposite end:
He's held his opponent to a 14.1 player efficiency rating—league average is 15.0—on the season, via 82games.com. Players are shooting 42.5 percent against him and just 39.1 percent out of isolation plays, via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
And you won't find a tougher player out there no matter where you look.
When asked what might prevent him from playing, Lowry said simply, via Frank Zicarelli of the Toronto Sun, "Dead. Being dead. Not being able to walk."
Explosive offense, lockdown defense and insatiable toughness? Yeah, I'd say he's ready to lead a team.
Now, the Raptors need to make sure they're the ones he'll be leading.
He Still Has Room to Grow
An eight-year veteran, Lowry is proving the fallacy of prematurely labeling a player.
Yes, he brought a lot of scrutiny on himself. But he's always been a mini-mountain of untapped potential. It just took the right mindset—both from him and his employer—to bring out the best of his ability.
Could this be a conveniently timed breakout? Working on an expiring deal, it's impossible to rule that out.
"Maybe this all (sic) a contract-year facade, a salary-driven excuse for temporarily keeping Lowry on his best behavior," NBC Sports' Dan Feldman noted.
It certainly wouldn't be the first time we've seen a bank-account-filling breakthrough.
But this feels different. Lowry looks different.
He's embraced a leadership position. He's welcomed the advice of coaches, teammates and mentors. He's allowed himself to grow as a man and reaped the rewards as a player.
The Raptors are positioned to snap their five-year playoff drought, and they have the weapons to make noise in the second season. Even if their ceiling is capped at a second-round appearance, they'll leave an imprint on the postseason picture. Whoever eliminates this team will have to earn it.
As for what happens next, that's up to Lowry and Ujiri to decide. Lowry is raking in $6.2 million this season, via ShamSports.com, and looks primed for a substantial raise on the open market.
Ujiri must figure out how high he's willing to go. The basement for Lowry's next salary sits somewhere around $8 million; the ceiling stretches out to eight figures.
Ujiri still needs to build his talent base, but it will be awfully hard to let Lowry walk after a year like this:
Lowry has always been a unique player. Now, he's simply special.
If the Raptors are searching for a leader, Lowry is a perfect place to start.