According to the Toronto Raptors, Kyle Lowry, their best and most important player, will undergo wrist surgery to "remove loose bodies" on Tuesday morning. The procedure will sideline him for at least one month and dampen any momentum the team had coming out of the All-Star break.
Lowry has missed Toronto's last three games with this injury. The Raptors have won all three, but Monday's victory didn't come without concerns. They trailed the lowly New York Knicks by 13 at halftime and it took 37 points, a monster fourth quarter and a game-winning fadeaway all from DeMar DeRozan to walk away with a 92-91 win.
As arguably the most complete point guard in the Eastern Conference, Lowry's absence over any extended stretch could have catastrophic consequences for an organization that finally loaded up for a run at the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Raptors filled their starting-power-forward-sized hole by trading Terrence Ross and a first-round pick to the Orlando Magic for Serge Ibaka on Valentine’s Day. Then at the trade deadline, they added P.J. Tucker, a versatile wing defender who can add some physicality to an otherwise passive set of perimeter defenders. These are nice additions that mean nothing without a healthy starting backcourt.
Not only is the three-time All-Star the heart of this team, but Lowry is also playing the best basketball of his life. He’s shooting 41.7 percent beyond the arc and averaging 22.8 points per game (both career highs). ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus tool ranks him as the second-best point guard in the NBA right now, ahead of Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry.
The Raptors have outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions with Lowry on the floor, and when he sits they’re outscored by 3.5 points per 100 possessions, which is the lowest margin on the team, per NBA.com. He’s a feisty, versatile defender who never stops running around, forcing defenses (and offenses) to worry where he is at all times.
As of Monday afternoon, Toronto sits just behind the Washington Wizards at fourth place in the standings. They’re 2.5 games up on the Atlanta Hawks (currently in fifth) and five games up on the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers.
If surgery goes well and Lowry faces no setbacks on his current timetable, he could return during a four-game home stretch in the last week of March. That’d keep him out of 15-18 games, which probably isn’t long enough for the Raptors to slide below the fifth seed.
But any dream of chasing the Wizards and Celtics for the second or third seed is all but out the window, and that’s devastating. If we assume the Cleveland Cavaliers will stiff-arm all three teams and continue to sit at the top of the conference, Toronto will have to square off against the defending champions in the second round instead of the Eastern Conference Finals, if they can't move up from where they currently are.
Even getting out of the first round isn’t a guarantee considering: A) Lowry may not be 100 percent by then, and B) he won’t have enough reps under his belt to solidify chemistry with Ibaka and Tucker.
But it’s also not like the Raptors are forced to play 4-on-5 because Lowry hurt himself. Cory Joseph is a capable floor general and sophomore Delon Wright scored 11 points in 15 minutes against the Blazers on Sunday night. Dwane Casey officially lost his "Lowry+bench" five-man spark plug when Ross was dealt for Ibaka, but necessity is the mother of invention, and Toronto’s head coach may discover new hyper-versatile lineups that feature Norm Powell, DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson in extended minutes.
DeRozan should have the ball in his hands even more, and his ability to make plays for others will be tested. Toronto’s lackluster defense has been a sticking point all year, but figuring out a way to generate efficient offense when DeRozan isn't on the court is its new priority.
Even with a healthy Lowry in tow, only Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins have a higher usage rate than the All-Star starter, per Basketball-Reference.com. Those responsibilities rocket up to a ridiculous 41 percent when Lowry isn’t by his side, per NBA.com, and despite two incredible individual performances over Toronto’s last two games, the 27-year-old isn’t the same threat without the franchise point guard scrambling around.
DeRozan is 11.5 percent more accurate in the restricted area when Lowry is also on the court. The percentage of his field-goal attempts that are unassisted rises 13.2 percent, too. The temptation to lean on their leading scorer over the next month will be huge, but that’s not the ideal prologue for a team with lofty postseason expectations.
All it does is increase the risk for another critical injury; the Raptors’ already-microscopic odds of winning it all will flatline if either Lowry or DeRozan aren’t 100 percent healthy at the same time in a couple months. DeRozan's minutes are something to watch.
And if Lowry's wrist surgery is indeed a nail in the coffin for the 2016-17 season, what will it mean for the organization going forward?
Lowry turns 31 on March 25 (right around a potential return date) and currently leads the league in minutes per game. He’s also an unrestricted free agent this summer, and Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri will have a difficult decision to make that relates to how competitive he wants the Raptors to be over the next few years. Should Ujiri offer a five-year maximum contract to a player who’s potentially on the precipice of a dramatic decline?
Ibaka and Patterson are also free agents in line for major raises this summer, and making everyone happy will lock the Raptors into a good-but-not-championship-level-great situation at a cost that dramatically exceeds the luxury tax for the next couple seasons.
It's unclear how this wrist surgery will affect Ujiri’s thinking. Maybe the seemingly impossible happens and it propels the Raptors on an unlikely winning streak. If so, Lowry can kiss that five-year megadeal goodbye. But the Raptors aren't in a great position to rebuild on the fly, and losing one of the best players in the league without having the resources to replace him would potentially land them on the treadmill of mediocrity.
It’s a difficult situation for all involved, but that doesn’t mean Toronto should panic in the short term and rush Lowry back ahead of schedule, even if it is free-falling in the standings. The Wizards are on a two-game losing streak and have a critical back-to-back against the Raptors later this week. Win those two and Toronto may be able to doggie paddle its way to the three seed, a second-round date against the Celtics and a slightly easier path to Round 3.
But even it they falls Wednesday and Friday, all Toronto can do is use the next month as a learning experience—an inopportune time to evaluate what the Raptors are and who they have that can help keep them alive. Life without Lowry won’t be pretty, but it’s not the end of the world for a team that probably wasn’t going to win it all anyway.