Kyle Lowry, right, was supposed to unseat Jose Calderon, but Toronto is better without its new PG.
The list of NBA players averaging 15 points, five rebounds and five assists is just three names long. Two, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, are franchise cornerstones and perennial All-NBA selections. The other, Kyle Lowry, may have lost his starting job and will come off the bench Friday night in his return from a torn right tricep muscle.
Despite Lowry’s impressive production, Raptors coach Dwane Casey is sticking with veteran point guard Jose Calderon, who averaged 13 points and 10.6 assists per game while leading the 9-20 Raptors to a 5-2 record in Lowry's stead. During those seven games, the Raptors posted an offensive rating (107.9) and defensive rating (101.5) that would both be in the top 10 for the season.
“Jose has earned the position,” Casey told reporters. “Jose has played as well as any point guard we’ve had this year, so that’s where it is right now."
During the hot streak, Casey has often publicly credited Calderon's leadership with helping Toronto's young roster to play smarter ball.
"He’s our Peyton Manning," Casey told Grantland's Brett Koremenos. "As far as our quarterback on the floor, our eyes and ears, our leader, he’ll call out the opposing team’s plays [and] come back to the bench to give us a heads up."
Calderon is indeed one of the most enthusiastic gesturers in the NBA. He's constantly yelling through his mouthpiece and emotively waving his arms to get everyone in the right spot.
Under his direction, the team has played with a previously absent sense of cohesiveness and intensity on both ends of the court. While it's not necessarily shocking that Calderon, long one of the best in the league when it comes to directing an offense, has helped the Raptors score, he has a reputation for helping the other team’s offense nearly as much. But Casey's words suggest that the chemistry fostered on offense has translated to more effort and communication on the defensive end.
That may be true, though it’s hard to ignore that Andrea Bargnani and his inert, disinterested brand of defense have also been absent during the Raptors’ recent run of solid play. Meanwhile Lowry, though he hasn’t been as feisty and engaged as in previous seasons, is a player who made his name in the NBA as a lock-down defender before emerging as a solid starting point guard in Houston.
And it was in Houston where Lowry first lost his starting job while injured, when Goran Dragic took his spot midway through last season. By the time Lowry was traded for Toronto, it was clear he was fed up with his role in Houston and wanted to be treated more like his statistical counterparts James and Westbrook. As he told the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Fiegan last May, "I think I’m still a foundation guy. You can build around me."
In an interview with Raptors.com before the season, Lowry also said that he wouldn’t have wanted to come to Toronto if the Raptors had signed Steve Nash. “I wanted to be the starter,” Lowry explained. “[Nash is] a great guy to learn from, I’d have been a professional, but I didn’t want it.”
Lowry has put up the numbers, even in Toronto, to warrant such a high self-appraisal. His 2012-13 PER of 20.5 is good for sixth among point guards. But franchise players aren't just talented in their own right; they should make their teammates better, too.
That's where Casey sees Calderon's real value. He told the Toronto Star's Doug Smith that Calderon is “one of the main reasons why Terrence Ross has progressed at the right pace. He’s quarterbacked him, talked him through situations and really been a mentor for him on the court.”
Contrast that statement with what Casey said to Smith about the Raptors’ struggles before Calderon took over: “I thought we tried to do a little bit too much individually and once we honed in and started moving the ball, making the extra pass … setting screens, helping each other on the defensive end and the offensive end, we became a better team.”
When Lowry came to Toronto, it seemed the Raptors had found their point guard of the future. A nasty defender and effective pick-and-roll scorer, Lowry looked like the perfect pairing for rookie big man Jonas Valanciunas and wing slashers like DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. At 26 years old, Lowry is entering his prime as a point guard just as Calderon (31) is exiting his. Even their contracts line up -- Calderon is in the last year of his deal and Lowry’s next year is unguaranteed.
Lowry, the 24th overall pick in 2006, got this far by scrapping his way past players who were drafted higher than him and made more money. He had to prove himself every step of the way, by going after the opposing team’s ball handler and looking for his shot off of pick-and-rolls. In a way, he has been conditioned to be a bit selfish for fear of losing his position.
But to truly arrive as his franchise's point guard, he may need to temper those same instincts and focus more on how he can make his teammates better. To earn the security of a long-term contract with the Raptors, he has to play like he already has it.