BY HENRY ABBOTT
In this year’s playoffs, we’ve seen a tale of two Raptors: the team with Kyle Lowry and the team without. If you watch every second Lowry has been on the floor, you’ll see a Toronto cakewalk. They have a shot at a title outscoring opponents by eight points per 100 possessions. If, on the other hand, you watch the minutes Lowry has been on the bench, it’s just about a tie, and the Raptors are not elite at all.
This might be surprising for a player who—when you mash his box-score stats together into PER, emerges as the 57th best player in the NBA this season (somewhere beneath Marquese Chriss, D’Angelo Russell, and Dwight Howard). It’s less surprising if you look at any team-performance based stat. Real Plus-Minus ranks 400 or so NBA players every season. This year, Lowry finished sixth overall, ahead of players like Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, and Anthony Davis. And it’s no outlier. By that same measure, Lowry’s average finish over the last five years had been fourth in the entire league.
The thing is, we tend to measure basketball performance with things we are used to tracking, like points and rebounds. Kyle Lowry is OK at those things, and was great in Game 6.
But if he’s a top five or 10 NBA player at winning, while being only OK at those easy-to-measure things … he must be a genius at the other things, which we often mistakenly call little things.
How tall is Kyle Lowry really? He is listed at 6-foot-nothing; many players’ heights are inflated. Often you can find accurate heights from the draft combine measurements, and you can for most of Lowry’s 2006 draft classmates, but Lowry wasn’t measured.
So we are left to guess. One guy who worked with him jokingly refers to him as 5-9. A guy who hung out with him at a wedding felt Lowry was maybe 5-11, tops. Internet message boards point out he’s no taller than a standard talk-show host.
It’s hard to be short in the NBA, but there are some workarounds. For instance:
Long arms. (David Epstein’s research for The Sports Gene finds long arms to be a defining way NBA players are not like us. Most people’s reach is about the same as their height. In the NBA the average is 105 percent of height.)
Unfortunately, as an NBA prospect in 2006, Lowry struck out on all three.
The Lowry scouting reports noted remarkably short arms.
He is so unexplosive a jumper that the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen pointed out that Lowry made the All-Star team in 2015 without completing a single dunk.
And as for his shooting ability … in 2007, David Thorpe trained players on the campus at IMG (where WNBA players are now in the wubble). Why, Thorpe asked, was every single one of the good NBA balls chipped? Had they been used outside? No, came the reply. Kyle Lowry was here last summer. We shot a ton of corner 3s. He can’t shoot for shit, and hit the side of the backboard so much he damaged every single ball.
An undersized player, without elite athleticism, who had to work hard to become an NBA-grade shooter … is a longshot to make an NBA team.
And yet, he was always elite in plus/minus statistics—at Villanova where he often played power forward, for the Memphis Grizzlies where he was the injured third-string point guard averaging as many fouls as buckets, when he was on the bench as a Rocket, and especially once he learned how to shoot 3-pointers.
How in the hell did he do that?
A regular NBA game has about 90 shots per team, or 180 all together. Let’s say, generously, each shot takes about two seconds (a period of time that also includes almost every rebound and assist too). That’s 360 seconds, or a nice tidy six minutes, that overwhelm the box score. Those six minutes make almost every highlight, GIF, and meme from the sport. The players who excel in those six minutes make the most money, have the biggest endorsement deals, and are must-gets for your fantasy team.
Meanwhile, two teams x five players x 48 minutes means a game is 480 minutes of work. Six minutes is 1.25 percent of the time. That massive 98.75 percent of the game is “little things.”
Chris Bosh told me that even now, in retirement, he has a hard time turning it off. If he’s in a coffee shop, he’s tracking everybody. Once an elite defender, always an elite defender. He knows who’s moving from the left, how many people are at the window, where the drink might spill.
The game of defense is in one way easy. You have to ask: “Where is the ball?” “Where is your man?” “Where do you need to be?”
But the bummer is, you have to ask yourself all these things more than once, as the play develops. How much? In the estimation of one longtime basketball executive, the ideal number of times to ask yourself these questions is two to three times per second. For a whole career.
Theory: Kyle Lowry’s neurological processing is just faster. He does this little drill—assess, react, assess, react—as many times per minute as anyone.
It’s tough to notice, but not impossible. Did you catch what happened at the end of regulation in Game 6? With mere seconds on the clock and the game on the line, a crowd of players taller than Lowry jumped to fight for a season-defining rebound. By the time they landed on the floor, six hands were holding the ball, and four of those were Celtic hands. One of the referees signaled a jump ball.
But watch again. The first player to grab that rebound was Lowry’s teammate OG Anunoby who spent … however long it takes to land from jumping … with sole possession of the ball. As it all took place, Lowry was at the peak of his not-too-high jump. Only in slow-motion can you really notice that before landing, Lowry made eye contact with the referee and used his hands to make the timeout symbol three times.
That’s not something that would show up to the box score, but it is Raptors ball in a tie game.
Kyle Lowry is the drum major of the NBA’s marching band of elite neurological processing.
What can you do when your brain processes better, more often, and faster? I called around to NBA contacts:
As opponents settle back on defense, often a player will turn to the bench to get instructions from the coach, or stall for a moment in confusion, sorting out the coverage. Lowry often flies to the free-throw line, assessing every gesture, looking to pounce should there be a defender who has a moment of not defending. This isn’t super rare—Russell Westbrook does this too—but what is rare is that if there’s nothing going on, Westbrook will shoot a crappy jumper, while Lowry will pass the ball back out and run a high-percentage play.
Lowry doesn’t just scan the floor for all ten players, he also scans for the three referees. If he jumps and the ball sails over his smallish hands to a bigger opponent behind him, Lowry merely has to pitch forward and—if the referee is in the right place—it’ll look just like poor little referee-sized Kyle was shoved in the back by a giant.
One source notes that Lowry (like the Celtics’ Marcus Smart) hits the floor so violently—sometimes you hear his head hit wood—that it seems like it must have been a foul. It’s next-level flopping.
He might not be an elite athlete, but everyone notes his powerful posterior and useful low center of gravity. One source called him a “Tiny Barkley.” He uses these in many ways, including to “sit” on the leg of the other team’s best rebounding big man when the ball goes up. This leads to Raptors rebounds that would never be attributed to Lowry.
Because he generally knows where the three referees are and what they are likely to be seeing in the moment, he often knows when he can get away with a foul. It’s not especially clever in the video above that he simply grabs deadly shooters like Stephen Curry or JJ Redick as they’re trying to get open. It is especially clever that he didn’t get whistled for it. That’s not just luck; One of the NBA’s most physical players averages just 2.7 fouls per game over his career.
A couple of years ago, Kyle Lowry told ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz about a move—he’d dish the ball to his big man, and grab the arm of that man’s defender so his defense would be impaired. Lowry had noticed, through the years, that for whatever reason referees seldom call that foul, which results in an artificially clean look for the Raptors. Lowry did the move enough he had a name for it: the dish and grab.
They have a contest to celebrate the box score guys, the high scorers. It’s called the All-Star Game. They also have a contest to celebrate the “little things” guys: It’s called the playoffs.
You’re not alone if you struggle to notice all the things players like Lowry make. In many ways, Lowry is only here because advanced plus/minus statistics noticed things the naked eye can miss. That’s precisely why the Rockets sought the Grizzlies’ injury-prone, terrible-shooting third-string point guard and, over time, traded away the players in front of him. Advanced stats proponent Sam Hinkie—a key executive of the Rockets at the time—has said that Lowry and Chuck Hayes (another undersized elite defender) were his favorite Rockets.
The geeks are why Lowry is a well-paid Raptor right now. Arnovitz reports:
When Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri arrived in Toronto in the spring of 2013, he inherited a core that included Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas. With the team coming off a 34-48 season, Ujiri needed to quickly evaluate his personnel and identify where value resided on the roster.
Although Lowry is now a five-time All-Star — a streak that started in 2015 — little about his worth was self-evident in the 2013 offseason. In 2012-13, Lowry averaged 11.6 points per game while shooting 40.1 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from beyond the arc. He was a good rebounder and put up decent assist numbers, but Lowry wasn't preternaturally athletic, and his range was merely acceptable.
"When I first got the job, the analytics guys came to me to tell me how much Kyle affects winning," Ujiri says. "They made me understand."
One NBA source suggests that Lowry is like a scientist, conducting repeated experiments to see how referees and defenses react. By this point in his career, he has collected a lot of data.
Theory: Over time, playing with someone who is tough as hell and notices everything makes you want to work harder, so you don’t let him down, or because you love that guy. Of course it was Lowry who noticed when a sheriff’s deputy picked a fight with Ujiri.
“A guy like that shouldn't be a part of our league. Being honest with you. That's my personal opinion. That's just how I feel,” Lowry said last summer, after a billionaire investor in the Warriors shoved him and cursed at him. “It definitely could have gone bad.”
We know a lot about the need to restore Black dignity in the face of white aggression. The messaging is beyond tricky. Lowry carries centuries of history with him, and faced a billionaIre with connections to the commissioner. It would have been expedient to drop it. it would have been understandable to scream. Instead, Lowry said: “I'm bigger than him as a person. My kids are more important to me than he is to me. So I have to make sure that I always think for my kids first, and that's what it's all about.”
The Raptors play better when Kyle Lowry is on the court, because he does things that are hard to measure.
Game 7 is tonight.
Thank you for reading TrueHoop! Join us for BRING IT IN at 11 am ET Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.