Kyle Lowry Could Make Toronto An NBA Finals Dark Horse

By just about any measure, the last three seasons have been the best time to root for the Toronto Raptors in their 20-year history. The Vince Carter era was thrilling but brief, and Chris Bosh’s dinos never quite realized their potential. Since 2013-14, however, the Raptors’ winning percentage has hovered around 60 percent, and their efficiency differential has been roughly 3.5 points per 100 possessions — numbers that those previous runs only approached in spurts.For all that success, however, Toronto has had trouble making any kind of dent come playoff time. As my ESPN colleague Zach Lowe wrote about Tuesday, each of the team’s past two postseasons ended with a first-round exit, and although the Raptors were upset both times — implying they had the talent to potentially go further — 49-win teams don’t typically vie for NBA championships anyway.1There are rare exceptions, but even conditional on making it past the first round of the playoffs, only 13 percent of teams that won 48 to 50 games in a season went on to the NBA Finals. If this season’s version of the club is basically the same, expecting different results would be irrational.These Raptors, however, have a secret weapon that their predecessors lacked: skinny Kyle Lowry.Technically speaking, this is Lowry’s fourth season with Toronto; he even logged the second-most minutes of any Raptor during the failed playoff runs of 2014 and 2015. But that version of Lowry was — how can we say it? — less svelte, and far less productive. By Box Plus/Minus (BPM), Lowry’s 2014-15 season was the worst he’d had in four years. This season, though, Lowry profiles like a top-five player according to the advanced metrics. And his sudden improvement could finally give Toronto the star power necessary to truly compete for a championship.Lowry’s evolving gameBefore this season, Lowry appeared to be on an evolutionary arc many players go through, trading a higher usage rate for less efficient scoring. In his rise as one of the game’s best guards, he’d once ranked in at least the 70th percentile of NBA players in both true shooting percentage and usage. That isn’t an easy thing to do. But last season, Lowry seemed to have surpassed the workload at which he could maintain a reasonable level of efficiency — a situation exacerbated by the banged-up state he found himself in as the season progressed. As a result, his offensive numbers dipped: He settled for more midrange shots and drew fewer fouls; he ran the pick-and-roll less often (and less efficiently); and over the course of the season, he struggled with his jump shot in a way he hadn’t for years.Although Lowry was pretty clearly not being himself, the Raptors won the Atlantic Division and locked up the No. 4 seed in the East. But the team was also unceremoniously swept by Washington, a series in which Lowry kept a high usage but saw his efficiency completely collapse. This seemed like a bad sign.Perhaps even more troubling, it was getting harder to find evidence that Lowry — a player with a good two-way reputation — was still among the league’s best defensive guards. Going into last season, he’d ranked up around the 80th percentile of NBA guards in defensive BPM over his career — a ranking corroborated by play-by-play plus/minus metrics and tracking data from Synergy Sports Technology — numbers underpinned by smart, bruising pick-and-roll defense. But in 2014-15, Lowry’s defensive indicators offered mixed messages. Although he still gave the Raptors’ defense a boost while on the floor, the team was also significantly worse defensively than it had been the previous season, and Lowry often looked slow, clunky and, at times, indifferent when trying to fight through ball screens. So this season should be encouraging for Raptors fans, at least by this metric. But after years of watching Chris Paul-led teams underachieve in the playoffs, it’s fair to ask whether this algorithm oversells the title chances for a point guard-driven squad. And as it happens, controlling for the entire skill set of a team’s best player, we found a slight tendency for teams led by players with a lot of value tied up in passing to perform worse in the postseason than we’d expect from their BPM. This could be due to any number of causes — from defenses keying in on passing patterns in a long playoff series to the way a playmaker’s value is only maximized when complemented by other skills (or perhaps it’s just random noise) — but it’s one (albeit minor) reason to consider lowering expectations for Lowry.Except that this season, Lowry’s game has been extremely well-rounded — he ranks in at least the 78th percentile of all NBA players in scoring efficiency, possession usage, assist rate and defensive BPM. Historically, teams whose best players excel in the first and last of those categories tend to exceed expectations in the playoffs at a rate far greater than any penalty that’s levied against passers.Of course, all of this presumes that Lowry’s overhauled game is legit. He’s currently 29 years old, an age at which NBA players are typically already on the downside of their careers, not metamorphosing into championship-caliber stars. Also, there was little in Lowry’s preseason CARMELO projection (our statistical crystal ball for NBA careers) to suggest an imminent breakout, aside from the late-blooming presence of Steve Nash on the fringe of his comparables list. An optimistic look at his strongest CARMELO comps suggested that he might pull a Rod Strickland and stay productive into his mid-30s; a less rosy one saw the possibility of flaming out far sooner, like Michael Adams and Derek Harper. So it’s entirely possible that Lowry will regress toward his previous career norms in the season’s second half.But given the particulars of Lowry’s skill set, and the ways in which he’s corrected his deficiencies of a season ago, it’s also very possible that if his caloric intake doesn’t regress, neither will his output.The question of whether Lowry’s teammates are good enough to support a championship run is still very much open. And even if they are, Lowry may have timed his improvement poorly, elevating his play during a season with two abnormally dominant teams that are soaking up all the league’s title odds. But Lowry’s sudden upgrade to the NBA’s elite class of players gives the Raptors a superstar the likes of which they’ve never had before. At the very least, they now possess a crucial element that was missing from the team’s recent string of good-but-not-good-enough campaigns. The new, slimmed-down version of Lowry has been quicker afoot and more focused in his pursuit of ballhandlers around and through screens, forcing more turnovers and fouling less as a result.2015-16: It’s likely no coincidence that Toronto’s opponents are scoring at a rate of nearly 4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Lowry on the court than they did a season ago. In fact, Lowry’s rehabilitation has been so complete that the Raptors now rank among the league’s top 10 teams at both ends of the floor and he has risen to full-blown MVP candidate status.You’re only as good as your best playerIt’s no secret that there’s a distinct relationship between a team’s championship probability and the quality of its best player, but it takes a truly exceptional player to make a run at a title. In the past, Lowry hasn’t been good enough to move that needle, but this season’s version is inching into the territory where small individual improvements can drastically upgrade a team’s chances of winning a championship.We’d expect a team being led by Lowry at his previous career-high BPM of +5.9 to win the title about 5 percent of the time; at this season’s +7.2 mark, those odds are doubled, to 10 percent. (Not even Carter in his prime led Toronto with a BPM so high.) Add in a decent supporting cast — and it’s debatable as to whether Toronto has one of those, particularly with DeMarre Carroll on ice, but let’s entertain the notion anyway — and suddenly the idea of a championship parade down Bay Street doesn’t seem quite so pie-in-the-sky. This season, Lowry has made course corrections at both ends of the floor. Although his usage continues to grow, his scoring efficiency has bounced back, in part because of smarter shot selection. He’s once again devoting fewer shots to the midrange, allowing his rates of taking threes and drawing fouls to return to their historical norms, and he’s been faster and more aggressive in the transition game as well. On defense, you can really see the effects of Lowry’s offseason weight loss. Last season, Lowry frequently failed when trying to use his strength to fight through screens (both on the ball and off), ceded too many easy buckets on pick-and-rolls and was generally slow to recover when he guessed wrong or his gambles didn’t pay off.2014-15: read more

JD Martinez Doesnt Need The Green Monster

Mookie Betts413995.1 For a righty power hitter on the Red Sox, it’s pretty unheard of for only 22 percent of his Fenway home runs to sail over the Green Monster. Going back to 2009,1The earliest season of statistics available in ESPN’s Stats & Information Group’s database. 385 of the 456 homers hit by right-handed Red Sox hitters were sent over the Monster, good for a rate of 84 percent. That number was slightly lower (81 percent) for visiting righty hitters at Fenway, which perhaps speaks to the aforementioned strategy of Boston seeking out pull-happy right-handed sluggers. But it’s also much higher than the 75 percent rate of righty homers to the same left and left-center area at every other park, which is further evidence that the Monster attracts long balls from pretty much all righty hitters — except, apparently, J.D. Martinez.And some of Boston’s most prolific home run hitters went to left even more than the overall Red Sox average. Adrian Beltre hit 11 of his 13 Fenway homers (85 percent) toward the Green Monster during his sole season in Boston. Dustin Pedroia, who’s hit more homers at Fenway than any other righty since 2009, launched 88 percent of his Fenway homers to left in that span. (Incidentally, Martinez already has as many non-Monster home runs at Fenway as Pedroia has tallied there since ’09.) Betts and fellow righty Xander Bogaerts have combined for 72 career home runs at Fenway, and only four of those blasts (two apiece) weren’t over the Monster.Even David Ortiz, a lefty with such a reputation for pulling the ball that he faced constant infield shifts, hit 21 percent of his Fenway homers from 2009 to 2016 over the Green Monster. In that context, Martinez’s 22 percent figure is downright stupefying. Adrian Beltre131184.6 Home runs Bill Hall8787.5 Jonny Gomes9888.9 Mike Lowell151493.3 Marco Scutaro99100.0 Kevin Youkilis322681.3 Xander Bogaerts312993.5 Mike Napoli261869.2 Hanley Ramirez392769.2 Martinez isn’t making much use of the Monster yetShare of right-handed Red Sox batters’ home runs that went over the Green Monster at Fenway Park, 2009-18 PlayerTotalOver Green MonsterShare of Total All Red Sox RHBs45638584.4 Dustin Pedroia605388.3% Obviously, it’s still quite early in Martinez’s Boston career; he’s only logged 22 games at Fenway Park as a member of the home team thus far. (And he didn’t hit any home runs at Fenway in the seven games he played as a member of the visiting Detroit Tigers.) It probably won’t be long before he finds himself crushing a ball or two out onto Lansdowne Street.But by the same token, Martinez will probably never rival Betts or Pedroia in terms of his tendency to go over the Green Monster. Even before this season, Martinez was the game’s pre-eminent opposite-field power hitter; from 2014 to 2017, he led all MLB batters (righty or lefty) in home runs hit the other way, with 37 opposite-field shots. (No. 2 was fellow righty Miguel Cabrera, at 30; no lefty had more than Chris Davis’s 20.) And that represents a pretty big change in the archetype for a right-handed Red Sox slugger — one who’ll make use of the entirety of Fenway’s peculiar dimensions, rather than always just taking aim at the enticingly close wall in left field.Going to right will, no doubt, ultimately cost him some home runs, as Boston features one of the majors’ deepest right-field power alleys. But it hasn’t seemed to matter yet, at least not the way Martinez is swinging the bat right now. More so than perhaps any other team, the Red Sox have always coveted righty power bats who pull the ball; it’s about time they had one who spreads his souvenirs around to the rest of the park. When the Boston Red Sox signed free agent slugger J.D. Martinez this past offseason, it looked like a match made in baseball heaven. As a right-handed power hitter who’d recently embraced MLB’s fly-ball revolution — to great effect — Martinez fit perfectly into one of the Sox’s longest-standing narratives for building around the quirks of Fenway Park: that the team needs righty mashers to take advantage of the short 310-foot distance to the Green Monster in left field. It’s a strategy that, at times, Boston has been guilty of obsessing over too much — but it still holds a certain logic, given that about half of all home runs at Fenway are hit to left field by right-handed batters.So with Martinez currently sitting one home run behind teammate (and fellow righty) Mookie Betts for the major league lead in dingers, you might think it’s just another case of marital bliss between a right-handed slugger and his favorite 37-foot-tall green fence. Except Martinez has barely taken advantage of Fenway’s looming left-field wall so far. He’s only hit three of his 15 total homers this season to left, period, and only two have been at home. Compare that with the seven dingers he’s hit to the other sectors of Fenway Park, including this one he tucked around the Pesky Pole in right field on Sunday: Mike Aviles9888.9 Jason Bay151173.3 Cody Ross131292.3 Batters listed by name had a minimum of eight home runs at Fenway. Totals for all right-handed Red Sox batters include players not listed here.Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group J.D. Martinez9222.2 Will Middlebrooks141285.7 Darnell McDonald8787.5 Jason Varitek9888.9 read more