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Changing of the Guard: The Raptors’ Star Duo Has Evolved, and It’s Driving the Team’s Title Hopes

After years of doing the same thing and expecting different results, Toronto has made minor adjustments that have produced major results. Tweaking the DeRozan-Lowry power dynamic might be the most important of all.

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The regular season has become a coronation for the Raptors. In case you haven’t already been inundated by reports of their modernization: They have changed their entire franchise outlook by embracing the 3 and sharing the ball. It’s a huge shift from the way they played before, but there is an even more elemental turn in the team’s dynamic: how their two stars, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, function in coach Dwane Casey’s system.

For their first five years as a tandem, DeRozan and Lowry have been more or less thought of as a single unit. The best duos in NBA history have often been propped up by drama, whether it was on-court, off-court, or imagined. All these years later, Shaq and Kobe seem to define the greatness of their eight-year Lakers run through the lens of their toxic antagonism. In stereotypical Canadian fashion, the DeRozan-Lowry partnership has been refreshing in its low-stakes, buddy-comedy approach to alpha-dog dynamics. They do joint press conferences with their adorable children. They incessantly clown each other in front of the camera in ways that never felt forced. Even their natural instincts as basketball players complemented one another.

Together, it seemed, they combined to form one complete star: the player who could pick up the pace and hit a backbreaking pull-up 3 pointer in transition, the player who could rise up and fade for a basket in tight quarters at any moment. They needed each other, and Toronto needed both of them. On those nights when neither player could establish rhythm, watching the Raptors was like watching a plow try to maneuver in a flood.

DeRozan was ostensibly the face of the franchise, the Raptors lifer who grew exponentially largely in the shadows and emerged as one of the most important figures in franchise history. Lowry, however, was the team’s undisputed engine. As the Raptors rose in the Eastern ranks, the team could not function without him. Lowry, who had stops in Memphis and Houston before joining Toronto in 2012, was second in minutes per game in both 2015-16 and 2016-17. His net ratings in those two seasons were at least twice those of DeRozan. But all those minutes spent keeping the team afloat wore on him by the time the playoffs started. He never looked right in opening Game 1s.

The Raptors in the DeRozan-Lowry era have been susceptible to preconceived notions about who they are as a team and, specifically, who they are in the postseason. Lowry has shot a combined 14-for-52 (26.9 percent) from the field in the four playoff openers he’s competed in as a Raptor, and that percentage is buoyed by his first in 2014; he hasn’t shot better than 23 percent in any of the past three. When a first impression takes hold, it’s hard to shake. The 2-for-11 outing he had in Game 1 against the Bucks last season turned out to be an outlier; he was remarkably efficient in every other game he played. But for years, there was a creeping resignation that the Raptors’ engine would invariably act up when they needed it most.

DeRozan’s predilection for slowing down the game and crafting the perfect midrange fadeaway couldn’t save Toronto if its best player was going to turn into a pumpkin at the same time every year. Besides, DeRozan’s inefficiency was just as troubling: reticence from the 3-point line in the regular season became outright refusal in the playoffs. The Raptors can’t be who they want to be without their two best players performing at their best concurrently. We’ve yet to see them pull that off deep into the playoffs. Preconceived notions are unfair, but they calcify around a team like the Raptors for a reason.

The shorthand for the Raptors’ paradigm shift this season is: They’ve evolved. The longhand would double as a list of reasons Dwane Casey will win Coach of the Year at the end of the season. Intrateam dynamics have changed: DeRozan and Lowry have near identical on-court net ratings now. One of the most effective lineups that the Raptors trotted out last season was Lowry surrounded by reserves; this season, it’s DeRozan and four players off the bench. Lowry is playing the fewest minutes per game since his first season as a Raptor in 2012-13. He’s receded to the background, content to allow his young backups, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, to take on as much as they can handle. It’s hard to argue that these are the same old Raptors when your best player can become just another cog in the machine—and the machine thrives as a result. It feels as though this is by design: Lowry is averaging 16.2 points in 32.1 minutes per game, both figures the lowest they’ve been in five years. He’s not only lowered expectations for himself in the playoffs, but he’s also opened the door to inverting the trend that has defined his postseason career. What if the high(ish)-usage, high-efficiency player he’s been for years shows up with fresh legs in May instead of January?

Lowry’s slow fade has allowed DeRozan, long maligned as the symbol of everything backward with the team, to suddenly emerge as the face of Toronto’s current revolution. He’s gone from being an anachronism to a wing with a 2018 starter kit of skills without betraying the identity he’s cultivated over the past decade. He still thrives in the midrange, but the head of steam he can now take into a play has opened up avenues he’d never seen in the past.

The symbolism of DeRozan’s season is powerful. Would the Raptors have a legitimate MVP candidate if the team hadn’t leaned into its narrative of modernization? (Neither DeRozan nor Lowry has ever placed higher than 10th in MVP voting.) If the Raptors are in the ballpark of 65 wins, it wouldn’t be difficult to envision DeRozan finishing in the top five in MVP voting. But in a bit of irony, his MVP odds say more about the team than they do about him as a player. DeRozan was voted third team All-NBA last season; even with the overall improvements he’s made to his game, it’s hard to imagine him climbing that particular ladder.

Keeping up with trends, as DeMar is learning, is a never-ending process. DeRozan has more than doubled his 3-point attempts per game since last season, at 3.6, and since the start of 2018, he has been attempting 4.4 3-pointers per game. That’s the same rate as Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez, two floorbound 7-footers who similarly had to push their boundaries on the court in order to stay relevant. In other words, DeRozan’s metamorphosis into a willing long-range shooter is more commensurate to a modern center than a modern wing.

The Raptors will take it; the precise number of attempts was never as important as the mentality it requires to take that many. DeRozan will enter the postseason with a comfort level from behind the arc that he’s never had before. That alone changes matchups. That alone could decide a game or two.

The story of this season’s Raptors isn’t one of sweeping makeovers; it’s one of small revelations incrementally accepted as truth. It’s a season of bargaining between the inherent skepticism that comes with this team and honest-to-goodness change. It’s not a tension that will make their potential NBA Finals run any less of a ratings disaster for ABC, but that isn’t the point. If the Raptors are capable of becoming this team, maybe the public will move past its own rigid ideals about their ceiling. Maybe the Raptors are, in fact, as good as they look.