Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: Kyle Lowry is a playoff problem

Have you heard the quiet whispers? The low murmuring of concern that, when it comes to the playoffs, Kyle Lowry might not be up for the challenge. If so, take that wad of cotton out of your ears because it’s more of a deafening roar than a quiet whisper.

Kyle Lowry, ostensibly Toronto’s second-best player, is averaging just 12.5 points per game in the second round against Philadelphia, shooting 38 percent from the field and 20 percent on 3-pointers. This is part of an unfortunately long history of playoff underperformance and, with the Raptors immediate future hinging on their ability to convince Kawhi Leonard to stay, his struggles are especially problematic, even if they don’t keep Toronto from advancing in this series.

The Raptors were able to steal Game 4 and even their series with the 76ers and Lowry, ostensibly, showed up in this game. But with DRE, a linear weights metric measure bulk production on a single-game basis, we can put that “showing up” in context and see just what his playoff track record really looks like.

Lowry’s 14-point, 7-assist, 6-rebound performance in Game 4 measured out with a DRE of 6.6. By that measure, it was almost exactly an average playoff performance for him. However, it would only rank in the 37th percentile of compared to the DRE marks for all of his regular season games going back to the 2013-14 season.

And that’s the issue. Every player has it a bit tougher in the playoffs when the level of competition ramps up and teams have multiple days and multiple games to strategize for a specific opponent. But there has been a dramatic and consistent difference, stretching across multiple seasons, between regular season Kyle Lowry and postseason Kyle Lowry.

The graph below looks at his distribution of single-game DRE scores for the regular season and the playoffs, for his career as a Raptor.

A DRE score of 13 — for example, Lowry’s 19-point, 10-assists, 7-rebound, 1-steal, 2-block, 7-of-13 shooting performance from Mar. 1 against Portland — represents roughly the 75th percentile of all his regular season games for the Raptors. For comparison, he’s hit that DRE mark just seven times (and just once this year) in 58 playoff games. The distribution above estimates that he’d be expected to hit that mark only about 15 percent of the time, or roughly one out of every seven games in the playoffs, as opposed to one out of every four in the regular season.

Over his career playoff experience with Toronto, Lowry has generated slightly fewer assists and slightly more turnovers but the biggest difference is his true shooting percentage dropping from a regular season career average of 57.3 to 53.9. For comparison, if we consider only players with similar usage rates, that would be roughly the difference between Jimmy Butler and Aaron Gordon this season.

Next: Is Monty Williams the right fit for the Phoenix Suns?

As to why Lowry has struggled so much in the playoffs with the Raptors, the six-season, 58-game sample would make it seem that there is some fundamental flaw in his game. But he’s had series’ and even years where he’s played very well. In last season’s playoffs, he posted a usage rate of 20.5 and a true shooting percentage of 65.9 across 10 games. In reality, the issue is not that Lowry is incapable of playing well in the playoffs, it’s that he’s had some tough matchups, some bad luck, some contextual challenges and everything is harder for everyone in the playoffs. The fact that his teammates have also struggled and, collectively, they haven’t been able to meet expectations makes it all look worse.

If the Raptors are going to win a title this year and sell Kawhi Leonard on a future in Toronto, Lowry needs to be much better. The pattern is established but he is capable of breaking it.

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