On Wednesday, the first day that all of those verbally agreed to trades and free agent signings can go through, the Toronto Raptors saw a major shakeup at their point guard position made official. In comes Kyle Lowry to start for the club, down goes Jose Calderon, the incumbent starter, to the bench, and out goes Jerryd Bayless, who has agreed to a two-year deal with the Memphis Grizzlies.
As was stated last week, Lowry brings a rugged toughness to the starting lineup that was desperately needed, especially in the new Dwane Casey era. As well as Casey had managed to get the Raptors playing on defence last year, the toughest player he had to throw out there was a deep reserve, Jamaal Magloire, who had one toe in retirement when Toronto came a-callin' last December.
With Lowry, the Raptors can now throw their toughest player out there from the get-go, and he'll be asked to not only slow down the other team's offence at the point of attack, but also bring his bulldog mentality to Toronto's own - often subdued - offensive attack. For all that Toronto has been seen as a soft defensive club over the years, they were equally soft on offence last season, effectively setting up camp 16-feet from the basket and firing away with only a cursory nod to the paint.
Lowry, though, has the foot speed and attacking mentality to get into the paint, collapse and shift defences, and open up looks that are totally different from what Calderon's screen-and-roll heavy skill set offered. Lowry attempted 3.1 shots at the rim per game last season and 4.2 free throws per game, versus Calderon's 1.2 and 1.3 averages in those same categories. On a Raptors team that has precious few shot creators, Lowry is going to give them a jump start at that end of the court, and since he rarely looks to take shots in the mid-range, he'll leave Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan's preferred areas of operation open for them to ply their trade.
Lowry's presence will positively affect Bargnani and DeRozan in other ways, too. Neither one is a particularly strong rebounder, but Lowry is the second-best rebounding point guard in the NBA, averaging a career-high 4.6 per game last season. Neither one is renowned for their ability to get steals and deflections, either, but Lowry was tied for 15th in the NBA in steals per game last season at 1.6, and his defensive fundaments are light years ahead of those two returning Raptors. His ability to check his own man will keep the team defence from having to scramble as often as last year, which will help the team lock-in more at that end of the court. Lowry was also fourth in the NBA last year in charges taken per game and, according to hoopdata.com, was fifth amongst NBA guards last year in defensive plays made per game.
Lowry effectively represents a complete one-eighty in terms of style of play at the point guard position for the Raptors next season, and he suits the strengths and weaknesses of the starting five better than Calderon has over the last few years.
Of course, it isn't like Calderon has gone anywhere (yet). While his $10.6 million expiring contract could be bundled into a trade at any time between now and February's trade deadline, as of this moment Calderon is simply taking his high-efficiency, high-assist game to Toronto's second unit where it is more desperately needed.
While Calderon certainly has the bona fides to be a starter in the NBA (he was fourth in the NBA in assists per game, for Pete's sake), as long as he's in Toronto his skills are best utilized off of the bench. On Toronto's second unit Calderon will have to guide, with his steady hand, rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, as well as third-year forward Ed Davis and Calderon's on-court spirit partner, Amir Johnson.
Of that group, no one benefits more than Valanciunas from Calderon's presence. Calderon is one of the best point guards in the NBA at running the pick-and-roll, and while Valanciunas is terribly raw at the offensive end of the floor, the one thing he's already quite good at is finishing on the pick-and-roll. His length, athleticism and strong hands allow him to catch and finish as a roll man and one can expect Calderon to work extensively next season with Valanciunas in a variety of pick-and-roll sets.
With Valanciunas, Ross, Davis and Johnson, Toronto's second unit is also better equipped to handle Calderon's slower-footed defence than their starting five is. The bench has tremendous length and athleticism, which will help Calderon defensively, while Calderon provides strong basketball I.Q. and leadership, which will help the bench crew grow as NBA players. It's a mutually beneficial relationship and so long as Calderon remains with the Raptors it's one that Casey will no doubt look to exploit.
Of course, with Lowry starting and Calderon backing up, that left no minutes for Jerryd Bayless in Toronto's guard rotation, and he's now off to Memphis on two-year, $6 million deal. For Toronto, the decision on Bayless came to down to whether or not they saw him as their starter going forward. As a starter, Bayless posted very respectable numbers, but as a reserve he looked lost and didn't play with nearly the same confidence or efficiency. Once Lowry was brought into the fold the starting job was sewn up, and so was Bayless' fate in Toronto. After two seasons he simply hadn't done enough to convince management that he could thrive as a reserve guard for the club, and he now moves onto his fourth team in five years as he searches for some stability in his NBA career.
That isn't to say that Bayless can't or won't make Toronto regret their decision. At just 23, Bayless still has time to find his niche in the league, and Toronto's decision to move on had less to do with Bayless than with the makeup of the roster they're now working with. There is a trickle-down effect to every move in the NBA. You bring a guy in that needs minutes, that means that someone else now has to lose minutes or be traded away to compensate for that addition. It's a never-ending balancing act that is made infinitely harder by increases or decreases in productivity, poor chemistry between players and injuries. The Raptors assessed their options, and decided that Lowry and Calderon was their best bet going forward. If Bayless blows up in Memphis then they may regret letting him walk, but those are the evaluational consequences of committing to a direction when assembling an NBA roster.
The Raptors have made no bones about the fact that winning is now a priority, starting this season. They no longer want to act as an incubator for unproven talent. They want guys that can contribute to winning and those that can't aren't long for the team. Offering up two veteran point guards and passing on a younger (inconsistent) talent is a testament to that philosophy. Bryan Colangelo and Dwane Casey are kicking their oft-cited plan into its next phase, it just remains to be seen if the team improves as a result.