Jose Calderon and Kyle Lowry. It’s a decision. It’s depth at point guard. It’s internal competition. It’s flexibility for head coach Dwane Casey. But it’s not a controversy.
The word controversy implies there’s a problem. When a backup is pushing the starter for more playing time or possibly his job, it creates a lot of positives, even if one player is miffed by the bench role. There’s also no way it can be a controversy if one of these players is a far superior talent.
The big knock on Kyle Lowry is that he’s played selfish basketball at points this season. As we talked about on Monday’s podcast, the selfishness on defence when Lowry jumps passing lanes gambling for steals is far more egregious than his occasional pull-up threes. In a tie game against the Kings with two minutes left, Tyreke Evans hit two consecutive wide open three-pointers as Lowry was floating around the paint looking for steals. Evans is a piss-poor shooter, but he makes a much higher percentage when left all alone. Lowry’s commitment to the team was a big enough issue that he was reportedly called out by one or more of his teammates in a players-only meeting after Toronto’s humiliating loss to Utah.
We have to be careful when using the term selfish for Lowry – we’re not talking about Ricky Davis here. Lowry is not a selfish player, he just has a couple of selfish tendencies. Assist rate is a statistic that gives us an indication of how selfish a player is on offence. For his career, Lowry has an assist rate of 41% – meaning if you total his field goals, free throws, turnovers and assists, the assists make up 41% of that total. The average assist rate for point guards this season is a 27.15%. This season, Lowry’s assist rate sits at just 25%.
This career-low appears to be selfishness on the surface, but after looking at Calderon’s assist rate this season, we can conclude that both point guards are playing with more of a shoot-first attitude than ever before. Calderon, who sports a career-assist rate of 65%, sits at just 40% this year. Both point guards are taking on a larger scoring load than usual because they are the primary ball-handlers on this team and nobody in the supporting cast (although DeRozan is improving every day) has strong ball-handling skills. The onus is on Kyle and Jose to create everything.
Whatever bad habits the 26-year old Lowry may have, they are easily offset by one of the most well-rounded skill sets among NBA point guards. He is currently one of three players in the league averaging 15+ points, 5+ assists and 5+ rebounds. The other two are Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. At his best, Lowry is a force at both ends of the floor. He can’t be contained off the dribble due to his tight handle and great upper body strength, he’s one of the best rebounding point guards in the league and he’s extremely active on defence – making deflections and covering up for his teammates.
When stacking up their games side by side, there are just two areas in which the 31-year old Calderon is clearly superior to Lowry. The jump-shooting is easy to quantify. Jose is a career 38% shooter from three-point land. Lowry is a career 33% shooter from downtown, but he’s improved in recent years. Calderon is also a superior distributor. Jose has evolved his passing skills - changing from primarily making safe passes around the perimeter in his early years to attempting higher difficulty passes for layups in recent years. He deserves credit for doing this without upping his turnover rates.
Calderon is a more talented passer but does that necessarily make the offence he runs more efficient than Lowry’s? The answer is no. This season, the Raptors are averaging 1.04 points per possession with Lowry on the floor. They average 1.01 points per possession with Calderon on the floor. Last year, Calderon was good for 1.04 while Lowry posted 1.06 with Houston. Two seasons ago, Calderon was 1.08 while Lowry led the Rockets at 1.14.
The difference between their shortcomings is that Lowry’s issues can be fixed – it’s a decision he must make and hopefully has already made after the players-only meeting. It’s worth fighting through Lowry’s bad habits because his ceiling is so much higher than Calderon’s.
Calderon’s vices can be masked and improved upon, but never fixed. He lacks the foot speed and the lateral quickness to be one of the elite point guards in the NBA. This weakness is usually exposed on defence, as his resemblance to a turnstile has become well known throughout the league. The foot speed issue also hurts him on offence, as Calderon doesn’t have the ability to beat his check off the dribble. He puts his teammates – namely DeRozan – in low percentage situations when he swings a pass their way with less than eight seconds on the shot clock because there isn’t enough time to run a screen and roll.
Both point guards have had stretches of four to five games this season where they played at an incredibly high level, but it’s irresponsible to judge either player based on those minuscule samples. Many players in the NBA could average 14 point and 11 assists (Calderon’s numbers from the past 5 starts) as the primary ball-handler against the defences of Houston, Dallas, Detroit, Brooklyn & Cleveland. Kyle Lowry went on an incredible tear of his own through the first four games of the season, leading the NBA in adjusted player efficiency rating. Lowry currently sits 12th in adjusted PER at 22.83. Calderon currently has an adjusted PER of 17.09. Although adjusted PER is the most commonly accepted measure of a player’s overall worth, we shouldn’t draw final conclusions from these small samples.
However, it is another sign that Lowry is the better option.
The discrepancy in won-loss record between Lowry and Calderon is a very misleading stat. Toronto currently has a 6-6 record with Jose as the starter and a 2-13 record in games that Lowry has started. Lowry played all of his games during the toughest portion of the schedule, as Toronto traveled out west. Calderon had the good fortune of playing against some very mediocre competition and he hasn’t been dragged down by Toronto’s space cadet – Andrea Bargnani. Lowry’s record as the starter is also not helped by the fact that Jose hasn’t done anything off the bench. As a starter Jose is averaging 14 points and 11 assists in 36 minutes per game. As a reserve, he’s contributing eight points and just four assists in 22 minutes per game. The shooting percentages for Calderon as a backup are ugly as well – 39% from the field and 40% from deep as a reserve as opposed to 47% from the field and 48% from three as a starter.
There is no doubt Jose Calderon is playing some of the best basketball of his career right now as the starter. It’s a shame, but this recent spurt is showing us that he still hasn’t reached his potential at age 31. He arrived in the NBA at age 24 and the language barrier limited the Spaniard’s development in early years. He was then transitioned to the terrible defensive principles of head coach Jay Triano. By the time Dwane Casey had the opportunity to work with Calderon, he was already on the back end of his basketball career. Credit should be given to Calderon and Casey for making improvements at this stage of his career. If Jose had been given the proper coaching at an early age, he would be an all-star in this league.
Calderon’s improved play gives Bryan Colangelo a tough decision. There will surely be plenty of suitors looking for his services, even if Toronto does manage to climb back into the East playoff picture. If given a handsome return of prospects and/or draft picks, it would be hard to turn down the offer, considering Calderon could very well walk out the door this summer. In the meantime, Dwane Casey needs to force the two-point guard lineup out there. There will only be certain situations in which he can play this combination, but Casey must find a way to get both these guys as much playing time as possible.
A multitude of factors suggest Kyle Lowry should be the starting point guard for Toronto when he returns from injury, but the great play of Jose Calderon should be put into context and used as a positive. The Raptors have two point guards playing at a very high level and there is nothing controversial about that.