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The eternal importance of Kyle Lowry

Toronto’s longest-tenured player isn’t the star anymore, but he’s as essential to the Raptors’ title hopes as ever.

Kyle Lowry heads into the 2019 NBA Playoffs as a table-setting ball of fury. The Toronto Raptors mainstay is averaging the second-most assists in the league, slinging full-court passes like a quarterback and spraying assists out of pick-and-rolls with the type of confidence that can only be born from consistent trial and error. He’s very much still the Raptors’ resident bailiff.

But pinpointing Lowry’s place on Toronto’s organizational chart is not as simple as it once was. His individual needs and wants are no longer priorities, nor the same prerequisite to winning that they once were. Kawhi Leonard’s presence eliminates any hierarchical debate about Toronto’s most essential player, while Pascal Siakam’s sky-scraping rise has transformed him into the gap-filling second option Lowry used to be.

There are stretches in every game where Toronto doesn’t need Lowry to do much more than blend in, but there are also times when he saves them. With the entire organization approaching a fork in the road this July, it’s those moments that will clarify how much Lowry means to a franchise that’s about to begin its most pivotal journey.

All season long, randomness has been Raptors coach Nick Nurse’s partner. It helped the team weather load management, various injuries, waiver wire signings, a blockbuster trade, and several different variables that ultimately disrupted the players’ minute distribution.

It’s possible this irregularity will undercut the cohesive bond any team needs in order to make a deep playoff run. NBA players are creatures of habit who don’t embrace disruption so much as they learn to accept it.

But normalizing change has some benefits, too. Take an adjustment Nurse made in January when Lowry returned from a back injury. Instead of keeping Lowry on the sideline to start the second and fourth quarters, as they’d done up to that point and all of last year, the Raptors began leading off both frames with their starting point guard on the floor alongside four reserves. It was a familiar sight to anyone who watched the 2015-16 and 2016-17 teams, when Lowry and bench lineups dominated the competition, extending leads and erasing deficits with the swagger of a championship contender’s starting five.

This time around, it was a meaningful change for two key reasons: it steadied the Raptors at times when they previously tended to wander, and it let Lowry engage himself in ways he otherwise could not.

“The modern phrase is ‘up his usage’,” Nurse laughed when asked about the trend before a recent game against the Brooklyn Nets. “And that’s important, too. We’ve got to keep him happy.”

Some of Nurse’s lineup experimentation is by design, the byproduct of a restlessly curious coach who prides himself on turning over every rock. In Toronto’s five seasons before this one, the team averaged 13.4 different starting lineups each year. Nurse has already used 22. Only one five-man unit has logged over 200 minutes (last season there were three), and the percentage of Toronto’s lineups that featured zero starters fell from a league-leading 20 percent last season to 10.6 percent in 2018-19.

“That second unit was incredible,” Nurse said, referring to the 2017-18 group that featured Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and the now-departed trio of Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, and C.J. Miles. “It enabled us to keep both our star guys off the floor basically for as long as we wanted to, because they were such a unique group of guys. Now, we’ve had a lot of injuries, a lot of guys in and out. We don’t really have a set second unit like that.”

This year, Raptors’ all-bench lineups have been bulldozed by 12.2 points per 100 possessions. Last year, those units pummeled the other team by 9.5 points per 100 possessions.

Enter Lowry.

As deep as Toronto is, the start of the second and fourth quarters were a problem. Leonard and Danny Green rarely see the floor. Newcomer Marc Gasol has also sat at that time since he entered the starting lineup, and while Siakam is his own breed, even he’s resting far more often than not this year at the start of those two quarters.

This rotation will likely evolve in the playoffs, when minutes soar and responsibilities mount. In Toronto’s April 7 win over Miami, Leonard started the second quarter with Lowry and three bench players, though Nurse replaced him with Norman Powell when the fourth quarter began.

But the way Nurse staggers Lowry with Toronto’s other stars is a development worth watching in the postseason. The Raptors haven’t set the world on fire when he’s on the court without any one of Green, Leonard, or Siakam, but they also don’t get obliterated, which, again, happened when Lowry sat as well. If Toronto can win or merely play even in the minutes with Lowry leading bench players as the starters rest, that could make up the slim difference needed to distinguish between an East title run and an early exit.

“It’s nice having Kyle on the court. He’s able to lead us, get us to our spots,” reserve forward O.G. Anunoby told SB Nation. “We’ve had a lot of changes. A lot of lineup changes.”

Lowry is vital to this team, both as a supplement for the other four starters and as a supervisor to Anunoby, VanVleet, Powell, and Serge Ibaka. The Raptors needed him to elevate units that struggled in the regular season, and he did. Now, they need him to do it in the playoffs.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Leonard may leave for Southern California. Green may cash out with another team that’s desperate for outside shooting. Gasol has a $25.6 million player option. Heck, Lowry is an interesting trade target for any win-now team that whiffed in free agency — the Knicks, Lakers, or Clippers come to mind — or are searching for a talent upgrade without enough initial cap space to make anything else happen.

At 33, these playoffs will either be Lowry’s Canadian swan song or a rejuvenating exclamation point. Given all Lowry’s been through, there can’t be any in-between. How he performs in those brief spots when the Raptors need him to be the franchise player again will ultimately have much larger ramifications.