Trade Deadline: Kyle Lowry Should Be Untouchable

Photo from bound_4_freedom via Flickr

The All-Star game has come and gone, which means NBA fans now get to focus on the next not-actual-basketball story of the actual-basketball season: the trade deadline. “Dwights and Paus and Rondos, oh my!” come the cries of the junkies, as blood, sweat and tears drip to the sewers, where the scum of the Earth use it as lubricant to set the creaky wheels of the tired trade machine in motion.

One of the teams who appear frequently in such discussions are the Houston Rockets. Years of gathering assets for an eventual superstar-acquiring trade have so far resulted in a Kevin Martin and a vetoed Pau Gasol trade, and at some point, one has to wonder if the charade might come to a forced ending. As good as Daryl Morey may be at lurking in the shadows, preying on the meek and feeble GMs of the Savannah, it can only last for so long before the herds realize that the grazing should be done elsewhere.

And so, with its great speculative powers, the internet has been wondering aloud when and why the Houston Rockets will do what and how. Nobody is safe, nobody free from the ever-working mind of the Houston braintrust. After all, you only get so many shots to get a superstar, and once you can, everybody on the roster should be available.

Kyle Lowry should not be available.

The true untouchable is a rare breed in the NBA. There are a handful of sentimental cases – Tim Duncan, for example, will remain in San Antonio until his own calling takes him elsewhere – but in a league with a clear hierarchy of good and better, everybody has a price. If LeBron James is on the table, Rick Adelman will have to stare Ricky Rubio straight in those beautiful, hope-filled eyes, and utter a soft “Adios” before losing himself in the deep seas of youth and innocence that the young Spaniards craftily hides in his retinas for one final time.

Oh, Ricky, you’ve cut yet another train of thought.

Kyle Lowry is 36th in the league in PER, says John Hollinger. PER isn’t the end-all be-all of basketball statistics, but when for a player like Lowry, who has the ball in his hands almost exclusively and plays nearly 35.5 minutes a game, we can safely assume that it is a strong projection of where, more or less, he stands among his peers. Furthermore, PER’s greatest weakness – assessing defensive ability – is one that Lowry pretty much aces.

Lowry’s presence as a defensive spearhead has been a huge part of a Houston defense that overcame a horrid start to the season, now ranking as a comfortable 15th per 100 possessions. MySynergySports tells us that Lowry gives up a mere 0.59 PPP in isolation plays, good for 24th in the league, and a simply very-good 0.75 against pick and roll ball handlers (73rd). Lowry’s overall Synergy numbers are hurt by his mediocre ability to close out on shooters – which is to be expected from a 6 foot guard – but eases us back into the realms of the eye test, reminding us that Houston gives up 4.22 points less per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

Put it all together, and it’s very hard to make a case that Lowry isn’t an all-star level talent. Actual all-star selections are hard to come by in the West, but the 36th PER in the league makes a lot of sense for a guy who, subjectively, seems to be knocking on the doors of top 30, give or take.

With Lowry, though, it’s not just pure ability. If you substitute the 35 names with PERs above Lowry’s 20.30 for a list of 35 contracts with said PERs, we see a very clear distinction between financial classes:

  • Max or near max contracts: 11 (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzke, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett).
  • 9 million to 15 million dollars per season: 6 (LaMarcus Aldridge, Al Jefferson, Steve Nash, Andrew Bynum, Tony Parker, Andrea Bargnani)
  • Rookie scale deals with max extensions already signed: 3 (Rose, Love, Westbrook).
  • Rookie scale deals: 9 (Blake Griffin, Greg Monroe, Ryan Anderson, Stephen Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Kenneth Faried)
  • Big men under 5 million who have been crazy and may or may not sustain this level of play with more games and minutes: 3 (Nikola Pekovic, Brandan Wright, Spencer Hawes)
  • Around 5.9-6.7 million: 4 (Lou Williams, Marcin Gortat, Paul Millsap, Kyle Lowry).

The point to this?

Elite talent usually belongs to one of two groups – high money superstars, the kind Houston has been desperately trying to get; or strong draft picks, the kind Houston has been too good to draft in the lottery (seeing Lin up there after Houston cut him has to hurt, but he  never would have gotten playing time in Houston and everybody needs to chill). Players who emerge as near all-stars while playing on Lowry-level deals are extremely rare – the four players in that final group are all strong contenders for this season’s Most Improved Player, non-Lin division – and should be held on to, dearly. Because even if there are a handful of players better than Kyle Lowry this season, it’s almost impossible to find equal value.

So while Lowry-for-Rondo, Lowry-for-Gasol, or Lowry-for-whoever rumors may continue to make their way towards Houston message boards, the answer should be a very polite no. Not out of a stubborn clinging to a guy who has developed under the franchise’s tutelage, but due to a deep understanding of value in today’s NBA and how hard it is to get it.

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.