The Sixers are playing great. The team is 15-6 following a rollicking comeback win on the road in Indiana with Joel Embiid sitting out as he nurses a sore back. They’ve won three straight, and 8 of their last 10 games. When the team’s starting 5 plays, the Sixers have gone 11-0. The team is 14-2 in games Joel Embiid plays. The vibes are great, the team seems to genuinely get along and has played extremely well together. Critics may point to the team’s largely cushy strength of schedule as a reason for its inflating winning percentage, but I think that would be reductive in this case. 21 games is a hearty sample size in a 72-game season, and the Sixers have conquered the true tests on the schedule thus far.
The Sixers are very good — absolutely better than I thought they would be. Joel Embiid has matriculated to MVP-status, Tobias Harris looks like an All-Star, and Ben Simmons has continued his elite defense and grown more aggressive recently on offense. With these developments (especially Embiid’s leap), the calculus has changed a bit for Sixers President of Basketball Operations, Daryl Morey. This team’s core is ready to contend, and Morey must do everything in his power to optimize the roster to take advantage of this window.
The Sixers are squarely positioned to contend for supremacy in the Eastern Conference. I am of the opinion that the team is still a guy short in terms of contending for the NBA Championship, this year. I fear that once the team gets deeper in the playoffs, it will find itself a perimeter creator short. As the game slows down and points become harder and harder to come by, the team will need a perimeter player to create his own offense, especially at times when other teams are doubling in the post. Harris can do some of that, but his two playoff appearances with the Sixers have left much to be desired.
(You may be a Sixers fan reading this, still drunk off the team’s 31-6 game-ending run in Indiana merely wanting Morey to do anything but rock the boat. If so, I get it! I’m just trying to think ahead and predict where this roster might run into difficulty in the playoffs.)
Knowing what the Sixers have — both ensconced in the rotation on the roster, and potentially expendable pieces and picks that can be used in a trade — it’s clear to me that the team could really use another perimeter creator who can shoot, create for himself, and create for others. The Sixers famously vied for the belle of this particular ball last month and lost out to Brooklyn as they acquired James Harden. Bradley Beal comes to mind as the next-best option, save for two problems: he is not yet available (nor has he requested a trade), and swinging a deal to bring him to Philadelphia would surely require the Sixers to bid farewell to not only Ben Simmons, but also all of the team’s near and distant draft equity.
Next, one might look at Zach LaVine, Chicago’s standout shooting guard, in the midst of a career year on a bad Bulls team. I’d love LaVine on the Sixers; he’s a three-level scorer who’s adept at generating his own offense. The trouble with a LaVine-to-Philly trade is that it’s difficult to peg his value. He’s 25, so the Bulls may demand Simmons, which would certainly make Morey recoil, and rightfully so. Maybe the Sixers could get LaVine by combining their most desirable young players and picks? On the court, LaVine has also proven to be both a poor and disinterested defender, and he could be exploited in the wrong matchup.
Further down the list, sift through a list of meh options for this particular archetype: Terry Rozier, Terrence Ross, JJ Redick, Eric Gordon, and the like. All are fine players who would help the Sixers in a vacuum, but none would inspire all that much confidence, due either to the level and inconsistency of their play or what would need to be traded in order to acquire them.
To me, the one player who fits the bill as a) an offensive creator who can pass, shoot and defend, b) a player who could reasonably be available at some point prior to March’s trade deadline, and c) should be available for a price not prohibitive to the Sixers is Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry. Let’s break down how he fits the mold of each requirement, one-by-one.
He can create offense, shoot, and defend
Let’s dive into Lowry’s statistics, advanced and otherwise. Through 17 games this season, Lowry is averaging 17.6 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 1 steal per game on 42/36/89 shooting splits. The raw numbers are solid, if not astounding. He’s continued to be a solid defender of opposing guards, and completely immovable if an opposing big man dares to consider Lowry a mismatch in a post-up.
Diving into the advanced numbers, Lowry grades out well. Per Synergy, this season, Lowry ranks in the 52nd percentile in spot-up shooting, 98th percentile in shooting off of a hand-off, and in isolation this season, Lowry has scored on 6 of 9 attempts, ranking in the 99th percentile. These are, of course, rather tiny sample sizes given the relative youth of the season. So let’s look at last season.
In 2019-2020, Lowry played 58 games. As a pick-and-roll ball-handler, he graded out as “excellent,” ranking in the 88th percentile. He also excelled as a spot-up shooter (84th percentile), and was rated “good” as an isolation scorer (52nd percentile). When you factor in the pick-and-rolls in which Lowry was the ball-handler and include his passes, the offense was incredibly efficient, ranking in the 84th percentile, scoring 697 points on 660 plays.
All of the above can largely be described as semantical gobbledygook, but suffice it to say that Lowry has continued to acquit himself as a high-level orchestrator of modern day offense in the league.
He’s practiced in playing both on and off ball, as he’s shared maestro duties with DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard in Toronto offenses in the past. He does many of the little things that amount to winning games; he takes charges, willingly accepts switches, and seems unconcerned with his own box score. Lowry is shooting 7.8 threes per game this season, which amounts to a hearty 10.4 per 100 possessions — a prerequisite trait for any Simmons/Embiid co-star.
He’s been through a number of battles in the playoffs, and would not wilt under the bright lights of postseason basketball. Lowry could slot into the starting lineup next to Simmons, Embiid and Tobias Harris, sharing the on-ball duties with Simmons, and running the show full-time whenever Ben rests.
He may come available soon
The Raptors have had a tough go of it, thus far.
20 games through the 72-game sprint, the Raps are 8-12, currently 11th in the Eastern Conference. Of course, it’s early — Toronto is 3.5 games out of 3rd, and 2 games ahead of last-seeded Washington. Teams are jumbled and bunched together, and clarity in the conference should be provided throughout the seven weeks between now and the trade deadline.
At 6-4 over their last 10 games, it’s possible the Raptors are showing signs of life.
However, should they continue to flounder, or even level out as a lowly-seeded playoff team, the dilemma of whether or not to trade Lowry will weigh on the conscience of Raptors president Masai Ujiri. From a cold, calculating perspective, the answer may be simple: if Ujiri determines that the Raptors do not have a reasonable chance at winning the title this year, the organization must see what it can get for Lowry, who will turn 35 in March, and whose contract is set to expire at season’s end.
The emotional and cultural aspect to Toronto trading Kyle Lowry shouldn’t be overlooked, though. Lowry is the greatest player in Raptors history, his jersey will one day hang from the rafters of the Scotiabank Arena, and he was the point guard and culture-setter who helped to deliver Toronto the NBA title in 2019.
The flip side of this coin — the coin that represents the care the Raptors are sure to employ as it pertains to Lowry, the person, in this discussion — could be up to Lowry. In his ninth season in Toronto, maybe Lowry never wants to don another jersey. But maybe he wants to go after another ring, and maybe he wants to pursue that ring in his hometown of Philadelphia, where he once became a star at Villanova. If this was the case and the Raptors were eager to do right by the guard, it would bring full circle Lowry’s incredible career.
The potential price to acquire him shouldn’t be outlandish
So let’s say Lowry does hit the trading block this March, for one reason or another. What sort of assets will he yield on the market?
Very few teams make sense as suitors for Lowry, because the acquiring team must both feel deficient at the point guard position and feel as though it can win the NBA Championship this season. There isn’t much sense in trading for a 35-year-old Kyle Lowry if you can’t check both of those boxes.
Let’s take a cursory glance around the league — which teams could reasonably qualify? Maybe the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Denver Nuggets?
The Heat have started slow, but they played in the Finals last season and likely aspire to match that goal once again. They have plenty of salaries to combine and young players to dangle to come up with a tempting offer.
The Clippers have title hopes and could certainly use a point guard of Lowry’s caliber, but most of their mid-level salaries are fairly unseemly and would make a deal difficult, but not impossible.
The salaries that the Nuggets would need to include would likely necessitate more draft equity include than the team is likely to prefer.
The Sixers could make the money work in a deal for Lowry by including Danny Green, Mike Scott, and a couple of the Sixers’ low salary guys — one of whom might need to be a player the Sixers like, say Matisse Thybulle. My guess is Philly would have to include its first-round pick, this season, to grease the wheels as well. If that’s how it gets done, Morey will have to swallow hard and accept the optics of trading a guy with Thybulle’s defensive potential on his rookie deal for someone of Lowry’s age and contract situation. But Morey isn’t trying to win the trade, he’s trying to win the championship. This trade would leave the Sixers’ depth perilously thin, but Morey would be betting on himself to cobble together the end of the rotation with whomever remains and any veterans he can reel in on the buyout market. Keep in mind: Morey has acquired Lowry before — when he was in Houston, he brought in Lowry via a midseason trade in the 2008-09 campaign. Lowry has talked glowingly in the past of his relationship with Morey’s most polarizing lieutenant, Sam Hinkie:
Kyle Lowry on Sam Hinkie: "Sam's one of my favorite people. I always said he'd be a GM, and he'll be a great GM" #NBA— Orazio Francesco Cauchi (@paxer89) January 12, 2015
Maybe the Raptors will rip off 15 straight wins and Lowry will be firmly off the table.
Maybe they’ll continue to lose but the organization and the player will decide they’d rather lose together than win apart.
But if he’s available, Kyle Lowry represents a great opportunity for Daryl Morey and the Sixers’ brass to go all in on winning this year’s title without breaking up the existing core.