From Chris Bosh leaving Toronto for Miami, to the string of players to come in and out of the locker room in the seasons that followed, DeMar DeRozan has seen a lot of teammates pass by in his seven years in the league. Through the ups and downs, DeRozan kept working. From the 22-win season the year after Bosh departed to the franchise record 49-win campaign last year, he has spent his summers training, determined to make the most out of his career, and to quiet all who have doubted him.
Backtrack four years and Kyle Lowry was in Houston trying to figure out the next step in his own career. The fiery competitor had earned the respect of opponents for his fearlessness on the floor, but had been unable to prove himself as the leader he believed he could be. He needed a change, a clean slate, and a different opportunity to show what he could become. When the Raptors traded for Lowry during the 2012 offseason, he was a player they had long coveted, and they were ready to hand him the keys. After an up-and-down first season sharing minutes with point guard Jose Calderon, Lowry sought advice from mentor Chauncey Billups—another point guard who needed time and the right opportunity to come into his own—on how to become a better leader.
"Coming from the Rockets, Kyle didn't talk much," DeRozan recalled. "Kyle, when he came in, he didn't say much. He stayed to himself."
It didn't take long for Lowry and DeRozan to discover they had more in common than a burning desire to prove everyone wrong. Some players catch games here and there and others try not to watch to get a mental break from it. Lowry and DeRozan are League Pass fiends.
After games, in lockers that are side-by-side, the two often discuss stats and scores around the league. It's become a nightly occurrence for them to try to one-up the other in pranks on camera. Photobombs and Twitter trolling are almost mandatory.
They are both gym rats, arriving to the gym hours before gametime to have space to go through their routines solo, and they text and talk on the phone about ways to improve their own games, as well as how to improve the team. DeRozan's work ethic has been lauded since his rookie year and Lowry's offseason dedication was on display when he showed up to training camp looking as lean he has since college.
"[Lowry] got better," Luis Scola said. "That also goes with the years. You mature, you get better and you understand life better, you understand basketball better, you understand winning better. A lot of stuff comes with maturing. He's done those things and he has a better perspective of everything right now and that creates a better leader and a better player."
Scola and Lowry were teammates during Lowry's tenure with the Rockets. Lowry values Scola's opinions, and often points to the professionalism he shows every day, in a career that spans 20 years. When news of Scola coming to the Raptors leaked out this past offseason, Lowry was elated to be reunited with one of his favourite teammates.
"To me, it's special," Scola continued. "I got the chance to play with him many years ago and no one was expecting him to evolve into the player he is now. Our careers kind of went apart, went through ups and downs, now to have the chance to be on another team with him as an All-Star, it's special. I got the chance to see him evolve over the years. Everything good that happens to him feels like it's happening to me."
Raptors assistant coach Rex Kalamian knows firsthand how star teammates getting along can help a team. Prior to joining Dwane Casey's staff in 2015, he spent six seasons in Oklahoma City watching Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook grow individually and together as they helped turn their franchise into a contender.
"If you're talking about your two stars, your two best players, which Kyle and DeMar are for us, when you put players together there's a chemistry that's built over time," Kalamian said. "There's a consistency that's built over time and it doesn't happen automatically. I think for the two of them, they've been together for four years now, so they've built up a foundation of winning. They've built up a foundation of playing together, of what each other likes, and doesn't like, how they want the basketball, when they want the basketball."
The Raptors' 35-17 record at the All-Star break is largely due to how well their star guards have played not only together, but also apart. With DeMarre Carroll missing 29 of the team's first 52 games and currently rehabbing from arthroscopic surgery, as well as Jonas Valanciunas missing 17 games with a fractured hand, Lowry and DeRozan have stepped up and are learning how to allow the other to take over when he's feeling it.
When DeRozan is hot, Lowry makes sure the ball finds him. If he's not, Lowry finds a way to manufacture points, whether it's through an assist, a shot or baiting his defender into giving him free throws. Without DeRozan, the team has found success to start fourth quarters with a Lowry-plus-four-reserves lineup, allowing DeRozan a breather in preparation of closing out the game.
"How to share the workload in a 48-minute game is important," Kalamian said. "When Kyle gets a little bit tired, he'll defer to DeMar and DeMar can carry the team for four or five, six possessions, minutes, sometimes, then hand it back to Kyle and he can pick up some more scoring, some more ballhandling. I think they have a really good feel for that right now because of the years they've played together. I don't think it happens overnight."
With their on-court games meshing better than ever, the same is true for their relationship away from it. The connection between DeRozan and Lowry extends beyond two individuals, and encompasses their families as well.
After games, when DeRozan and Lowry are in the locker room preparing to speak with media, DeRozan's daughter and Lowry's son can usually be found riding along together on the side of the stroller belonging to Lowry's youngest son. During Toronto's playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets in 2014, DeRozan said he would go to Lowry's house and "freeload off his refrigerator, [eat] whatever his chef is cooking." When Lowry went into free agency, DeRozan—on a plane for a promotional trip to the Philippines—got the first call after he re-signed.
Following a recent win during the team's 11-game winning streak, DeRozan interrupted Lowry's postgame interview—as has become custom—to jokingly tell Lowry to call him if he couldn't sleep. The two are living out their own basketball buddy cop sitcom, and it's only become more entertaining with their recent success
"I know it's special, the friendship we have on and off the court because I had no clue, the first conversation we had to really break the ice, [that it would turn into this]," DeRozan said. "It's crazy. It just seems like it came out of nowhere. That's how you know it's genuine. There's no agendas there. We both want to see each other be great and we both try to figure out how we can make this team great."
While DeRozan and Lowry lead in different ways, their teammates follow because they see the work put in and trust their intentions. Through wins and losses, the two carry themselves the same way.
"DeMar is a quiet leader," Kalamian said. "He leads by example. He does everything you'd want from a professional. He's a true professional. His work habits, how he prepares himself during the season, during the offseason, just everything you could want or ask of a professional he gives you. For me, he's a pleasure to be around. He's so coachable. Very easy to correct and then also he has some pretty good suggestions. I enjoy listening to what he has to say because he can actually teach me some things about what's going on on the floor sometimes so I ask his opinion during games, like 'What are you seeing? How do you feel? What's working for you?' to try to get his opinion on things. To me, DeMar DeRozan is a complete professional.
"Kyle Lowry, he comes in and leads his team," Kalamian continued. "He has a very good IQ for the game. He knows offensively and defensively where our guys need to be. He knows the plays, what we're trying to get out of each play, and he has a really good feel for our offence, and he sees things on the floor. That's what you want from your point guard. He gives you that little extra edge that's important. Sometimes it's just drawing smart fouls. He knows how to draw smart fouls and get himself in the line or get two points, sometimes three points, from the line as opposed to trying to make a tough shot. His IQ not only on the floor, but also the game within the game, drawing fouls, getting people to proper spots is something not everybody has and it's definitely a skill."
Lowry spent the first six years of his career in the Western Conference and faced off against Kalamian's teams four times per season. Kalamian was familiar with Lowry's game, but learned more about his intensity once the two were together. He calls Lowry a "big shot maker," and points to his ability to get shots from his preferred areas, even though he's a smaller point guard.
"His compete level, his competitiveness is at a high, high level to me," Kalamian said. "I put him up there with Russell Westbrook for me. He's the same type of competitor. It didn't surprise me, but that's something I didn't know and you really don't know [about] your players until you're in the gym with them every day."
DeRozan has been a sponge since getting drafted by the Raptors in 2009. Watching game tape, Synergy clips, and picking the brains of his USA Basketball teammates, he's constantly trying to add to his offensive arsenal and learn more about his opponents' tendencies. In addition to increased trips to the line and fewer midrange jumpers, the biggest growth in DeRozan's game is how he's reading the floor.
"When he has the basketball, the game slows down," Kalamian said. "In my conversations with him I'm like, 'What's the biggest thing for you on the floor during a game? What are you thinking about? Where's your head at?' A lot of it with him is, 'How can I make my teammates better?' and it's a truthful, respectful answer. He's like, 'How can I do something to be able to help them?' because he knows at the end of the day he's going to be able to score."
The Raptors go into All-Star break three games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for top spot in the Eastern Conference. Lowry is averaging career highs in points (21), and rebounds (4.9), to go with 6.3 assists. His 2.2 steals per game is topped only by Westbrook. DeRozan is averaging career highs in points (23.4) and assists (4.1), and is second in the league in free throws made.
"Beavis and Butt-Head," Cory Joseph said of his two teammates. "They're definitely close, very close, they've been playing for a long time together. They have a special bond and it shows out there on the court. Both of them are unbelievable workers. They put it all on the court. When you see both of your star players doing that, you want to contribute the same amount of effort."
The All-Star backcourt is being careful not to get ahead of themselves with 30 games remaining in the regular season, but they're enjoying the journey and have learned a universal truth: It's hard not to have fun when you're winning alongside one of your best friends.
"It just clicks," Lowry said. "It works. [We have] a true life relationship and friendship that's not fake at all. It's just good."