With the NBA on hiatus, it’s time to take a look at some key questions for the offseason. At the top of the list, what should the Toronto Raptors do with Kyle Lowry?
Entering last season, one of the most interesting questions was what are the Toronto Raptors going to do with Kyle Lowry? Lowry was entering the final season of a three-year, $100 million contract. Several observers were calling for Masai Ujiri to trade Lowry, along with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to jump-start a rebuild.
It is no secret that the Raptors plan to make a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo in the summer of 2021. As a result, the team’s front office has been focused on preserving cap space. The only guaranteed contracts on the books for the 2021-22 season are Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell (player option).
With that in mind, Ujiri decided the best move was to sign Lowry to a one-year, $31 million contract extension. The move was done for several reasons.
First of all, Lowry is a six-time All-Star and arguably the greatest Raptor of all time. He was the heart and soul of last year’s championship team. Inking Lowry to an extension would keep the franchise icon around for at least one more season.
Second, Fred VanVleet is about to become a free agent. Re-signing him will obviously be a priority for the Raptors. But there will be at least a few teams in need a point guard this summer. VanVleet will be one of the top names available. Keeping Lowry provides the team with insurance in case VanVleet were to leave.
Another reason was that without the extension, the Raptors would have been left dealing with an unhappy star. Michael Grange of Sportsnet reported that before coming to terms on the new deal Lowry was prepared to force a trade instead of reporting for training.
Finally, the particulars of the extension allowed the Raptors to maintain flexibility moving forward. Lowry’s contract is up after next season, thereby preserving cap space for the summer of 2021. The deal also made Lowry more tradeable should management decide to explore that avenue.
Now Ujiri and Bobby Webster find themselves in a similar situation. They must decide is it better to keep Lowry for next season and make another deep playoff run or should the team look to move him to acquire assets for the future.
There is no doubt that talk of trading Lowry would be a public relations disaster. Lowry is Mr. Raptor. He is second only to DeMar DeRozan in both games and minutes played. Lowry is third in total points scored. He is the franchise leader for assists and steals.
The narrative surrounding Lowry has changed from uncoachable to a savvy veteran. Yes, Lowry has a strong personality and isn’t afraid to speak his mind. But Lowry has rehabbed his image and is respected around the league.
Lowry is a proven winner. One that is capable of playing on or off the ball. If he were available, Lowry would have any number of suitors. Teams like the Lakers, Clippers, 76ers, Heat or Nuggets would jump at the opportunity to add Lowry. He could be the missing piece needed to get one of those teams over the hump.
Lowry’s no. 7 jersey should be hanging in the rafters when it is all said and done. It didn’t make sense to trade him last summer. But that might not be true this offseason. As such, let’s take a look at the case for and against trading Kyle Lowry.
The case for trading Lowry
Lowry is currently 34 years old. He will be 35 when his contract expires next summer. While it is true that Lowry has made six straight All-Star appearances there will be questions as to how long he can continue playing at such a high level.
Lowry missed 12 games this season due to injury. He sat out 17 games last season. Injuries caused Lowry to miss 22 games in the 2016-17 season. As it occurs with most athletes, Lowry’s body is starting to betray him.
Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade both retired at 37. Once injuries start to mount up, it is hard to maintain an elite level of play. Plus Lowry is not afraid to be physical, which means his body is going to continue to take a pounding year-after-year.
Before the world was shut down due to COVID-19, the Raptors had the third-best record in NBA. Even without Kawhi Leonard, Ujiri wanted to allow his squad to defend their title. However, most commentators would agree that the Raptors rank just below true contender status. They aren’t on the same level as the Lakers, Clippers or Bucks.
Siakam has taken another leap this season. He went from the Most Improved Player to All-Star Starter. Siakam has averaged 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. But he isn’t ready to lead a team to a championship.
With the Raptors not expected to make a big move in the offseason, it will be more of the same next year. The Raptors project to be a solid playoff team. They should advance to the second round, maybe even the conference finals. They just aren’t a legitimate threat to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Trading Lowry to another would-be contender allows the team to pick up an asset for the future, either a young player or a future first-round pick.
Scouts are underwhelmed by the 2020 draft class. However, the 2021 draft is expected to be one of the deepest in recent memory. Teams should be able to find rotation players and perhaps even starter-level talent with a mid-to-late first-round pick.
Also moving Lowry doesn’t mean that the Raptors are going to drop out of the playoff mix. The team will look to re-sign VanVleet this summer. Siakam is already locked up long-term. Plus the Raptors have a nice collection of wing players in OG Anunoby, Norman Powell and Terence Davis II.
After struggling with consistency early in his career, it looks like Powell has finally arrived. In 23 games as a starter, Powell averaged 18.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He is also shooting 42.3 percent from three-point range on six attempts per game.
Moving Lowry would allow Powell to slide into the starting lineup full-time. It would also provide more playing time for Davis who has been one of the best rookies this season, despite going undrafted.
Those five players are 26 or younger. That is a strong nucleus to build around for the future. The group projects to be the foundation of an elite defensive team. It also should be a tempting core for any superstar looking to make a move.
If the Raptors are serious about making a run at Giannis it is unlikely the team will be able to keep Lowry beyond next season. That is unless Lowry is prepared to take a massive pay cut and re-sign for the veteran minimum. Therefore, it makes sense to allow Anunoby, Powell, and Davis to take on a larger role and expand their games.
Taking all these factors into account, moving Lowry this summer might be the right decision. On the other hand, Ujiri might look back and see that not trading Lowry in 2013 was one of the best things to ever happen to this franchise and moving him now is not how you treat such an icon.
The case against trading Lowry
Yes, Lowry is getting older and questions remain as to how long he can continue playing at such a high level. But Lowry’s game is not predicated on elite athleticism. He should continue to be effective and a key contributor for at least two or three more years.
Jason Kidd played until age 40. As he got older, Kidd focused on reinventing his game. Kidd became an elite three-point shooter. At 38, Kidd was the starting point guard on the 2011 Dallas Mavericks Championship team. He only averaged 7.9 points per game. But Kidd contributed in other areas. He added 8.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game.
Lowry is already one of the premier marksmen in the NBA. According to Basketball-Reference, more than half of Lowry’s shot attempts this season were 3s. He is a career 36.6 percent shooter from long-distance. As he ages, Lowry may not be able to carry the Raptors’ offense. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a valuable piece to a championship-caliber team.
Lowry has had an outstanding season. He averaged 19.7 points, 7.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. However, he has already shown a willingness to take a step back. Lowry deferred to Kawhi last season. This year it has been more of the same.
Siakam is the team’s leading scorer. The Raptors know this team will only go as far as Siakam can carry them. Also, Lowry has spent more time playing off the ball. He often defers to VanVleet who has been starting alongside Lowry in the backcourt this season.
Part of the reason Ujiri and Webster gave Lowry $31 million for next season has to be to build up goodwill for the future.
As per Spotrac, by the end of the 2020-21 season, the Raptors will have paid Lowry about $171 million throughout nine seasons. If the team has the opportunity to add a top 10 player next summer, Lowry might be open to returning at a substantial discount to make one last run at a championship.
Also, how much does the Raptors’ front office value a late first-round draft pick?
The Raptors have all their picks moving forward. They have shown an ability to find talent outside the first round. VanVleet and Davis were both undrafted. Powell was a second-round pick. Plus the Raptors should be able to keep most of their rotation intact for next season, so there is no guarantee a rookie would even get consistent playing time.
During Ujiri’s tenure, the Raptors have done an outstanding job of developing talent at the backend of the roster, while continuing to be a playoff team.
One thing that has been important for the development of the Raptors’ young players is that they have had to earn playing time. VanVleet started fourth on the team’s depth chart. Siakam was the D-League Finals MVP before he was an All-Star. Nothing has been handed to these players.
The Raptors as an organization value hardworking players. No rookie is going to come in and start from day one. It might be more beneficial to keep a player like Lowry around to mentor the next generation instead of shipping him out just because he’s on the wrong side of the 30.
Lowry has become synonymous with the Toronto Raptors. Players watch how an organization treats its own. Trading Lowry could have the opposite effect. Instead of making room to sign a big-time free agent, it could alienate potential targets.
After all, the basketball world was shocked when the Raptors moved on from DeRozan. Moving Lowry could be a death-blow to an organization not generally viewed as a free agent destination.
Only time will tell what the Raptors intend to do. There is no doubt that Ujiri and Webster have discussed any number of different scenarios, chief among them is what to do with Lowry. For now, he remains a member of the Toronto Raptors. But that may not be the case when the season tips off next year.