Masai Ujiri respects Kyle Lowry, but will he pay him?

William LouNBA reporter

There would be no championship without Kyle Lowry, and Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri understands that.

Way before Kawhi Leonard completed the greatest one-and-done in NBA history, there was Lowry (along with Ujiri, DeMar DeRozan and Dwane Casey) paving the foundation. Before Lowry blossomed, the Raptors never won more than 47 games. In the six seasons since, they haven’t dipped below 48, improving gradually from a perennial playoff team to being hailed as champions in a six-hour coronation attended by over three million delirious fans.

And while Leonard was undeniably the piece that finally brought Toronto over the top, Lowry’s contributions to the championship can’t be discounted. In the bitter dogfight that was Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, it was Lowry’s relentless hustle that put Leonard in a position to stick the four-bounce dagger. Against Milwaukee, Lowry averaged 19-5-5 and thoroughly outplayed every player not named Leonard or Antetokounmpo. And in the title clincher to end the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty, it was Lowry who rattled off the first 12 points to put the Raptors in the driver’s seat, before finishing with a team-high 26 points.

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“Kyle has an incredible legacy here that I think we all have underrated,” Ujiri said. “We’ve had our ups and downs and bumps and grinds, but the inner core of who he is as a player and what he’s done with this franchise, he definitely deserves that.”

Jun 17, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry shows off the Larry O'Brien trophy to fans during a parade through downtown Toronto to celebrate their NBA title. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 17, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry shows off the Larry O'Brien trophy to fans during a parade through downtown Toronto to celebrate their NBA title. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Leonard’s offseason exit brought everything into flux. Had he stayed, the Raptors would have been the clear favorites to repeat as champions. But since Leonard went home to Los Angeles, the Raptors have to shift focus from contention to development.

That’s where it gets tricky, because what exactly is Ujiri supposed to do with his veterans? Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol are clearly valuable contributors who would be beneficial to any playoff team, but they’re all over thirty and on expiring contracts. Putting sentiments aside, the standard strategy would be flipping them for future assets that fit the timeline of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, and perhaps Fred VanVleet.

It’s one thing to deal Gasol and Ibaka. Sure, they are beloved, but the fanbase would mostly understand if they moved on. They were western conference giants brought in to deliver Toronto that gold ball, and they succeeded. Ibaka and Gasol will always be celebrated as legends in the city, but if Ujiri didn’t want to reinvest heavily in an expensive frontcourt that will also feature Siakam at something close to a maximum contract, then it’s an understandable strategy.

It’s different with Lowry. Gasol is Grit and Grind, and Ibaka is OKC’s lost generation. Lowry is a Raptor, full stop. He belongs here and nowhere else. When it’s all said and done, Lowry will have his No. 7 in the rafters, and maybe even a statue to boot (might I humbly suggest the image of Lowry hugging game ball after the Eastern Conference finals.) You can’t just let him walk. Maybe that’s just sentiment, but that what is sports without the romance?

“There’s legacy status for him in my opinion,” Ujiri says of Lowry. “Someone who has given it his all.”

But then again, Ujiri isn’t exactly sentimental when it comes to his job.

Recall last summer’s blockbuster that blindsighted another franchise legend in DeRozan, the decision to axe Casey after he was named Coach of the Year, or not even offering a contract to Lou Williams after winning Sixth Man of the Year. Ujiri isn’t afraid to pull the trigger on unpopular moves for the greater good of his team, and that’s a big reason why he’s riding a nine-year playoff streak as one of the most sought after executives in the entire league.

And let’s face it, there isn’t exactly an extensive history of six-foot point guards dominating into their mid-thirties. Even if you take last year’s numbers, where Lowry averaged 14.5 points per game across 65 inconsistent appearances, the full list of 6-footers in NBA history who have matched those totals at the age of 34 or beyond is exactly two: Tim Hardaway and John Stockton.

Signs of decline aren’t hard to find. Lowry was once relentless and reckless with his daredevil drives to the rim, and now he’s shy and selective. The burst that once defined his game is now gone, or it only appears in flashes. Lowry also used to be a foul magnet which propped up his scoring, but a dip in athleticism coupled with changes in continuation rules left Lowry attempting half as many freebies as even compared to two seasons ago. Even his three-point shooting was iffy last season.

There’s also the issue of durability. Lowry’s rough and tumble style never allowed him to be an 82-game player, and not a season goes by without worry. In 2015, Lowry ballooned after hurting his back. In 2016, his elbow swelled to the size of a golf ball during the playoffs in an unfortunately-timed case of bursitis. In 2017, he broke his hand around the All-Star break and missed the final two games of the playoffs with an ankle injury. Then, after a mostly unencumbered 2018, Lowry again missed time last season with more back trouble, followed by a battered thumb that will now limit him throughout training camp.

And of course, there’s the future. How much longer can Lowry realistically carry the club, and who will be there to succeed him? Fred VanVleet seems like the obvious candidate, but he’s also set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. VanVleet still needs to improve, but he’s not coy about his intentions. He sees himself as a starter in the league, and a man with the motto of “Bet on Yourself” isn’t in the habit of settling for less. VanVleet said in a recent appearance that he sees Toronto as a place he can live for “a long time” but the Raptors would need to come correct with an offer.

Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors holds the championship trophy during the Toronto Raptors Victory Parade on June 17, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors holds the championship trophy during the Toronto Raptors Victory Parade on June 17, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

As with any relationship, there needs to be compromise. There’s interest in a deal — Lowry told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated that he wants to be in Toronto “long term” — but there needs to be common ground.

From the Raptors, there needs to be proper respect for Lowry’s worth. The days of Lowry putting up All-Star numbers are likely over, but he still provides value beyond the boxscore. He is still a clear plus on both ends, and he does all the little things that impact winning. Developing players need structure around them to shine, and Lowry brings a level of organization and cohesiveness as the floor general. Even a limited version of Lowry finished second in assists and second in charges drawn last season, and he posted the third-highest net rating on the team. Despite the decline, Lowry is still essential.

As for Lowry, the considerations go beyond dollar signs. His kids were born here, and his family is comfortable — what’s the price of disrupting that? It’s one thing if his career were incomplete, but there’s no longer a dire need to chase rings. Lowry has also established a legacy in Toronto, and he can further build his case as the best Raptor of all-time by overseeing the transition to the next generation. Lowry is already beloved, but he can become eternal. With a few more years here, Lowry’s case over DeRozan, Leonard, and Vince Carter as the greatest Raptor in franchise history will be set.

There’s no sense in the Raptors locking themselves into a repeat of the Chris Paul situation, because bad contracts only end in divorce. Lowry doesn’t wield nearly the same leverage as Paul had over Houston, and the market for him won’t be that robust, anyway. When Lowry last tested free agency in 2017, he wasn’t exactly raking in offers. San Antonio had a gaping vacancy at point guard, but they passed in favor of re-signing Patty Mills. Ujiri actually did Lowry a solid by signing him to a generous three-year deal at the max, which was only fair since Lowry was such a steal in previous seasons.

Next summer, the only teams projected to have more than $20 million in cap room will be Atlanta, Cleveland, Memphis and Charlotte, who are all lottery teams unlikely to splurge on a veteran guard. Besides that, there is Denver (who have Jamal Murray signed to the maximum), Phoenix (a perennial disaster) and New Orleans (who have both Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball). Where exactly are the offers coming from? Lowry would either have to join a flawed situation, or take a discount to compete. Besides, most teams want to keep their cap for the summer of 2021, when the likes of Antetokounmpo and Leonard become available.

The best situation for Lowry would be stay put. Something like a two-year deal in the range of $40 million makes complete sense on both sides. For the Raptors, they’ll have Lowry to oversee the transition, without ruining their flexibility (they will still have maximum cap room in 2021, even after paying $20 million for Lowry and a hefty extension for Siakam), and for Lowry, he gets to stay in a winning organization in a city where he is beloved, while getting paid what he is worth. At a salary of roughly $20 million, Lowry is sandwiched between Eric Bledsoe ($17 million) and Malcolm Brogdon ($21 million) which shows proper deference to both his production and his importance to the franchise.

What must be avoided at all costs is an ugly split over money. Lowry is the foundation for this entire era, and he needs to be taken care of. They can’t go from losing DeRozan and canning Casey, to seeing Leonard walk, and then severing ties with Lowry in three successive summers. It’s one thing to be a team in transition, it’s another to be without an identity. Whether he’s the leading man or just the bridge to the next generation, future iterations of the Raptors need to adopt Lowry’s mindset: The Raptors may be overlooked, but they’ll never be outworked.

“We can say whatever we want about Kyle: He comes and he gives it his all on the court. He’ll give me a headache once a month, but that’s fine. That’s our relationship. I really respect him for that. We’ll always pay Kyle that respect,” Ujiri said.

“What he’s done for this city, for this ball club, is remarkable. You all know: We’re sitting here, there’s many of you here, you all know when we sat down here six years ago, and we would never write this script, this way, in any form of dreams. And this is where it is. I’m proud of him for that.”

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