The Raptors are facing an off-season like no other. They have a handful of free agents to decide on, an uncertain NBA financial picture and a first-round pick in the Nov. 18 draft. This is the second in a six-part series looking at the decisions and options that lie ahead:
There is no player more central to the sustained success the Raptors have had for more than half a decade than Kyle Lowry.
He is the team’s leader and its heartbeat. Coach Nick Nurse says he’s never seen anyone play more consistently hard, and the veteran from Philadelphia has come to embody all that’s good about the franchise.
Lowry is the longest-serving member of the team, thought to be the best player to have ever worn the Toronto uniform, and shows no signs of slowing down.
“I don’t even want to say it’s been up and down any more with Kyle Lowry,” team president Masai Ujiri said this past week. “That guy is a stud, OK? I’m telling the whole world that guy is incredible, what he has done for this whole organization.”
But there is a question, and it’s a legitimate one that probably won’t be answered for a year, about whether or not he will end his career in Toronto. Next season is not a big question — the point guard has a year left on his contract – but looking much further out is intriguing.
It is Lowry’s longer-term future that is the most interesting aspect of his story, and will be something for fans to think about — now and into the 2020-21 season, whenever it begins.
It was almost a year ago that Lowry was rewarded with a one-year, $31-million (U.S.) contract extension after a holdout/non-holdout where he didn’t take part in the pre-season until after the deal was consummated.
But it is a virtual certainty there will be no extension this time around — Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster need to save some financial wiggle room for the summer of 2021 — and even the possibility of a trade is remote.
Not only would it rob the Raptors of one of their best players and undisputed leaders, but management isn’t going to take back long-term money in a deal for precisely the same reason they are unlikely to talk to Lowry about sticking around.
Ujiri, however, was effusive — and perhaps a bit hyperbolic — in discussing Lowry this past week.
“I don’t want to start pushing him as a Hall of Famer and all this stuff, because I want 10 more incredible years from this guy,” the team president said. “It seems to me the older he becomes, the better he becomes. It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that. As a human being, as a person, as a teammate, Kyle was phenomenal.”
The prudent approach, even if it’s not going to offer Lowry any long-term security, is to play through next season and then see where things are.
If the Raptors prioritize re-signing guard Fred VanVleet this coming off-season, as they should, does eventually handing the team over to him make sense, even if it means Lowry finishes his career somewhere else?
But if the Raptors somehow lose out on VanVleet, do they go with just one more Lowry season and then move in whichever direction they want?
Tough calls for a year from now.
One factor that probably shouldn’t come into play is Lowry’s age. He’s undergone a mid-career transformation with his body, his mind and his leadership capabilities, morphing from a kind of pudgy youngster into an always fit, perennially healthy veteran who plays with no regard to his physical well-being.
He seems to truly enjoy being with this group, leading it and letting teammates learn from him.
“For me, being 14 years in, playing with these young guys — those guys pushing me to be better every single day, and those guys letting me lead them — that’s important for a guy like me,” he said. “Fourteen years have gone by so fast. You want to cherish every moment.”
How many of those moments remain is a question for about a year from now.
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