Two of the most coveted free agents on the open market this summer ended the season in Toronto Raptors uniforms. Now that he opted out of the last year of his $12-million deal, the 31-year-old Kyle Lowry is the third-best point guard on the market behind Chris Paul and Stephen Curry. The third-best power forward behind Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap (debatable) is Serge Ibaka who averaged 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in the regular season and 14.3 points, 6.5 rebounds in the playoffs.
They are also represented by the same agent, Andy Miller, which adds intrigue to the situation.
Much has been made about if Masai Ujiri and the Raptors should stand pat or blow things up after losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second consecutive post-season. That choice might not be entirely his if three-time NBA all-star Kyle Lowry and three-time NBA all-defensive first team member Serge Ibaka opt to chase a championship somewhere else.
Here’s a look at their likeliest destinations.
Could Kyle Lowry pull a LeBron James and go back home? He is a proud Philadelphia native, spends his off-season there and would make a boatload of money in endorsements off the court if he returned.
A starting five of Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Ben Simmons, an upcoming top-five NBA draft pick (possibly Josh Jackson) and Lowry looks great on paper and would compete in the Eastern Conference as early as next year. But in the twilight of his career, Lowry would be taking a big gamble leaving money on the table and betting on the health and progression of Embiid and Simmons, who both ended the season with injuries.
No team in the league has a bigger need at point guard than Philly. Nobody knows this better than Bryan Colangelo who doesn’t mind taking high-risk, high-reward gambles on point guards like when he brought Lowry to Toronto or signed an injury prone and aging Steve Nash with the Phoenix Suns. Those are arguably Colangelo’s best acquisitions of his career so don’t expect him not to apply that same logic and go after Lowry hard this summer.
San Antonio Spurs
Lowry said he wants a ring and there are rumours he wants to go west. Process of elimination removes the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors as they already have all-NBA point guards in James Harden and Stephen Curry. That leaves the San Antonio Spurs by default, who are at a championship level and will be missing Tony Parker to start next season with torn quadriceps suffered in these playoffs. Spending on Lowry in free agency isn’t a Spurs-type move but neither was signing LaMarcus Aldridge. Desperate not to waste Kawhi Leonard’s prime, Lowry could be in play.
The Nuggets were under the salary floor this year and are planning on spending big in free agency to get them back in the post-season. Once they denounce the rights to Danilo Gallinari and Mike Miller they’ll be one of the only teams with enough room to offer the full max to veterans like Lowry. The Emmanuel Mudiay experiment may have reached its peak and Jamal Murray is probably best suited as an undersized shooting guard which is why a floor general might be all the Nuggets lack to go from pretender to contender.
Denver actually looked best last season when veteran Jameer Nelson was playing the point. Lowry is a bigger, more athletic and younger version of Nelson, but with deeper range and the same Pennsylvania grit. Remember, the Nuggets were so desperate to get in the free agency sweepstakes, they offered Dwyane Wade the most money last year before he went home to the Chicago Bulls, even though he doesn't fit at all.
Expect the Nuggets to back up the Brink's truck for Lowry, who is younger than Wade and a logical signing.
Tom Thibodeau has been looking for an excuse to get rid of Ricky Rubio and Lowry as a clear upgrade at point guard would justify his reasoning. The scrappy Lowry fits the mold of a player Thibodeau adores and would give a young Timberwolves team the veteran they need to navigate the many close games they’ve lost. Kris Dunn was one of the most disappointing rookies a year ago and Lowry could provide a mulligan for a team looking to take the next step into the post-season like the Utah Jazz did last year.
The grass isn’t always greener sometimes. Lowry was tempted by the Miami Heat three years ago but decided to re-sign in Toronto. That turned out be a smart decision as he’s been an all-star and made the playoffs every year since. Being on a 50-win team in a city where you are adored is not guaranteed in every other market. Plus, when you’re doing it for almost $50 million more with an extra year of contract certainty and higher annual raises than you can anywhere else, the decision, in many respects, is made for you. The Raptors can offer Lowry a five-year deal for a projected $205 million. Elsewhere he can sign for a max of four-years at $158 million. Either way, his contract would start at about $36 million.
Lowry watched his best friend in basketball DeMar DeRozan make a similar decision a year ago. Despite all the rumours, the economics and the logic still make a return to Toronto the most likely preference for the player.
Houston's cap situation makes this tough, but when you lose badly before the conference finals, drastic changes are in play (e.g. the Raptors).
Depth is an issue for the Rockets, who played just seven players in a second-round overtime loss in Game 5 versus the Spurs and eight players in the deciding Game 6. The lack of depth was especially obvious in the paint as the already undersized Clint Capela was the only true big Mike D’Antoni trusted to play. Ibaka’s addition would allow him to play centre, which he prefers at this stage of his career, with Capela moving to power forward. It would also allow D'Antoni, the three-point offensive genius, to employ more five-out offensive schemes with Ryan Anderson at the four and Ibaka at the five where all the Rockets players on the floor have the ability to hit shots from beyond the arc.
They’ve stolen a Raptors power forward in free agency before, why wouldn’t they try and do it again? Amir Johnson’s run in Boston looks to be coming to an end as he’s struggled to get minutes in the playoffs, so Ibaka could be a potential upgrade. If Gordon Hayward decides he wants to cash in, in Utah, Ibaka could be a nice Plan B for the Celtics.
Imagine a front line of Ibaka and Al Horford being interchangeable bigs who are able to shoot and defend all over the floor. The Celtics were interested at the deadline before the Raptors pulled the trigger, so they could make amends this summer.
Oklahoma City Thunder
If the Thunder miss out on bringing hometown kid Blake Griffin back to the heartland, they might be interested in a reunion with Ibaka. Remember, Ibaka was moved preemptively so they could clear money to re-sign Kevin Durant. Now that Durant is out of the picture, Ibaka’s three-point shot is once again badly needed. Sam Presti could look like a genius if he brings Ibaka back and couples him with the assets he traded for him just two years later.
A big factor in this decision would be family. Ibaka has repeatedly said the comfort of his daughter will play a major factor in his decision. She didn’t travel with him to Toronto after he was traded as he didn’t want to uproot her during the school year. The first and longest place his daughter has lived in since coming to the United States is Oklahoma City.
The Heat are in the running because they are likely going to get cap relief this summer in the form of Chris Bosh’s $52.1 million over the next two years coming off of their books. Pat Riley could immediately fill that spot with a younger version of Bosh in Ibaka. Miami is one of the only teams that could pay his max starting salary of $30 million. If Miami renounces the non-guaranteed contract of Wayne Ellington they’ll have $37 million in cap space to play with. Riley loves stars and will have testimonials from Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning to help close in a recruiting meeting. A Hassan Whiteside and Serge Ibaka frontcourt would immediately make Miami an upper-echelon team in the East.
One of the reasons Serge was traded to Toronto when there were many suitors interested in his services is that there was a strong assurance he was interested in being there long term. Without that understanding, teams were not going to part with enough assets to convince the Orlando Magic to give up their best player. Ibaka was a great fit from the very beginning in Toronto, which wasn’t the case in Orlando.
He has a president he looks up to in Masai Ujiri, an assistant coach he’s long respected from his times in Oklahoma City in Rex Kalamian and a significant role on a team where he feels valued, which by the end of his time with the Thunder wasn’t the case. Ibaka is a cultured guy so the metropolitan Toronto lifestyle is a blessing in comparison to spending his NBA life split between Oklahoma City and Orlando. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better on-court and off-the-court fit than the Raptors, and they have the advantage of owning his Bird rights.