Under Tim Leiweke and Masai Ujiri – not to mention Drake — the Toronto Raptors are supposed to be on their way to being a more confident, vibrant and relevant franchise in the NBA than ever before.
As of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday morning the plan gets put to its first test as the Raptors will reach out to Kyle Lowry, the most desirable free agent the club has had since Chris Bosh left for Miami.
My prediction? Kyle Lowry will remain a Toronto Raptor.
It is an important moment. As far back as April Leiweke, MLSE’s president and chief executive officer, appeared on CBC and said the club would re-sign Lowry.
It’s now up to Ujiri, his hand-picked general manager, to land him. Both men’s reputations are at stake as well as the image of the franchise as a whole.
Working in their favour is that when Lowry left Toronto at the end of the season he didn’t hold back: "I love this place,” he said. “I love the situation. It’s as simple as that."
Right out of the free agency blocks the Raptors are expected to show their love to him with a deal that will likely be in the range of $44 million over four years.
And while there is some real interest in Lowry around the NBA there is no team where Lowry could go where he would mean more than what he means to Toronto, and both sides know it.
While formal negotiations can’t start until July 1 and deals can’t be signed until July 11, the two sides have been in regular contact to talk about the parameters of a deal (semantics count in NBA free agency).
Team sources refused comment and calls to Lowry's agent weren't returned, but there is a sense of optimism that their starting point guard recognizes Toronto is best place for him to commit to playing the prime of his NBA career.
It has been building for months, since Ujiri challenged Lowry to mature into his talent rather than allow a reputation as being tough to work with turn him into a $2-million a year player.
The Raptors' out-of-nowhere 48-win season and thrilling playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets helped, as did the chemistry on the first NBA team where Lowry was the undisputed leader.
Now he stands to get paid accordingly.
At Lowry’s end-of-season press conference he couldn’t have been more effusive about his experience with the Raptors. He did his best to sound like he’d be willing to listen to offers elsewhere, but ultimately he couldn’t play it down the middle.
"It’s very difficult, but at the end of the day it’s still a business and you have to be a businessman for the situation that you’re in," Lowry said the day after the Raptors lost Game 7 to the Brooklyn Nets at the ACC. "But I am very happy. This has been one of the best seasons I’ve had through and through. Best coaches, teammates, [executives]. It’s been great. I am happy. Without a doubt, I can say I’m happy.”
Given the strength of the relationship between the two sides – Lowry was eager to support Ujiri’s charitable foundation gala the in Toronto the week before last and has been in regular contact with his teammates and head coach Dwane Casey -- the Raptors opted to wait until Tuesday during the day to send a delegation to Philadelphia to woo Lowry.
The deal – if and when it gets done – will be a victory of substance over style.
The Raptors are a winning team. Lowry is their clear on-court general and Ujiri and the Raptors will make a significant offer to Lowry as proof they want him back.
"They’re bidding against themselves a little bit," said one Western Conference executive.
But that’s okay. The Raptors have to balance the risk of bumping Lowry’s deal higher by a million or two against trying to explain his departure to a fan base that has just been re-energized after five seasons of disappointment.
For all the hype about the possibility of Lowry joining the Miami Heat as their fourth option, even the most generous restructuring of their contracts by incumbents LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade make it difficult for the Heat to top $10 million a season for Lowry on a first approach.
The Heat have yet to reach out to Lowry, even through back channels, and likely won’t be able to make a pitch until they figure out numbers for James, Bosh and Wade. Does Lowry really want to wait until that gets sorted out while the Raptors offer is on the table? After finally coming into his own in Toronto, is he ready to be member of the Heat's supporting cast?
Similarly, the Houston Rockets will likely show interest but only after pitches to Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James don’t pan out, and not for the price Lowry could command from Toronto.
After that the options dwindle. The Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks both have cap space but no need for a starting point guard. The Los Angeles Lakers have cap space and need for a point guard, but multiple league sources have said that if the Lakers can’t land either one or both of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony -- in which case they couldn’t likely afford Lowry -- they don’t want to cloud their salary cap picture for 2015 with long-term deals to other players.
After trading John Salmons and his expiring contract to the Atlanta Hawks for Lou Williams, who should provide some scoring punch off the bench, and Brazilian big man project Bebe Nugiera on Monday, the Raptors will have about $25 million in salary cap space that they need to spread among restricted free agents Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez.
There is money in Toronto for the Raptors point guard, as well as a roster and locker room in which he’s already a perfect fit.
The Raptors are fully prepared to make Lowry their highest-paid player and the centrepiece of a growing team.
I can’t imagine he doesn’t take advantage.