Why the Raptors should let Lowry walk, but not blow it up

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri says everybody has to be held accountable for the disappointing finish, beginning with him, and the goal going forward now is to figure out how to win in the playoffs.

This is an updated version of a story that was published when the Toronto Raptors were eliminated from the 2017 NBA postseason.

The options for Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster seem pretty obvious from the outside. Enjoying the best stretch of basketball in the history of the franchise, why not run this team back and hope for better health while betting on continuity?

Or take the last two playoff losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers as a well-timed lesson and blow things up to get in front of the tanking line for lottery picks and enough assets to one day make you a true title contender.

The truth is neither is an overly appealing option. Which is why the Toronto Raptors might very well settle on a hybrid of the two. Not a full TNT blow up of the entire block, but instead a significant home reno. Here’s why a baby blow-up is the most likely course of action:

Kyle Lowry’s rising cost and depreciating value
This much we know: If he returns to Toronto Kyle Lowry will most likely ask for a five year max contract worth around $200 million. With Chris Paul now with the Houston Rockets the only other 2017 free agent point guard ahead of Lowry on everybody’s board is Stephen Curry. Under no circumstance does it make sense to pay Lowry close to the same as Curry or even Paul because by any metric, he is a lesser player. If he is wiling to take a four or preferably three year deal to continue to lead Canada’s team that’s a different story.

Lowry’s potential options are decreasing but there are still viable landing spots. Both the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves have the need and the resources to spend big on a point guard.

The market may dictate the three-time NBA all-star cashes in like Mike Conley did when he signed the richest contract in NBA history last summer, even though he has yet to make an NBA all-star team. The Memphis Grizzlies are no better for it. In a salary cap league, if you pay Lowry the same as a superior player at his position, that means you have to make smarter decisions at every other position with the same amount of disposable income left over.

Although it may hurt the heart emotionally, the economics say let Lowry walk.

Lowry could leave on his own
There seems to be an assumption that Lowry wants to return to Toronto, which based on his noncommittal comments is far from a certainty.

There are rumours Lowry wants to head west. It’s ben speculated that Jimmy Butler is already recruiting him to come to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

At his end-of-season press conference, Lowry clearly stated that his main incentive in deciding where he plays next season is winning a championship. The list of teams that could help him achieve that is short, but one that would improve his chances in the short term is the Spurs. With Tony Parker aging and about to miss significant time to start next year with a torn quadriceps, Lowry would fill a need. But the San Antonio Spurs don’t have the cap room to sign Lowry to a max deal. If Lowry is willing to give up the extra year Toronto is able to offer to go elsewhere he is certainly not willing to give up dollars per year. Toronto could engage the Spurs in sign-and-trade talks that made all three parties better off.

Another option is the Utah Jazz, who may be a piece away from contending and will have the cap room to outright sign Lowry this summer.

Cory Joseph is cost effective
Remember the Raptors went 14-7 without Kyle Lowry this season. Against the Cavaliers they actually competed better in the two games he sat out than the two he played in. Cory Joseph is 43-25 (.632) in his career as a starter and will make 1/5th of what Lowry makes next season.

Bird rights are an advantage
Masai Ujiri went all-in at the trade deadline. He gave up multiple picks and a young player on a good contract in Terrence Ross for a greater chance at pushing the Cavaliers.

Part of the rationale was to get the Bird rights for Tucker and Ibaka so you’d have the best opportunity to sign them, as they’d likely have been free agent targets anyways. Now that you’ve had what amounts to a playoff internship with both players why would you walk away? Even if the Raptors said peace to not just Lowry but all of their free agents, too, they would enter the off-season with just $24.188 million in cap space.

More importantly they wouldn’t have Bird rights to go above the cap to sign comparable free agents and avoid paying luxury tax.

The three is key
Once their season wrapped, both Ujiri and Dwane Casey stressed the ability to shoot the three pointer as a point of emphasis.

Four of the Raptors best long-distance shooters— Lowry, Ibaka, Tucker, and Patrick Patterson— are all free agents. Letting them all walk gets you farther away from that goal at being a proficient three-point shooting team, not closer. Patterson has slumped shooting from beyond the arc of late but is 28 years old and at 6’9″ his 36.8 per cent accuracy from three for his career is above average. Patterson, Ibaka and Tucker are also three of Toronto’s best at defending the three and the high pick and roll plays that often create them.

Instead of looking to sign costly shooters in free agency, like J.J. Redick or Kyle Korver, the Raps may simply be better off with a revised offensive scheme based on creating better three-point opportunities.

Acquire a star by trading a star
‘Trade my stars for your stars’ is also in play for Ujiri this summer, especially if it is to promote a stylistic change.

DeMar DeRozan is actually getting worse at shooting the three (after making 15.4 per cent of his threes last postseason he hit just 6.7 per cent this playoffs). If you decide the DeRozan’s master of the midrange style doesn’t fit in the new pace-and space-era of the NBA, and that trading him is the way to go, so be it.

But it doesn’t mean you need to trade him for picks and start over completely.

With salaries having to match, the current CBA makes it really hard to trade a star and get back full value. the best example of this is the return the Chicago Bulls got for Jimmy Butler and the Sacramento Kings got for DeMarcus Cousins. What is more likely, however, is convincing a team to take your problem for their problem.

Whether it is this offseason or next year before the trade deadline it is smarter to trade DeRozan for a known commodity rather than a lottery ball that has a slim chance of becoming a player as good as DeMar.

Ujiri is not a tanker
Tanking is not in Masai Ujiri’s make up, which was evident in the fiery tone of his postseason address. He’s a competitor and a fighter not a quitter. Between Denver and now Toronto, Masai has been in charge of an organization for seven years and has made the playoffs all seven. Why change now?

Super teams don’t last
The Miami Heat’s Big Three, which everyone assumed would end competitive basketball as we know it, was only .500 in the Finals. Even the Boston Celtics Big Three, which started the new age super team trend a decade ago only won one championship. There are already rumours the Golden State Warriors might not be willing to pay the luxury tax it would take to keep Andre Igoudala a part of the “Hamptons five.”

On the flip side the teams that have tanked and rebuilt during that span, are still bad. Look at the teams who were recently in the lottery— it’s the same sad faces hoping ping pong balls fall their way. The Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves have done the same thing with middling results. In the interim, what they have done is killed their business model as an entertainment entity. Speaking of…

They are winning off the court
The Raptors have not won a title yet but they are a thriving business. As a league the NBA set an attendance record this season, and the Raptors finished third in attendance.

Last year in the conference finals the Jurassic park lines went back two blocks past York street. This year the standing room only Ford Fan zone had lots of vacant space. A sports franchise isn’t just selling entertainment they are selling hope. They have to give this team a makeover of some sort to realistically give their followers a new reason to hope. But demolishing everything they built isn’t accomplishing that any time soon. Just because Lowry isn’t the answer doesn’t mean people will be excited to see Delon Wright posters on the side of the ACC next fall.

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Rebuilds hurt recruiting
Perception is reality in NBA circles. Toronto has gone to great lengths to be seen as a top-notch organization. Raptors 905, the Biosteel practice facility, Drake as Global ambassador, hosting the NBA all-star game were all done to prop up the organization cosmetically. A full rebuild would strip away some of that credit built up around the league. The Raptors signed DeMar DeRozan without him even taking another meeting and were finalists when LaMarcus Aldridge was making a decision. They might not have landed a big unrestricted free agent like the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors but they are in the conversation. No matter if they currently have the cap space to cash on the popularity capital, staying that way for the foreseeable future has value.

Truth is, many teams wish they were in Toronto’s position. It’s why a baby blow up centred on a “culture reset” is in order.

One thing we know about sports is no future path is certain. Five years ago, nobody thought the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors were going to be title contenders any time soon. Now they met in three straight Finals. There is no guarantee small tweaks minus Lowry will be enough to get to that level. But the other options— keeping everyone, or moving everyone— both provide more questions than answers.