Before training camp began last season Masai Ujiri met with Kyle Lowry and gave him a challenge:
Be the player you can be, the Toronto Raptors general manager told his point guard.
Channel the competitive fire that had too often burned those around him. Have the best season of his career and change your reputation around the NBA from a talented hard-head (who teams couldn’t trust, destined to be a journeyman on one-year contracts) to a franchise cornerstone who could earn, in one contract, enough to set his family up for life. Turn yourself into a $10-million-a-year player.
Lowry took his message to heart and exceeded perhaps everyone’s expectations but his own.
And late Wednesday night Lowry got his reward as the 28-year-old point guard from Philadelphia agreed to terms on a four-year, $48-million contract with Toronto.
The deal cannot be made official until July 11 but Lowry signaled his enthusiasm by sporting a throwback Vince Carter jersey on Instagram.
The deal includes an out after three seasons for Lowry and makes him the eighth-highest paid point guard in the NBA this coming season.
It is more than the Raptors originally wanted to pay. As it was clear that Lowry was the primary engine behind the Raptors surprising 48-34 season the hope was that they could get Lowry on a relatively short three season deal worth $30 million. By the time Lowry had led them to the playoffs for the first time in five seasons while averaging 17.9 points/7.4 assists/4.7 rebounds and finishing eighth in the NBA in WinShares – a catch-all measurement of overall on-floor contributions – it was clear his price had gone up.
Even then the Raptors were hopeful they could get Lowry signed for four years and $11 millon.
But when the NBA’s free agency period opened July 1 at midnight there were teams competing for his attention. Foremost among them was the Houston Rockets, who offered Lowry the chance to return to his previous NBA home and join a lineup featuring Dwight Howard, James Harden and possibly Carmelo Anthony.
That they would likely have needed to convince the Raptors to participate in a sign-and-trade deal – probably centred around Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin and a future draft pick – made it unlikely as the Raptors were not going to help facilitate Lowry leaving.
They needed to send a message to the NBA that they could keep their own players.
But waiting in the wings were the Miami Heat who were reported to have interest in Lowry as a compliment to their established core of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It was unlikely they would be able to match a full-blooded offer from Toronto, but Heat president Pat Riley has had success convincing players to take less for the chance to win rings.
It didn’t help that both Florida and Texas don’t have state income tax, which is something Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri had to factor into his offer.
But ultimately Lowry was sold on the city, the team, his coach and the reality that after seven tumultuous seasons in the NBA when he was closer to becoming a league afterthought than a fixture, he’d arrived on a team that needed him as badly as he needed them.
When the Raptors came with an offer that was proof of the regard they hold Lowry in, it wasn’t a difficult choice. He considered his options for 24 hours and gave word to Ujiri late Wednesday night.
He was a Raptor.
For the Raptors it means they have the best chance possible of picking up where they left off at the end of 2013-14. Even just keeping the roster largely the same should bode well given Lowry is just entering his prime and there is still organic growth to come when you consider Terrence Ross and Jonas Valancuinas were starters in only their second year in the NBA and leading scorer DeMar DeRozan was just in his fifth NBA season.
But most of all, signing Lowry is a signal to their fans and to the NBA that the Raptors don’t have to quake in their sneakers any time another franchise comes sniffing around their players.
In some ways, the reputation Toronto has for not being able to keep their own stars is unfounded. There was no bigger young star in the NBA than Vince Carter when he signed a contract extension with the Raptors in 2001. Similarly Chris Bosh was an in-demand rising star when he signed an extension with the Raptors after the 2006-07 season.
But those stars – along with the likes of Tracy McGrady and Damon Stoudamire – eventually left for greener pastures. Every time the Raptors seemed poised to build something that would last, the bottom fell out.
Signing Lowry guarantees Toronto nothing but a chance to suffer that fate again.
But not signing would have fed into every stereotype – fair or unfair – that the Raptors would never be able to build on their own success, that they were destined to be an elaborate NBA farm system.
For the price of $48 million, Lowry will spend what should be the best years of his basketball career as a Raptor. Time will tell if his contract will represent good value and if it’s the start of something special or not.
Every deal like this is a risk, but nothing compared to the danger of not getting it done.