Will Kyle Lowry’s contract year hang heavy over the Raptors’ season?

As the Toronto Raptors season approaches, Sportsnet’s NBA editor, Dave Zarum, and SN contributor and Raptors Republic‘s Blake Murphy discuss the burning questions heading into the much-anticipated 2016-17 campaign.

What do we expect of Kyle Lowry’s contract year?

Dave Zarum: It’s likely going to be the elephant in the room all year, but Kyle Lowry’s contract is up at seasons end, and like DeRozan a season ago (perhaps even more so) it feels like the future direction of the team/franchise is directly linked to Lowry’s decision. How do you see the lingering contract situation affecting the Raps this season?

Lowry is hardly the type of player who needs the motivation of a contract year to bring out the best of him, but he clearly has a lot to play for this season, both short and long term. Do you see it being a factor in anything we see on the court? Could this team stay competitive without Lowry on the roster?

Blake Murphy: Well, I think one thing is clear from media day last week: We won’t be getting any insight from Lowry himself. The point guard was adamant that he isn’t focusing on his contract situation and “probably won’t answer” any questions about his status, so like with DeRozan before him, we’ll be left to read vague tea leaves and unsubstantiated rumour mongering. And while I don’t doubt Lowry’s focus will be on winning (what better way to help a contract push, anyway?) I think the spectre of free agency can at least put to rest any misplaced concerns about motivation. Lowry wants to win, and he’s been focused and will remain focused on winning. I think the only way it becomes a potential distraction is if the Raptors aren’t doing just that: Winning.

As for whether they could compete without him, the answer is no, not to the level the franchise is now accustomed. Lowry was a top-10, maybe even top-five player in the NBA last season, and the wild on-off swings the team saw were not an anomaly or the product of small sample size. As he goes, the Raptors will go, talented though they may be around him. Cory Joseph and Delon Wright are great pieces to have, but if Lowry were to walk (and as you said, it’s way too early to think that way), this team would probably take a step back before figuring out how to take a step forward. He might be the best player in franchise history when the season’s done. You don’t just keep chugging along if he disappears.

Zarum: I’d love to argue for the sake of quality sports banter, but there’s just no doubt in my mind that should Lowry leave the team takes a significant step back. It’s not a knock on DeRozan, Valanciunas et al, but it’s going to be nearly impossible to be able to replace the kind of production and leadership Lowry provides from the point guard spot. That said, I’m not too worried about it. Money changes everything— and based on this past summer Lowry is a likely candidate for max. money in free agency— based on what we know about him and his path to get to this point that Lowry would want to do what he can to return to the Raptors, the first team that had enough confidence in him to hand him the keys to the franchise. As much as Lowry may want to, this is one plot line that’ll be impossible to ignore as the season wears on.