Kyle Lowry faced with high expectations after new deal with Raptors

Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry discusses why his contract extension was an easy decision, and works so well for both sides, and how he’s really looking forward to the championship banner raising.

TORONTO — Kyle Lowry gets to watch the championship banner his blood, sweat and tendons were so instrumental in earning go up with a smile on his face.

The moment the franchise has waited 24 years to celebrate goes off without a hitch, without any lingering uncertainty or immediate unpleasantness.

That’s win-win.

The Toronto Raptors and their franchise point guard began the process of discussing an extension months ago, although it took a little longer than you might have thought for a championship team with money to spend to reach an agreement with their most important player.

Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said the 14-hour time difference between Tokyo, where the Raptors were for a pair of exhibition games last week, and Lowry’s Chicago-based agent Mark Bartelstein was the source of the hold up. Maybe. Something tells me if the Raptors were offering something closer to what Lowry was originally hoping for the time change wouldn’t have mattered.

Regardless, it’s done. Next season, when Lowry will turn 35, he will earn $31 million on a one-year extension to his current three-year deal, the agreement finally being made official Tuesday morning.

It’s not Lowry’s way to gush – when it comes to the business of basketball, he’s very clear that it’s a business, a transaction between equals. But he made it clear he wanted to explore getting more guaranteed money into his sweats for after his current deal runs out, and it got done. The extension may not have been the two- or three-year deal he was hoping for, but it’s not nothing either.

The team needed its point guard in the fold and happy to have its best chance at mounting a respectable title defence, and Lowry wasn’t about to surrender that bit of leverage without some kind of financial recognition.

“It was an opportunity that worked out for both sides,” said Lowry who – not coincidentally – hit the practice floor for the first time this fall only after the ink had dried on his amended contract. “[Toronto] is a place I wanted to be. It’s a place I’ve been most successful in my career. I think it works on both sides. It’s just something that is really important and really special to have an opportunity to go out here and play basketball and make that amount of money playing the sport that you love. It was great. It got done. We didn’t know it was going to get done but it got done and it’s another steppingstone in my career.”

The challenge for Lowry now is what kind of value he can provide this year and – ostensibly – the next. Lowry told me once he wants to play until he’s 40, so he’ll be motivated to show that this deal won’t be his last.

Still, no player his age – he turns 34 in March – has ever earned a contract extension worth more than $30 million a season, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. And while the deal is in some measure a tribute to what Lowry has done in his seven seasons as a Raptor, the hope and expectation is that in years eight and nine Lowry plays at a level that justifies his pay day.

In that regard, there may be some questions to be answered. As Lowry showed with his masterful performance in the Raptors’ title-clinching Game 6 win over the Golden State Warriors – when he exploded for 26 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and three steals – there is little doubt about his ability to command a crucial game or make the right play in the moment.

But the NBA season is a long one and last year Lowry averaged four-year lows in points per 100 possessions (20.1); true-shooting percentage (56.2), win shares per 48 minutes (.144) and other advanced statistical measures. His usage rate was down significantly, but his turnover percentage was up significantly.

Much was made about his willingness to be a distributor – his assist percentage of 34.8 was a career-high – but heading into this season he’ll be short of two pretty compelling targets in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

Whether this works for or against Lowry will be a storyline to follow this season: After taking a major step back as an offensive option, can or will Lowry assert himself as he has in years past?

There is no doubt in his mind, which is perhaps why spending on Lowry is such a good investment – he’s an expert in setting a new bar for himself and finding doubters to prove wrong.

“It’s going to change,” Lowry said of his role going forward. “I’ve got to be a lot more of a scorer. It’s going to be interesting how we play. We always play, move the ball, this, that and the other, backdoors, play through Marc [Gasol], and myself and Freddie [VanVleet] are going to be on the floor together a lot more, I believe. Pascal [Siakam] is going to get a lot more attention and I’m going to get a lot more attention but it’s something where I’m used to it and I’m ready for the challenge again. Got to do what’s best for the team and get back to the Promised Land.”

It could be that Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s egalitarian offensive leanings will mean that Lowry will continue to hunt for opportunities for his teammates, but it seems more reasonable that a team that lost 310 made threes to Los Angeles in free agency will need Lowry to fill some of that gap.

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Can he?

Nurse believes so. He’s worked with Lowry for six seasons and still sees no reason he can’t deliver at high level.

Is Lowry slowing down?

“Nah, not at all. Nope,” says Nurse. “Six, seven years I’ve been here or whatever it is now, there was some concerns late in the year, etcetera, but I haven’t noticed that last year especially and the year before either.

“I think we’ve all figured that out a little bit better and I don’t really have any concerns with him as far as that goes.”

Not surprisingly, Webster remains bullish on Lowry’s ability to maintain his level heading into his 14th season.

“He takes incredibly good care of his body, the way he eats, what he does in the summer,” Webster said. “I think maybe it was four years ago where he drastically changed his conditioning. And you know, as everyone says, it’s 2019 and all the resources they have available to them, that aging curve is potentially changing.”

That may be true, but getting older and playing point guard at an all-star level in the NBA, while not impossible, is rare. Lowry has averaged 17.4 points and 7.1 assists in seven seasons in Toronto.

How many guards have met or exceeded both those thresholds as a 33-year-old?

Only four: Jerry West, Gary Payton, Sam Cassell and Lenny Wilkens.

It’s a crude measure – if Lowry could chip in 16 and seven this season on some decent percentages everyone would consider it a success, I’m sure – but it makes the point that being able to produce at that level at this stage of his career is a tall order, to say nothing of next season.

But with Lowry’s deal done the player who can only be the first to have his jersey retired as a Raptor gets two more years to keep proving people wrong and carving out a place for himself as one of the NBA’s under-appreciated greats.

In the meantime, Lowry and the franchise can look forward to opening night and all the good feelings everyone has coming to them.

The aging curve can wait.

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