Maybe it only seems like the Toronto Raptors are always at crossroads at this time of year, but for once this is really the case. The Raptors have been a stable group for much of the past four years and could be for several years to come yet.
But massive, franchise-defining change could be in the wind, too. It feels like the next seven or 10 days could go a long way towards determining the Raptors’ direction for years to come.
Toronto has averaged 51 wins a year for the past four seasons and won more playoff games in the past two years than in the previous 20 seasons combined.
But they will have four free agents this summer among their top eight players and two of them in their starting five.
One of them, Kyle Lowry, is the point guard and first domino. Losing the three-time all-star in free agency may not automatically mean the Raptors’ days as an Eastern Conference contender will come screeching to a half. The club went 15-7 without him last year, although against a weak schedule. But it would very likely trigger a wave of change unlike anything the club has seen since Raptors president Masai Ujiri began practicing his “patience is a virtue” doctrine since taking over the top job in 2013.
With Lowry, the Raptors’ path for the next two or three years is evident: retain as much talent as feasible and hope with stability and repetitions Toronto can make a dent in LeBron James’ Eastern Conference hegemony, while holding off the Boston Celtics or whoever else is trying to scramble over them. Remember, Game 1 of their playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks was just the fourth time head coach Dwane Casey had his full roster together after the trade deadline.
Without Lowry, who has accumulated 40.5 WinShares over the past four years, 11th best in the NBA, it feels like almost anything can happen as the need to commit years and money to Serge Ibaka, P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson doesn’t seem so urgent or even wise.
And if you’re not doing that, if a rebuild is offing, does even keeping Raptors loyalist DeMar DeRozan make sense?
Ujiri said he has met with Lowry multiple times since the season ended to get a sense of how close they are to being on the same page. His most recent comments came after a recent report (refuted by Lowry) that the Raptors star had been telling people a month ago he wasn’t coming back to Toronto under any circumstances.
“Well, he’s been a part of our organization and he says he wants to come back,” Ujiri said.
“This is rumour season and everyone is going to make a big deal out of everything. I know what Kyle has told me … and I can only believe what he tells me.”
But what combination of money and opportunity could make Lowry more likely to leave or more likely to stay?
To get a better handle on the situation heading into July 1, I reached out to multiple NBA sources from multiple clubs in both conferences, as well as some long-time player agents to get sense of what the marketplace might look like. (Lowry’s agent, Andy Miller, didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Ujiri or former Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman were not interviewed for this piece.)
First things first: It is becoming increasingly evident that Lowry will take the opportunity to test the market. While DeRozan didn’t meet with any other teams and agreed to sign with the Raptors after a 20-minute sit down at his home in Orange County, it’s expected Lowry’s negotiation could carry on at least few days. That’s how it went down in 2014, with Lowry breaking news of his deal just before midnight of July 2, but not before he’d gauged his value across the league:
“They were real factors. I did my homework. I did my research,” Lowry said then. “Other teams had some great things and I think they had pieces that were comparable pieces, but I think the situation that I’m in, the age I’m [at], me being able to lead a team, to lead a team and grow as a person, that was a very big factor in it.”
The Raptors can stand to benefit from Lowry’s determination to do some comparison shopping, confident they have the financial hammer. They are the only team that can guarantee a fifth year and they can pay more over four years than any other suitor.
That said, the Raptors don’t want to use more resources than required. They have sent signals in the past that they are reluctant to offer a guaranteed fifth year to a point guard who will turn 32 next season and would prefer to avoid a fully-vested fourth year.
“It’s a smart move,” said one player agent. “It means they don’t have to bid against themselves.”
“Maybe he gets out there and finds out there’s not a better deal for him,” says another.
But what will the bidding look like?
As an 11-year veteran, Lowry is eligible for a five-year contract that takes up 35 per cent of the $99-million salary cap with raises of eight per cent annually (though not compounding). The so-called “max” would be worth $201-million (US). The most another team can offer is a four-year deal with five-per-cent raises, totaling $149-million. The Raptors (with the larger raises) can offer a four-year deal worth $155-million.
Clearly the Raptors’ only true advantage is the chance offer a fifth year. Otherwise, they will need to be judicious in offering Lowry a deal he judges the best, but not so rich that they are spending money they don’t have too, impairing them in years to come.
The only real consensus among the league insiders is that Lowry won’t be getting a max deal out in the market, and his ceiling will top out at $30 million annually, although that would most likely be on a shorter deal.
“I would bet three years at $75-million to $90-million,” said one prominent agent.
Could he get four years and $120-million, I asked another?
“It would be crazy if he does,” he said. “But you never know.”
Another suggested that Lowry’s deal would likely be in $75-million range and most likely from the Raptors, suggesting that teams that don’t have a history with Lowry would be hesitant to invest more in a player entering his 12th season who has averaged 65 games a year for his career and 69 during his three all-star seasons.
One issue Ujiri could be facing, speculated one agent who knows the Raptors dynamics, is making Lowry happy financially without stepping on DeRozan’s toes. The Raptors shooting guard posted the best season of his career in the first year of a five-year deal that pays him an average of $27.5 million a season. He signaled loud and clear that he wanted to remain with the Raptors and even took an estimated $15 million “discount” from what would have been his maximum a summer ago. Would it upset the Raptors’ chemistry if Lowry got a bigger deal without the same clear statement of loyalty to the cause?
Lowry’s post-season struggles – he’s one of two active players with a career playoff shooting percentage of less than 40 per cent on at least 600 attempts – could be a factor too.
“He’s a good player, but he never shows up in the playoffs,” said another agent.
But there were differing views. One Western Conference executive thought Lowry could get four years and $100 million. Another agent felt confident would get $30-million a year.
The catch? Both thought the deals would be from another team.
“I’ve heard he wants out, like, yesterday,” said the executive. “From an agent and a player.”
Said the agent: “I just heard from a team that they think they are going to get him.”
The league can be an echo chamber at the best of times, so it’s hard to sort through the noise. Second-hand speculation is NBA currency at this time of year.
Where are the most likely landing spots?
Consistent with a report from ESPN’s Marc Stein that surfaced during the playoffs, Lowry’s best chance to get a good deal and a chance to win outside of Toronto will likely come from the Western Conference, with Houston pegged as the greatest threat. Minnesota and Utah are possibilities, although in Utah it might mean joining a team that would have lost its best player in Gordon Hayward. Otherwise, the Jazz would have a hard time coming up with a competitive offer for Lowry.
And while the T-Wolves could benefit from Lowry’s shooting ability, getting the space to sign Lowry to a richer deal than the Raptors could offer might be a challenge. A couple of sources with ties to the T-Wolves suggest that incumbent Ricky Rubio’s pass-first mentality and the manageable $29 million left on the next two years of his deal on a team where Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns will all be looking for max dollars in the next few years, might be the preferred route. If not, Jrue Holiday would be a younger option than Lowry, and George Hill a cheaper one.
As for the Spurs, while they might be motivated to carve deeply into their roster to fit Chris Paul for a near-max deal, Lowry might not inspire the same financial urgency.
Houston has a lot to offer and is said to be eager to find another playmaking guard to take some of the load from James Harden, who has ranked in the top five in usage the past two seasons. Lowry, who played in Houston before being traded to Toronto, is thought to have a fan in Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, and his family likes the area. The lack of state income tax in Texas probably doesn’t hurt either. The Rockets up-tempo, three-point shooting style would fit Lowry’s abilities. His 1.9 pull-up threes made per game tied him for second in the NBA with Steph Curry last year and trailed only James Harden’s 2.3. Lowry’s 42.6 per cent conversion rate while in transition was second only to Paul among those who averaged at least one make from distance on the break last season.
Can Houston get there financially? Coming up with $25-30 million a year for Lowry would require them to part ways with some combination of Patrick Beverly, Nene, Ryan Anderson and/or Eric Gordon. But the Rockets have never lacked the willingness to be aggressive under Morey.
As for Ujiri, he’ll have to play his cards carefully. If he miscalculates the level of interest in the market for Lowry, he could easily lose his best player if Lowry decides he’s better off taking comparable money somewhere else. Come in too heavy and for too many years and the Raptors could easily be stuck paying a 35-year-old point guard more than $30-million and likely paying luxury tax penalties every year in-between.
So, will he stay or will he go? It seems fair to conclude that no one – likely not even Lowry – knows for sure what his plans are. As the market dynamics begin to take effect, it’s interesting to look at his post-season comments from six weeks ago.
“It’s stressful. Free agency is fun but it’s stressful at the same time,” Lowry said. “You are making a decision on your family, a franchise, a new franchise, an old franchise. It’s always something that you are changing and it is a stressful decision.
“What adds to the stress is that you are a making a franchise-altering decision, period. New one, old one, you are making a decision for your family. You are altering your family. You have to do this or that. This is a real-life decision … everything that is kind of life changing becomes stressful because, you know, this is life changing.”
Lowry, and by extension the Raptors, will learn exactly how things are going to change soon enough.