QUEBEC CITY – The Toronto Raptors know their way around a thumb injury. They had four of them last season alone.
Dearly departed Jonas Valanciunas had his thumb almost torn off by Draymond Green in what turned out to be the big Lithuanian’s last game as a Raptor.
Fred VanVleet was out a month in the second half of last season after he had an operation to repair torn ligaments in his left thumb.
Patrick McCaw was out three weeks when he sprained his right thumb, avoiding surgery but wearing a splint and needing rest before returning to the active roster during the playoffs.
Most famously Kyle Lowry played with his injured left thumb throughout the second half of Toronto’s two-month-long championship run after he fell in Game 7 of the conference semi-finals against Philadelphia and “it popped out.”
Lowry never missed a game and his performance hardly suffered. It added to his well-earned reputation as one of the NBA’s ultimate gamers, someone who would play through anything in the name of winning.
Shots of him wearing what resembled an oven mitt during his down time – it was a compression device to assist with circulation and healing – raced around social media and come game-time the Raptors’ hard-nosed point guard got himself shot up with lidocaine for the rest of the playoffs.
It was an inspiring performance.
But time moves fast in the NBA and the confusion over Lowry’s return to action following off-season surgery is the one eyebrow raiser after three days of what has been an otherwise placid Raptors training camp.
Lowry signalled that he wasn’t going to be in any rush back to the floor when he spoke at media day:
“I’m not where I want to be, that’ll take a long time. It’s a long season when you go that far,” he said. “I’m not where I want to be, physically, mentally … it’s going to be a process, I’m not going to be balls to the wall, I’m gonna slow roll it a little bit … make sure I’m fully ready to go when the time comes.”
But the timing of his return and what it will take for him to deem himself “ready” could very well be a moving target.
Lowry had his procedure done on July 18 and at the time ESPN insider Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the Olympic gold medal winner’s goal was to be ready to play for Team USA at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, which tipped off Aug. 31.
Towards that aim Lowry was at Team USA’s training camp in Las Vegas in early August – albeit with a splint on — but eventually pulled himself out of consideration for the team that headed to China.
That was understandable. Leaving to play internationally barely a month removed from surgery and after playing well into June with the Raptors seemed like an ambitious timeline.
So why is Lowry’s thumb relevant now?
Fast forward a few weeks and Lowry — as he implied on Saturday — has yet to take the floor with his Raptors teammates at training camp, with Thursday (Oct. 3) marking 11 weeks since he had his operation — or more than twice as long as VanVleet was out, as a point of reference.
And to be clear: It’s not as if his thumb was reconstructed.
The avid golfer told TSN’s Kate Beirness in an interview this past Saturday that he hit the links before his surgery and has played golf since.
Oh, and Lowry also had this to say: “I just got cleared to play contact basketball about a week ago.”
Why is that interesting?
On Wednesday, after his sixth practice without his all-star point guard and team leader, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse explained Lowry’s absence from practice this way:
“Kyle’s still out, he’ll be out a little bit yet.”
Strictly due to his thumb?
“Yeah, yep, strictly his thumb.”
And then, when asked if Lowry was waiting to be medically cleared to play, Nurse said:
“Yes, he is. It’s coming soon. I think it will be shortly. He has to go to New York City. The operating surgeon has to clear him. But everything is really positive.”
This is not a test of Nurse’s credibility on the matter — far from it. The coach is in a potentially awkward spot.
And subsequently Lowry’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, confirmed to me that Lowry was due for one more check-up with his surgeon.
But it’s all worth monitoring because Lowry is heading into the final year of a three-year contract – he is due $33-million this season — and has mused about his interest in a long-term and presumably lucrative extension.
“I want to be there. I would love to have an extension. We’ll see what happens,” Lowry told Michael Lee of The Athletic when in Las Vegas for Team USA. “I would love to be [in Toronto] long-term, but we’ll find out, and have that discussion when the time is right.”
The Raptors and Bartelstein have talked about an extension, both sides have confirmed, but it’s not clear what shape those conversations have taken.
“Masai and I are talking all the time,” Bartelstein said, while declining to discuss any parameters with regard to a potential Lowry deal.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri is fully aware that Lowry’s status as the franchise’s most important player requires he be treated differently than, say, Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka, who are also heading into free agency after this year.
“There’s legacy status for him in my opinion,” Ujiri said on media day. “Someone who has given it his all…. We’ll always pay Kyle that respect.”
But will they pay him? It’s easy to see the Raptors giving Lowry a generous one-year extension for next season when he will be turning 35, an arrangement that wouldn’t tie up future cap space and – ideally – be seen as the appropriate gesture, almost like a bonus for bringing the Raptors their title.
But what if Lowry wants more than a one-year extension? Or what if he wants to pre-empt the possibility of the Raptors trading him if they pivot to a rebuild, which is a looming possibility if their attempt to defend their NBA title without Kawhi Leonard doesn’t go well.
In that light Lowry taking his time to return to the practice floor could look a little different. It could look less like a player being extra careful post-surgery and more like a veteran trying to create leverage to get more money or more term or otherwise control his destiny heading into what could be his last NBA contract.
We’ll see, eventually. For now Lowry’s thumb injury provides cover and plausible deniability on all sides.