After what he did last year in leading the Toronto Raptors to their first-ever NBA title, toppling the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty and ushering in a season of parity, there should be little debate as to who the strictly best player to ever wear a Raptors jersey is.
It’s Kawhi Leonard.
He was the best go-to defender, the best go-to scorer, the best indelible moment-maker and he was all of those things on the most historic team in Raptors franchise history.
But Kyle Lowry may be the most important Raptor ever. Leonard was the city’s shooting star; Lowry has been a constellation, ever-present even in the darkest Toronto nights.
Distinguishing between best and most important is essential to understanding Lowry’s tenure with the Raptors and to evaluating the deal he penned to increase the odds of him ending his career in Toronto.
There’s a framing of Lowry’s new contract, a $31-million, one-year extension, that uses his stature and importance in team history to position it solely as a legacy deal — a cheque signed for services rendered instead of those expected.
In part, that can be chalked up to misunderstanding that the going-rate for meaningful point guards is around $30 million — to find cheaper, the tier of player available is the likes of Terry Rozier or Goran Dragic. And in part it can be chalked up to how Masai Ujiri has discussed the deal.
“Kyle has an incredible legacy here that I think we all have underrated [it]. We’ve had our ups and downs and bumps and grinds, but the inner core of who he is as a player and what he’s done with this franchise, he definitely deserves [special consideration],” Ujiri said during Raptors Media Day. “There’s legacy status for him in my opinion.”
To see Lowry’s new deal through just that lens, though, is to fall back into underrating what Lowry offers here and now.
It’s a common position, too. In ESPN’s annual Player Rankings, Lowry was ranked 39th, an 18-place regression from the year before. It bears noting that lists like this are often problematic. Any attempt to answer the question of “who are the best 100 players in the NBA” is really an attempt to roll several questions up into one big one.
Who is the best defender? Who is the best scorer? Who is the best playmaker? Whose contract and age intersect in a way that makes them the best candidate to build a team around moving forward?
Each of those has a different answer, and distilling them into a single question filters out a lot of necessary nuance. None of which is to say Lowry’s position on the list is without rationale altogether.
History hasn’t been kind to point guards of his stature as they navigate their 30s. Only 18 have ever posted more than one season with a value over replacement player greater than one. Shrink the age-range to 33 and older, as Lowry will be entering this season, and there are just nine players in history.
A cursory glance of point guards deemed worthy of a higher rank on ESPN’s list, though, raises questions.
Mike Conley came in at 24, carrying with him all the regression worries Lowry has while also holding more injury baggage.
De’Aron Fox (25th) D’Angelo Russell (26th), Devin Booker (30th) also came in higher. By ESPN’s own real plus minus (RPM) metric — which measures a player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance — none of those four come close to Lowry’s 8.5 RPM.
Banking on Fox, Russell or Booker to make a meaningful leap is just the inverse of assuming Lowry will regress. There may be reason to believe it could happen, but the degree to which it does is far from a guarantee. Perhaps then his placement on the list stems from placing too much stock in potential future value, as opposed to known recent performance.
If you’re a numbers person there are plenty of them that capture parts of what makes Lowry’s on-court contributions so special.
Last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, Toronto outscored opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions when Lowry was playing. Strip away the minutes he served as Leonard’s co-star and the number sits at plus-12.8 points per 100 possessions across a respectable total of 1,980 possessions.
Digging into how that happened suggests that in part, Lowry, as he’s gotten older, has become more comfortable as a facilitator. Last year he assisted on a career-high percentage of his teammates’ shots, reaching a new peak after improving year-over-year for the last three seasons.
Only Kemba Walker drew more regular season charges among point guards — 27 to Lowry’s 23 — and in the playoffs Lowry led the league emphatically, with his nearest competition, Finals opponent Draymond Green, picking up half as many in just two fewer games.
Still, to describe Lowry’s meaning to the Raptors with numbers alone is to describe the Fall with solely hues of orange: Strictly accurate, and woefully insufficient.
There’s something more ethereal to him than boxscores. Consider the moment Lowry falls to the paint, taking a momentum-shifting charge, sending the entirety of Scotiabank Arena to their feet; the way his stubborn defiance in not caring about the Raptors’ underdog-defending Champion status says out loud what a whole fanbase feels; the steadfast commitment he’s had to staying in Toronto when every other star has left; the anticipation as he launches a 35-foot three-pointer to put a team away like he did in Game 1 of the Finals.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 31, 2019
It would be revisionist to say there weren’t low moments as well. Plenty of them, really. What good story is written without them, though?
Highs like that Game 1 shot, ones that Lowry added to his oeuvre by being an all-star calibre player for the last half-decade, ones that would have gone unnoticed by large swathes of the NBA’s audience had Toronto not become World Champions, helped turn him into the ideal recurring on-court face for the franchise; an underrated star for a team whose fanbase often sees themselves as overlooked.
These are uncharted waters for the Raptors: Never before have they been reigning NBA Champions; rarely has a team lost its best player in free agency ahead of its title defence; infrequently in Toronto’s half-decade of relevance has the championship landscape been so wide open.
When staring uncertainty in the face there’s a comfort to be found in having known commodities. A $31-million extension is a tremendous amount of money. To another team, in another position, perhaps that investment isn’t worth it.
For Toronto, though, Lowry — by the on-court player he was as recently as one season ago and by what he’s grown to mean from all the Toronto years prior — is equal parts deserving and worth every penny.
Lowry was there for this era’s beginning, he was there for the championship climax and he’ll be there for the banner-raising denouement. It’s only fitting that he gets to be there for the curtain call too.