Raptors’ long, winding road to contention starts and ends with Lowry

Kyle Lowry spoke about how he found out about the Marc Gasol trade and shares his experience playing alongside Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles.

TORONTO — This week, as Kyle Lowry’s name surfaced in the rumours and speculation that whipped around the NBA prior to Thursday’s trade deadline like loose trash in a storm, Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri had a long conversation with his franchise point guard. Rumours are rumours, Ujiri told him. I need you focused on this playoff run.

It reminded Ujiri of when Lowry almost wasn’t his franchise point guard. Of the day in late 2013, when he had a deal in place to send Lowry to the New York Knicks and kickstart a Raptors rebuild, before temperamental Knicks owner James Dolan pulled the plug at the last minute. Lowry, who was literally packing his bags, remained a Raptor, resuscitated his career, and became a central protagonist in this, the most successful era in the history of Raptors basketball.

“I just remember those days,” Ujiri said Thursday, after trading another protagonist, Jonas Valanciunas, to the Memphis Grizzlies along with Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, and a second-round pick for skillful-yet-aging centre Marc Gasol. “There was almost a trade with New York at the time. For [Lowry] to accomplish being a five-time all-star, I think, is a hell of an accomplishment on his part, and the work he’s put into the game. This is who we are now, after the trade deadline. Outside of buyouts, this is your team. And I think he believes that.”

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Lowry better. Every Raptor still standing had better. Because everything that’s happened since that aborted trade, every button Ujiri’s pushed, every lever he’s pulled, has led to these final two months of the regular season, and the playoff run that will follow. The Raptors have been very good over the last five seasons. They’ve won a lot of games. But very good is no longer good enough. With a new star, a new coach, and an almost entirely new starting lineup from the one that crashed out of the playoffs last spring, the time for the Raptors is now.

Lowry’s practically all that’s left. DeMar DeRozan, gone. Valanciunas, gone. Wright, Miles, Jakob Poeltl — all gone. That’s half of Toronto’s 10 most-used players in terms of minutes per game from last season. That’s three of its top five scorers from a year ago, as well. Two of its top four in rebounds and assists. This has been more of a makeover than it seems. Ujiri was already all-in when he shocked the world and acquired Kawhi Leonard last summer. Now, in trading a package for Gasol, he’s pulled the last trigger he responsibly could.

And considering he lacked expiring deals to move, was already spending into the luxury tax, and had a strong aversion to parting with his most alluring assets such as Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and future first-round picks, Ujiri did well in finding a way to make a considerable acquisition. Especially considering he had to.

After the Philadelphia 76ers swung a deal for uber-efficient scorer Tobias Harris, and the conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks added versatile big Nikola Mirotic, it would have been borderline negligent for the Raptors not to find a way to significantly improve. Mirotic will only make Milwaukee — a team Toronto came up short against three times in four tries this season — more dangerous and dynamic. And while the Raptors have had Philadelphia’s number this year, the acquisition of Harris gives the Sixers a starting five as good as any in the East.

The Raptors match with Gasol, who brings not only extensive playoff experience, but a well-earned reputation as one of the league’s most cerebral big men. His athleticism has undeniably declined since he was named the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year, but he still has the eighth-best defensive rating among the 31 NBA centres playing at least 25 minutes per game this year.

“Phenomenal player and a real winner that hopefully can come and make an impact,” Ujiri said. “In the playoffs, you need experience. Going forward, you need a really strong basketball mind, toughness. You need size; you need shooting from outside. Basketball IQ. Everything. He combines it all.”

Ujiri also stressed the positive effect adding an additional scoring threat both down low and beyond the arc could have on Toronto’s primary weapons — Leonard, Siakam, and Lowry. Valanciunas averaged a dozen points a night over the last six seasons, but his offensive profile was sorely one-dimensional. Gasol simply does more.

“He’s another guy that can get you a bucket. You can throw it down to him. I think that will relieve us a little bit with Kawhi and Kyle,” Ujiri said. “He understands where he is. And coming to a team here where there is maybe a little bit more help will relieve him too.”

Like any NBA centre who wants to continue receiving bi-weekly direct deposits, Gasol began shooting three-pointers three years ago, when he averaged 19.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per night during his third all-star season. He shot 39 per cent from distance that year, and while he’s averaged 34 per cent in the season-and-a-half since, that would still make him the fifth-best three-point shooter on this year’s Raptors.

And Gasol’s 4.7 assists per game this season would put him second on the team behind only Lowry, a remarkable stat considering the position he plays. Gasol’s 23.2 per cent assist rate this year trails only the supremely gifted Nikola Jokic among NBA centres, making this the seventh consecutive season in which he’s placed top-five in the category.

Despite that uncommon productivity at his position, Gasol’s career is obviously on its downward slope, and it’s a reasonable expectation that he’ll elect his $25.5-million player option for next season rather than testing his luck as a mid-30’s centre in free agency. But that would time him accordingly with Lowry and Ibaka, who are each guaranteed through the same term, and keep the Raptors flexible this summer, when Leonard’s decision-making will, in large part, help chart Toronto’s.

If Leonard opts to re-sign with the Raptors, a productive, veteran core will already be in place around him. If he leaves in free agency, Ujiri will have options ranging from trying to make one last push for a title with Lowry, Ibaka, and Gasol, or moving on from that trio, flipping their expiring contracts for futures, and rebuilding around the athletic young tandem of Siakam and OG Anunoby.

“We always have to think that way — we have to think about the future with this team,” Ujiri said. “Obviously, Kawhi has his decision to make at the end of the season, and we’ll go from there. It’s lined up well for us in terms of a couple of our young guys. And we’ll attack it when the time comes.”

Parting with Valanciunas was undoubtedly a difficult decision for Ujiri et al. to make, considering the immeasurable sweat equity poured into his development over the last seven seasons, and the quiet professionalism he brought to work every day. Wright and Miles were similarly poised, respected, hard-working personalities in the Raptors locker room despite not having quite the length of history with the franchise as Valanciunas did.

“JV is a team-first guy — the number one team-first guy. A tough guy that gave us everything That was a tough phone call today with him. It was emotional. He’s such a phenomenal person,” Ujiri said. “He gave this franchise his all.”

In a move of decidedly less significance, the Raptors also shipped backup centre Greg Monroe to the Brooklyn Nets along with draft considerations for cash, helping Toronto create some financial flexibility as it navigates life as a luxury tax team. It was almost a carbon copy of Wednesday’s trade that sent sparsely-used guard Malachi Richardson and a second-rounder to Philadelphia for cash.

The Raptors will need that flexibility, as they now have only 10 active roster players and will certainly be active on the buyout market, which will develop quickly in the coming days. Two-way players Chris Boucher and Jordan Loyd could both be converted to standard NBA contracts, but the Raptors are no doubt aiming to do something more substantial.

Ujiri said he was personally in touch with three to four agents for potential buyout players Thursday, and that both general manager Bobby Webster and assistant general manager Dan Tolzman had made contact with a host of others.

“We’re going to attack the buyout market,” Ujiri said. “We’ll be out there looking for good basketball players that can come and produce for us.”

One obvious call for the Raptors to make is to the representation of Wayne Ellington, who’s expected to be waived by the Phoenix Suns. The 31-year-old wing would help address Toronto’s lacklustre three-point shooting, which was a major issue before Miles and his 36 per cent career-rate from deep left town.

Similarly, Wright’s departure should necessitate the addition of a ball-handler to play behind Lowry and Fred VanVleet, who have each battled injury this season. Shelvin Mack, who is expected to be waived by the Atlanta Hawks, is an option. Mack’s teammate Jeremy Lin would be as well, but the Hawks seem less likely to cut him loose. Milos Teodosic, waived Thursday by the LA Clippers, is another candidate.

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The Raptors could use a depth centre as well, with capable post scorer and enemy of the Turkish state Enes Kanter looking like a compelling fit, assuming he’s released by the Knicks. The Raptors sacrificed a skilled rebounder and rim protector in Valanciunas, and despite his defensive deficiencies, Kanter’s average of 11 boards per game over the last two seasons would be a nice way to fill that vacuum. Of course, Kanter has been very publicly disgruntled with his lack of usage in New York, and may seek a more prominent role.

And one last name to keep an eye on is Markieff Morris, who the Washington Wizards shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday. Ujiri listed “a four-type guy” as one of the profiles he’d be searching for on the buyout market, and the 29-year-old Morris certainly fits the bill, bringing plenty of experience and toughness with him.

But, in the end, the Raptors will go as far as Leonard, Gasol, and — perhaps most importantly — Lowry will take them. This all began when Lowry was definitively almost traded in 2013. And it’s all led here, to Lowry reportedly almost being traded in 2019. Ujiri said the conversation he had with his franchise point guard this week was a good one. Now it’s time to find out just what the franchise can be.

“It’s a big day for us and a tough day for us, too,” Ujiri said late Thursday night, shortly before meeting with Gasol at the Raptors practice facility. “Jonas was a baby with us, grew up with us. We drafted Delon Wright. These guys have been special in our organization.

“But this is exciting for us going forward as we move to try to, all of us, achieve a dream of contending for a championship in the NBA. That’s our goal. And I think everybody on the team understands that. So, we’ll keep trying to achieve this goal.”

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