Quebec City — They are the last ones standing. Masai Ujiri and Kyle Lowry are entering their seventh season together but their first on top of the basketball world.
For each of them the view is a little bit overwhelming at times. The two share vision and passion and drive — so much so that it leaves them almost incapable of fully enjoying or revelling in their accomplishments.
Their nature is to look forward. What they each see could potentially shape the Toronto Raptors for seasons to come.
As the Raptors start their 25th training camp but their first as defending NBA champions, the two most responsible for bringing a title to Toronto tried to sound the part of satisfied victors. They spoke the lines about what it meant to them to call the Larry O’Brien Trophy their own.
For Ujiri it was when he brought it back to the outdoor court he grew up playing on in Zaria, Nigeria as part of his outreach work with his Giants of Africa foundation.
"Just to see people there and how I grew up and see where I am and where my family is today. That was really amazing for me," he said.
Lowry brought the trophy back to north Philadelphia, to the rec centre courts where his bulldog mentality took shape. But the enormity of his journey to the peak of basketball still hasn’t been fully realized.
Maybe on opening night when the banner goes up and the championship rings are handed out?
"I think that’s when it’s going to finally hit me," said Lowry. "I haven’t really let it sink in too much. I think when the banner rises, that’s really when you really feel it."
But how long the feel-good vibes last is a bigger question.
Both Lowry — the franchise’s living, breathing icon — and Ujiri, the Raptors’ president, are NBA lifers and know the deal. When the rubber hits the wood, the business of the league leaves little room for sentimentality or reflecting.
Stand still and you get run over.
That point was driven home when within weeks of ‘here for a good time, not a long-time’ Kawhi Leonard bringing the house down at the Raptors championship parade, Toronto’s one-year wonder was orchestrating his way back home to the Los Angeles Clippers — precipitating Danny Green’s signing with the Los Angeles Lakers and leaving two gaping holes in the Raptors starting lineup alongside Lowry.
"Obviously, Kawhi decided to go to the Clippers and our team moves on," said Ujiri. "[But] I’ll say it off the bat: I can’t sit here and trade DeMar [DeRozan for Leonard in the summer of 2018] and then Kawhi leaves us and be upset. Because that’s just the nature of the business and we understand it and we move on as an organization."
But only Lowry is certain to have his number retired and be acknowledged with any other honour the franchise can come up with when the time comes: statue, street-naming, whatever.
Watching how Ujiri deals with Lowry and Lowry – battle hardened in the ways of NBA negotiating after 14 seasons in the league – deals with Ujiri could very well set the tone for the season to come and even beyond.
Ujiri allowed that dealing with the franchise’s transformative player as he approaches his 34th birthday will require careful handling.
"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]," said Ujiri. "There’s legacy status for him in my opinion. Someone who has given it his all: five-time All-Star while we’ve been here — could have been a six-time All-Star … We can say whatever we want about Kyle: He comes and he gives it his all on the court. He’ll give me a headache once a month, but that’s fine. That’s our relationship. I really respect him for that.
"We’ll always pay Kyle that respect. What he’s done for this city, for this ball club, is remarkable. You all know: We’re sitting here, there’s many of you here, you all know when we sat down here six years ago, and we would never write this script, this way, in any form of dreams. And this is where it is. I’m proud of him for that."
But in the NBA talk only goes so far. The way to express value is with money, so how Ujiri and the Raptors handle Lowry’s contract situation promises to be fascinating and in short-order signal the direction for the team this is season and next.
The simple solution – for the Raptors at least — would be to offer Lowry a lucrative one-year extension to his current deal, which has one year and $33.3-million remaining.
The team will have plenty of space under the salary cap for the 2020-21 season — they only have $30.8-million in contracts on the books — but with a weak free agent class in the summer of 2020 no one they are likely to want to spend it on.
In theory that would allow them give Lowry a generous-seeming bonus without crowding their cap picture for 2021-22 – the summer when Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo hits the market. The Raptors and any other team that could be in the running for a meeting with the reigning MVP would want to keep their powder dry for that.
And if Lowry wanted to pursue other options at that stage?
No hard feelings. Toronto could work to trade Lowry to a destination of his preference or watch him call his final shot in free agency when the time comes.
The question, of course, is what Lowry wants and whether the desire to run it back in Toronto this season and ride gracefully off into his NBA sunset without a longer-term extension will be sufficiently appealing or if Lowry will want more years and money than the Raptors want to offer him at this stage of his career.
Lowry’s point of maximum leverage is now, riding high as a champion, the waters calm. How hard he chooses to press for a new deal could rock the boat in a hurry and could put those championship vibes in the rear view quickly.
"I’ve been here the longest now, I’ve been through the ups and downs and I was able to help bring a championship here, an unbelievable team … I’m not saying I’m the sole reason but I feel I have a great pride," said Lowry, who added that his preparing for the upcoming season is about a month behind schedule after having off-season surgery on his left thumb.
"Not really worried about the free agency thing. My representation is talking to them, nothing’s been obviously been taken care of. It’s an ongoing conversation but for me, it’s just going out there and doing my job like I’ve always been, be professional and lead the best I can like I’ve always done."
Where that will take Ujiri, Lowry and the Raptors this season and beyond remains to be seen.