Raptors lucky to have Lowry even when he chooses to play villain

Kawhi Leonard finished with 36 points 9 rebounds and 5 steals to lead the Raptors to a 113-102 win over the 76ers Wednesday.

TORONTO – Kyle Lowry can’t help himself. He is the brightest kid in class who drives the teacher crazy. The teenager who always gets the last word. The essential employee who loves to push the boss’ buttons.

A few years ago, Lowry was voted by NBA general managers as one of the smartest players in the NBA. It’s on display every night as he calls out opposing defences, makes plays out of nothing and never misses an angle on either end of the court.

Most teams would kill to have an elite player step in and take charges twice on Philadelphia 76ers giant Joel Embiid as Lowry did in Toronto’s 113-102 win at Scotiabank Arena Wednesday night – providing they don’t get themselves killed.

Lowry has the will and the knack and the Raptors are lucky to have him even on one of his poorest statistical nights of the season as he finished with seven points and four assists and four turnovers on 1-of-7 shooting.

I’ve had people who have been around the NBA for years tell me he might be one of the five smartest people in the league at any level – from owners to trainers. Teammates swear by him as a source of sound counsel on everything from contracts to real estate.

All of which is to say Lowry likely knew what he was doing when he sat down for an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols on The Jump as part of the U.S. sports media giant’s ‘Toronto All-Access’ where they enveloped the Raptors in their multi-platform bosom for 24 hours of love.

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Lowry can be alternatively garrulous, courteous and occasionally surly when dealing with the local media, but when the U.S. image makers show up, he rarely fails to put on a show.

So when Nichols probed about his reaction to the off-season trade of his buddy DeMar DeRozan, he pulled out his best anecdotes. His relationship with Kawhi Leonard? Good stuff there too.

But when Lowry was asked about his relationship with Raptors president Masai Ujiri, it got foggy.

“How would you define your relationship with Masai Ujiri right now?” Nichols asked.

“He’s the president of basketball operations and that’s it. I come out here and do my job,” said Lowry.

Nichols: “That’s an answer that leaves a lot of room for interpretation.”

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The common interpretation? Lowry was broadly hinting he has beef with Ujiri for trading DeMar DeRozan even though Ujiri has signed him to $148-million worth of basketball contracts, presided over the best five years (and counting) of his career individually and collectively and teamed Lowry up with Leonard, the best player Lowry has ever played with and the reason he has a chance to play in his first NBA Finals.

Need evidence? Consider that on a night when Lowry struggled and Pascal Siakam (six points on eight shots) briefly returned to earth, Leonard stepped up with a 36-point, nine rebound gem, sealing the game with a breakaway in the fourth quarter that put the Raptors up by 15 with four minutes left to play.

If Lowry’s take makes little sense, consider the local shorthand for all of this is ‘Kyle being Kyle’ – which, roughly translated, is Lowry making life more difficult for no obvious reason.

He gets away with it because he plays his butt off, earning his money – at least by NBA standards – and reliably shows up for work.

Even when seeking clarification, Lowry leaves things open-ended.

“I’m not mad or anything,” he said when I asked him about his comments on Ujiri. “That’s the part that people [don’t understand]. I’m not mad or whatever. That’s the relationship that we have: president of basketball operations – player for the Toronto Raptors. It’s always been that way, to be honest.

“I ain’t mad. That’s what it’s always been, take it as you want.” 

Ujiri is beyond getting too worked up about his point guard’s penchants. The two men talk when needed, are cordial when they cross paths and Ujiri knows he could have much bigger problems with his franchise point guard than his tendencies to be grumpy or ornery or otherwise oddly subversive.

“It’s not a big deal,” Ujiri said on Wednesday afternoon as Lowry’s comments were predictably reverberating around social media. “That’s just him. He gets mad at me about something every season, but if that’s what it takes for him to play good basketball, don’t change.”

Could it somehow impact the Raptors on the floor?

Only if it somehow bleeds into the efforts the Raptors are making to cement their relationship with Leonard or undermine first-year head coach Nick Nurse. So far neither of those seem to be the case and so as long as Lowry stays healthy and delivers on the court none of it really matters.

No one pretends that professional sports teams have to be big, happy families to succeed, but they’re less likely to succeed if they’re only a loose collection of business interests.

But while Lowry has a right to feel upset about DeRozan being traded, letting his silence do the talking on national television says more about him at this point than anything Ujiri has done.

Consider the timing.

This was the Raptors’ close-up, an early-season pause when the grand experiment that is the Ujiri era can be held up by the NBA’s tastemakers as the shining example of all that is good in the most image-conscious of leagues.

The win was merely the final touch as the Raptors – forever the team that U.S. media could so easily forget – basked in the fawning attention.

The feel-good sheen was provided Tuesday night by the fifth annual Nelson Mandela gala – Mandela 100 – celebrating the iconic South African leader’s 100th birthday hosted by Ujiri’s growing foundation, Giants of Africa, his passion project. Reaching back to his home continent to lend a hand up has been nearly as fundamental to Ujiri’s mission as building up the Raptors has been – getting support from MLSE to fund some of the logistics was part of his employment agreement when Ujiri returned to Toronto as president and general manager prior to the 2013-14 season.

Connecting with Africa has been an ever-higher line item on the NBA’s agenda, due in no small part to Ujiri’s internal push and the opportunities on the rising continent with a billion people.

“It’s no longer about charity, it’s investing in the continent and giving youth an opportunity so we encourage it,” Ujiri said. “I don’t think it’s as much of asking for help, it’s more encouraging to come and invest in a great continent that’s ever rising and ever growing.”

Everything has come together. Already one of the NBA’s hottest stories in the wake of the Leonard-DeRozan trade, the Raptors are the league’s best team with a 21-5 record, three games clear of the next best mark. ESPN has no choice but pay attention.

So what does it say that Lowry chose that moment to play the villain in the piece?

In the absence of a deep explanation ‘Kyle being Kyle’ might have to do.

Lowry has engaged with Ujiri on his favourite cause twice, it turns out. The first time was at the inaugural gala which just happened to coincide with Lowry’s first turn at free agency as a Raptor. The second was two summers ago when Lowry played in the NBA’s Africa Game which just happened to coincide with Lowry’s second crack at free agency as a Raptor.

Lowry wasn’t at the Mandela 100 event on Tuesday night, which was well attended by his teammates and saw Ujiri get his just due from the NBA’s movers and shakers. Lowry will be in a contract year in 2019 so maybe he’ll be there then, or maybe not.

We’ll be free to interpret accordingly.

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