Kyle Lowry was looking for money, term and the ability to have some control over his destiny as he heads into the final stages of his remarkable NBA career.
Well, one out of three ain’t bad.
An early morning tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski announced the end of Toronto Raptors point guard’s slow-motion, low-key contract impasse with the NBA’s defending champions.
The 33-year-old, five-time all-star has agreed to a one-year, $31-million extension of his current contract, which is in its final year.
Heading into training camp, those close to Lowry predicted that the seven-year Raptor veteran and the engine driving the club’s rise to the NBA’s elite wouldn’t take the floor with the team until he received an extension.
On cue, Lowry didn’t participate in training camp and had already ruled himself out of Toronto’s pair of exhibition games in Tokyo against the Houston Rockets on Tuesday and Thursday of this week.
And just in case anyone missed the hint, when the Raptors played their intra-squad scrimmage last Thursday in Quebec City, 19 of the 20 players in camp were introduced to an adoring crowd, including Marc Gasol, the veteran centre who was sitting the game out as he rests after leading Spain to a gold medal at the World Cup in China in mid-September.
Lowry – the franchise’s most popular player – was the exception.
That he was recovering from off-season thumb surgery gave the operation the barest bit of cover, but given Lowry acknowledged on media day that he had been cleared for contact and had been playing golf since the procedure in mid-July – projected then to require a one-month recovery – it was pretty evident that he wasn’t going to be suiting up for Toronto until he had a deal done.
That a deal did get done reflects a few factors.
One is that Raptors president Masai Ujiri and the club are truly appreciative of their point guard and what he has meant to the team’s culture. There is no six-year playoff run without Lowry and most certainly there is no NBA title without his combination of tenacity, smarts and skill. That Lowry played the last 13 games of their championship run with torn ligaments in his left thumb that required he take pain-killing needles prior to every start wasn’t lost on anyone.
There’s also the recognition that any chance the Raptors have of mounting a respectable title defence post-Kawhi Leonard this season relies on healthy, happy and engaged Lowry.
But even with that appreciation, Ujiri wasn’t going to give Lowry the multi-year extension – three years was the dream scenario – he was angling for when the two sides began talking earlier this summer. As much as Lowry is determined to do the work to extend his career into his late thirties, Ujiri did not want to bet big money on Lowry remaining at an all-star level beyond his age-35 season.
As a result, any championship bonus Lowry was going to get was going to have to come in the form of a one-year lump-sum.
By keeping the extension to one season, Lowry’s deal is only using cap space that was never likely to be used. The free-agent market in the summer of 2020 doesn’t include the kind of players the Raptors would likely be looking to dole out max-type deals to.
Even with Lowry’s $31 million on the books for 2020-21, Toronto would still have $28 million to spend in a targeted manner or to use to acquire salary in a trade next.
They have also kept their powder dry for free agency – or the trade – in the summer of 2021 when Giannis Antetokounmpo is projected to hit the market, along with a number of other high-end talents.
But all of this doesn’t necessarily mean the drama around Lowry is over, or that Ujiri’s off-season negotiating is done either.
With Lowry signed Ujiri, might want to push off a deal with Pascal Siakam, who is seeking an extension that could be worth up to $170 million over five years as he heads into the final year of his rookie contract.
With Lowry on the books, Ujiri can preserve the cap space he does have next summer by waiting until next year to sign Siakam. The rangy power-forward would only have his qualifying offer on the books for $7 million, rather than the first year of his extension at $30-million, leaving the Raptors more salary-cap space to work with. They could then sign Siakam after their other off-season business is done. Meanwhile, as a restricted free agent Toronto would be able to match any offer another team might make, so there is no realistic risk of losing Siakam.
How waiting until next summer would sit with Siakam and his camp is something Ujiri will have to measure. Siakam is the most valuable asset the franchise has and treating players like that as line items comes with its own set of risks.
As well, the extension doesn’t preclude Lowry being traded either this season if things don’t go as well as everyone hopes or in the summer. There is an argument that being under contract for one more year makes Lowry a more attractive in-season trade chip – whoever acquires him wouldn’t have to look at him as a rental.
Part of Lowry’s slow playing training camp was driven by an effort to maintain some control of his destiny. If the Raptors weren’t going to give him an extension, sources close to Lowry say, he was prepared to hold out and try and force a deal to a destination of his choosing rather than allow the club to control the timing.
But it never came to that. Lowry was wise enough to recognize that $31 million payouts don’t come along every day for veterans heading into their 14th season, and the Raptors were sensible enough to avoid getting into a drawn out scrap with a player that has infused the franchise with his will and passion.
The deal doesn’t make Lowry a Raptors for life and it doesn’t even guarantee he’ll be a Raptor for the rest of this season.
But it means that Toronto’s most important player will get paid and will be at the ring ceremony on opening night with a bright smile, and that the Raptors’ championship defence won’t be scuttled before it begins.