This is about Kyle Lowry, and this is about the end.
It’s about the last big step in what should be a Hall-of-Fame career for the iconic Toronto Raptors point guard and the first chance the Raptors have had to navigate a graceful exit for a player whose legacy should serve as a cultural shorthand for the organization within the NBA for years to come and as a touchstone for the franchise and for the city for decades beyond that.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s start here: Lowry is not going to be dealt before the March 25 trade deadline. It’s not that the Raptors and Lowry haven’t mulled over the pros and cons of making a mutually agreeable deal for the 15-year veteran heading into free agency, or that there isn’t interest in the six-time all-star who comes with a shipping container’s full of intangibles along with averages of 18 points, 5.5 rebounds and seven assists per game along with 40.3 per cent shooting from deep -- all marks that are in the neighbourhood of his career peaks.
But, but, he... sold his house!
It means nothing. Lowry closed the deal on his $5-million home in North Toronto a few weeks ago, yes, but remember: It’s been home to only a quiet hum since last March with no prospect of Lowry and his family living there until next September. If Lowry needs somewhere to stay in Toronto by then he can buy it, rent it or move into a spare wing at Drake’s house until things get sorted out. A house empty that long was a loose end in need of tidying up. End of story.
“That place was vacant and just sitting there, so there’s nothing to read into that at all,” Lowry’s agent Mark Bartelstein said. “That’s a residue of the pandemic.”
But beyond that context, surveying the market and assessing where the Raptors are, it’s more and more clear the chances of a deal happening are remote and the notion that Lowry is pushing for one is far-fetched.
Lowry made his position quite clear the other day via his Instagram story, but multiple league sources I’ve spoken with over the past two weeks who have reason to know Lowry’s thinking has echoed the theme.
The persistence of the speculation is a nuisance, even if the reporting of it is understandable.
Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry. (Chris Young/CP)
“It’s frustrating from our perspective. A story comes out that Kyle’s told everybody he’s out. That’s just blatantly not true,” said Bartelstein. “It’s just 1,000 per cent not true. Are there a lot of teams around the NBA that want Kyle? Yeah, who wouldn’t want an all-star point guard. There are certainly teams that know that he’s in the last year of his deal and this is the time of year where every team is talking to every team about a lot of things, and there’s a lot of people that would love to get Kyle Lowry, but his focus right now is on winning for the Toronto Raptors.
“He has clearly not told anybody that he wants out of Toronto. Masai and Bobby and I talk all the time. You can never put anything in concrete in this business, things change, but there is literally nothing to all this chatter about Kyle wanting out or telling his team he wants to go there. That’s just not true.”
And while that’s easy to dismiss as an agent trying to lower the temperature for a client, it echoes precisely what other sources have told me with regard to how Raptors executives Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have been viewing the landscape.
The Raptors' 2-8 start might have lit one path clearly -- had Toronto continued to stumble, all parties involved would have been amenable to making future-focused moves which almost certainly would include trying to find a soft landing spot for Lowry with a shortlist of championship contenders. But given the flattened landscape of the Eastern Conference and the glimpses of potential a healthy Raptors lineup has shown, the urgency to play the long game dissipated quickly.
“I really don’t get the impression that they’re moving him or that they’re looking for something to do with him,” said one longtime league insider. “I think the climate has changed where they’re saying, 'You know what, we got off to a slow start. OK fine, we’ll end up 4-5-6 [in the East], worst-case scenario.' So why push Kyle out?”
The market has dictated the thinking also.
Under any circumstances Lowry and the team he’s bled for the past eight years were not going to divorce. The Raptors were never going to trade Lowry to Cleveland for Andre Drummond or see if the Sacramentos or Minnesotas of the world -- teams desperate to learn how to win -- would flip some young talent for one of the most respected old heads in the game. Lowry doesn’t want to end his career teaching winning, he wants to do all the winning he can when he can.
So it was always going to be a move that pleased everyone. But while most of the league’s contenders -- the Los Angeles Lakers, the Clippers, the Miami Heat and, yes, Lowry’s hometown Philadelpia 76ers -- could use what Lowry brings, the fit is less than seamless.
The Lakers and Clippers lack the draft-pick capital and/or the combination of young prospects and expiring contracts to facilitate a deal for Lowry, who earns $30 million this season. The Sixers could put something together -- some combination of future picks, prospects and veteran contract ballast is routinely trotted out -- but as much as Sixers president Daryl Morey’s relationship with Lowry going back to their days in Houston gets cited as another factor to grease the rails, it’s worth pointing out that Morey traded Lowry in 2012 and passed on signing him as a free agent in 2017.
The Sixers' window with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris all under contract should be open for several years. If Morey is going to go star hunting one more time, maybe he’s aiming higher than Lowry, even if the Raptors point guard is showing no signs of regressing from his all-star standards.
As for Miami, there has been mutual interest between the Heat and Lowry going back years. Some players and some organizations just seem to fit. And it’s easy to imagine that Lowry -- having spent the winter wheeling around Tampa with the top down on his newly purchased Ferrari 812 GTS, golfing whenever time allows and enjoying the 8-10 per cent bump in take-home pay not having state income tax provides -- might enjoy spending the last two or three years of his career in Miami.
But the Heat are light on draft capital to bolster an in-season trade and will have cap space this summer in free agency to sign a Lowry-level star this summer, so why weaken their hand now as they try to repeat their run to the NBA Finals when they have good reason to think of themselves as the most appealing non-Raptors alternative out there?
All of which doesn’t preclude Lowry returning to Toronto beyond this season. The Raptors' core of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunboy, Pascal Siakam and -- for another year at least -- Chris Boucher is not to be sniffed at. And Lowry’s legacy with the Raptors isn’t to be trifled with.
But this is where things get tricky and will require a safecracker’s touch. Lowry’s not one to play at a discount and, based on performance, has no reason to.
“Kyle’s a special player and a special leader. He’s got so many intangibles you can’t even put a value on what he brings to an organization,” said Bartelstein. “The one thing he’s not going to want to do is bouncing around place to place, ever. He’s too great a player for that.
"Wherever he’s going to be it’s where he’s going to want to spend the rest of his career. He’s obviously got an amazing legacy in Toronto and I know he’d be thrilled for it to happen there, but that’s something Bobby, Masai and myself have to talk about.”
Setting aside that Ujiri himself is a pending free agent, if Lowry is looking for two more years at the $30-million annual pay packet he’s become accustomed to, is that good business for the Raptors? Especially considering they already have nearly $80 million tied up in four players while Norm Powell -- who has emerged as one of the most efficient scorers in the game -- will almost certainly also be a free agent and likely looking for his own deal starting at $20 million and up.
What will be the appetite for MLSE -- with revenues down and costs up due to the pandemic -- to spend luxury-tax money on a team that doesn’t have the profile of a typical championship contender?
The flipside is the last thing the Raptors would want to do is lowball their most important player.
So, absent an increasingly unlikely mid-season trade, the real challenge for Toronto is how to have the Lowry era end gracefully for all parties. The Raptors might miss out on a draft pick or a prospect or two, but legacies like Lowry’s have a value that can’t be easily replicated.
Maybe the way to do that is to allow the market to set Lowry’s value for him this summer. Maybe the demand for a 35-year-old, high-mileage point guard isn’t as robust as he hopes. And maybe the Raptors become a safe harbour and he can finish out his career on a team that punches above its weight all the way to the end.
Or maybe the right team -- Miami, it says here -- makes the right offer and the Raptors can send Lowry along with handshakes all around and begin planning how they can bring Lowry back to retire in a Toronto uniform when the time is right.
Lowry’s not going anywhere between now and March 25. I’d bet on that.
But he’s not going to be a Raptor forever and the end could come this summer. Lowry already brought the Raptors nearly a decade of uninterrupted excellence and a franchise-defining championship. His next Raptors first might be an amicable parting, setting the stage for a grand reunion.