The Toronto Raptors are not as good of a team now that the Kyle Lowry era is over after nine record-setting seasons and a nearly incalculable number of skinned knees, swollen elbows and split eyebrows.
But they’re a better organization for having had him. The 2019 NBA championship banner is not the only emblem of that, only the most obvious.
Beyond his franchise-leading numbers for wins, playoff wins, steals, assists, three-pointers made and charges drawn, Lowry set the bar at new levels for what it means to be a proper NBA player.
From now until the last person who watched him compete is no longer breathing, he’ll be the standard for what it means to play hard and play well; to play smart and play tough.
When he arrived by trade from Houston he was determined to “do his time” with every intention of bolting for greener pastures at first chance. He could never find them. He became a Raptor lifer. Now he’s choosing to take his talents to South Beach.
Can’t begrudge a man some winter humidity on those old bones.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) August 3, 2021
But his connection to Toronto and the franchise was much deeper than ‘just passing through.’ As the Raptors were exiled in Tampa this past season he was asked what he missed about Toronto. His answers were specific and detailed and Torontonian if not completely believable. He missed the traffic on the Don Valley Expressway, as an example.
But he also said he missed the people, and you couldn’t doubt that.
“I miss Romeo being at the elevator giving me a dap and just everybody being around like Bill running up and down holding the doors open for us,” Lowry related back in March, when he thought he was being traded but wasn’t. “You know what I’m saying? It’s the small things, the minute things that people don’t know, the internal stuff, that we deal with every day. We’ve got our chef Ali up there that comes down and gives us food and all that type stuff and just the whole everything that’s going around. I miss Gus [the Raptors’ long-time locker room attendant]. You miss everything. You miss the small minute things.”
As much as Lowry made the Raptors, it worked the other way too. Toronto was the first place he felt completely appreciated and the first organization he could call his own.
Why did Toronto fit with Lowry and Lowry fit with Toronto? They needed each other, and the Raptors — and city — weren’t too big to make the first move.
“I think it just more so clicked on the fact that like, you know, they believed in me, right, the organization believed in me from top to bottom, you know, from [MLSE minority owner and board chairman] Larry Tannenbaum… down to, you know, you know, all my teammates, because everybody, from top to bottom, they believed in me and what I could do as an individual player and as a leader,” said Lowry. “So I think that’s really what helped… click everything, put everything together.”
The fit wasn’t immediate — Lowry famously didn’t have DeMar DeRozan’s phone number during their entire first season playing together. They barely spoke. And Lowry wasn’t perfect. He arrived in Toronto in the summer of 2012 with some baggage and didn’t set it all down right away. He kept a few bricks in a backpack he could throw over his shoulder when needed. He could be cantankerous, difficult and contrarian.
He could also be charming, friendly, caring, and hilarious. After a game in Detroit once I asked him why he often gave me a hard time in scrums. “What would happen if we just bumped into each other on the street with our kids?” I asked.
“I’d be like, ‘what’s up Mike?’”
“So why the BS in the locker room?”
“This is business, Mike,” he said, managing to keep a straight face.
I mean, rarely a dull moment.
By his own admission, he grew leaps and bounds as a Raptor, both as a player and a person. But “Kyle being Kyle” was a trait that never entirely left him.
How could it? The mile-wide streak where he would suffer no fools and believed he had the right to determine who was a fool or not?
That’s what got him from his North Philly neighbourhood to the inner sanctum of NBA stardom.
But no matter what he never failed in his primary role: when the lights are on play like winning any game, any possession, any battle for a loose ball is the most important thing in the world.
“Listen, I’ve heaped about as much praise as I can on him, I have, I certainly don’t mind doing that,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse at the trade deadline. “My one comment that I always make that I think is the highest compliment I give him is he plays harder than anybody I’ve ever seen. On the court coaching, or coaching against, or watching games or anything, he plays harder than anybody I’ve ever seen, I can’t give him a higher compliment than that.”
The Raptors were the beneficiaries of that, as Lowry’s full prime played out before them and his career grew into something more than anyone could have anticipated for a husky, under-sized point guard taken 24th overall in the 2006 draft and who hasn’t dunked in a game since he was 21 — and no, I’m not counting the fingertip squeeze he attempted at the all-star game in 2014-15.
Now it remains to be seen what the final years of Lowry’s career look like.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) August 3, 2021
The Miami Heat will pay mightily for the privilege, having signed Lowry to a reported three-year, fully guaranteed contract that will pay him $90 million through to his 18th NBA season, when Lowry will be 38-years-old.
It’s unwise to bet against Lowry providing value on the deal. In NBA terms the six-time all-star and advanced stats darling has out-earned every contract he’s ever signed.
But the Heat are expecting Lowry to team with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and the rest to help them win an NBA title. If he can deliver on that, no amount of money will have been poorly spent.
Meanwhile, the Raptors are trying to reset their trajectory around a younger core that they felt couldn’t completely reach their potential with Lowry as the perpetual big brother — or at least, they didn’t want to pay him $90 million to find out.
The Raptors know what they’ll be missing. It’s why team president Masai Ujiri couldn’t pull the trigger on what he deemed sub-par offers for Lowry at the trade deadline back on March 25.
“We’re going to be biased in some kind of way, you always are with your players but for Kyle we’re extremely, extremely biased because of what he does and what he stands for,” Ujiri said then. “…Kyle has grown in our organization and has become such an unbelievable person, player and he signifies a symbol of what you want in an athlete, going to compete every day.
“When you look at what’s out there, it’s difficult sometimes, even for those [other] teams, to see his value.”
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) August 3, 2021
The Raptors chose to find value elsewhere on a frenetic opening few hours of free agency.
Having drafted 20-year-old Scottie Barnes fourth overall last Thursday, their first move in free agency was to sign 22-year-old Gary Trent Jr. to a three-year deal for $54 million with the last year a player option, as confirmed to Sportsnet by his agent, Rich Paul, on Monday night.
After the Lowry deal with Miami was announced a waiting game followed. It was expected that the sign-and-trade agreement would centre on Goran Dragic — another quality veteran point guard — and second-year big man Precious Achuiwa.
According to sources Dragic was hoping to be re-routed to the Dallas Mavericks though what the Raptors were seeking in return wasn’t clear. Canadian big man Dwight Powell might seem like a fit and, according to a source, he’s open to such a move. “Why not, it’s home,” I was told.
But no one can fully replace Lowry. He’s provided memories no one will ever surpass. He helped lift a team from irrelevance to championship; from the NBA wilderness to seven consecutive playoff appearances and routine seasons where 50-something wins were the minimum.
What the Raptors look like and feel like from here could easily shape the next five or 10 years.
Can Ujiri — whose own contract extension has yet to be confirmed but who has been playing his typical role — and general manager Bobby Webster successfully guide the Raptors from their Lowry-era peaks without having to go deep into a rebuild.
That’s the hope.
The test will be if — regardless of the talent they accumulate — the Raptors can compete in his absence like Lowry required them to compete in his presence.
That will be Lowry’s true legacy.