Why Kyle Lowry’s carefully planned exit was necessary for Raptors to take next step

As Blake Murphy reports, there's not one number on its own that makes the case that Kyle Lowry is the greatest Raptor of all time, but there is a series of them. Watch as Murphy proves to us all that K-Low is definitely the GOAT of Raptor land.

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors would never be where they are now without Kyle Lowry.

But they wouldn’t be able to get to where they want to be if the team’s all-time leader in assists, steals, charges drawn and wins was still wearing No. 7, throwing his body all over the wood and into the crowd like every loose ball was a live grenade that needed to be smothered.

That those two seemingly incongruent paths representing the Raptors’ glorious, Lowry-led past and its increasingly promising future were successfully navigated is the fundamental reason Sunday evening will be such a special moment not only in the history of the franchise, but in the sporting history of the city it represents.

Lowry’s leaving — and hence his return — was carefully planned and precisely executed, at least to the extent possible in the chaotic swirl that is the NBA marketplace.

But from the beginning of the end, getting it right was vital for all concerned.

“It was a very, very high priority,” Raptors president and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri told me in a conversation this week. “Kyle is a legend. To me he’s the best Raptor ever, there’s no doubt about that. So therefore, with fans, ownership, with the organization, it had to go the right way.

“Out of respect for them and out of respect for someone like Kyle.”

Lowry earned that respect because he taught a franchise how to win, and a fan base what winning basketball looks like.

This is not feel-good, prisoner-of-the-moment nostalgia. It’s just facts.

Remember when then Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chief executive officer Tim Leiweke appeared on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and wished that more guys on the (then) moribund Toronto Maple Leafs played like the (then) under-appreciated point guard on a basketball team that no one outside of their die-hard fanbase cared about?

It was an unfathomable thing to say to an audience quite literally raised on the idea that hockey manifested the ideals of competitiveness, toughness, and teamwork more fully than any other sport, and that basketball was barely on the radar in that respect.

Lowry proved Leiweke correct.

His tireless motor was the locomotive driving the dawn of the “We The North” era. It sparked a run of success that eventually led to the 2019 NBA championship, a title that will stand for the ages for a host of reasons, not the least of which: it forced the basketball universe to acknowledge the Raptors in a way that had never otherwise been possible, and for Canadians to recognize what the sport represents in Toronto and across the country, in some cases for the first time.

Lowry didn’t act alone, of course, but he was the key that allowed basketball and the NBA and all those who are a part of the game and the culture around the game to be fully seen.

For all of those reasons, his leaving had to be managed with great care as it became apparent that the organization needed to move on to its next phase and that Lowry, now 36 and in his 16th season, wanted to write one more chapter before he ran out of years.

Nailing the timing has paid off. Lowry is on an NBA title contender with the Heat, and the youthful Raptors are charging for fifth-place in the East and could win 48 games — their total in their first playoff run under Lowry and at the time the franchise record.

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Lowry’s leaving opened doors. Would the Raptors have been able to play rookie Scottie Barnes’ 35 minutes a game — including some at point guard — if Lowry was still here? The same goes for Pascal Siakam, who has become the team’s primary ball-handler often, allowing his game to grow while simultaneously allowing the six-year veteran to find a voice he wasn’t quite sure he had.

“Opportunity always enhances growth,” says Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “And this is an opportunity for these guys. There’s more minutes, there’s more time, there’s more leadership opportunities and I think that was the biggest thing. We knew we were going to be losing a big leader… but for some of the guys that have been around here long enough, we needed them to understand they are the leaders of the team, and it’s up to them to perform and act like that.”

Siakam’s first, best minutes in the NBA came as a raw rookie playing wide receiver running under Lowry’s pin-point passes in transition. But as he’s evolved into one of the NBA’s most dynamic scoring and passing threats recently and this year in particular, Lowry’s departure has opened different parts of his game.

“Kyle was such a big part of what we do as a team and as an organization, like, obviously, for good reason when you look at everything that he’s done here,” Siakam told me recently. “With someone as big and as great as Kyle, you had to take a step back, because he’s that impactful, so with him gone it was just an opportunity for one more voice to be heard and I felt like, yeah, I could be that person.”

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Still, as important — and maybe even more important — as the organization getting a reasonable return in any transaction involving Lowry was making sure that nothing would happen on the way out that would in any way tarnish everything that had come before, for either side.

The whole process was made easier because of the way Ujiri and the franchise point guard bonded over the events of the past few years, something Lowry alluded to in his open letter to Raptors fans in The Players Tribune on Friday when he made reference to the phone call he shared with his old boss after Toronto helped organize the sign-and-trade deal that landed Lowry with the Miami Heat — always his preferred destination — and brought Precious Achiuwa and (eventually) Thad Young to Toronto.

“Our relationship, it’s more than just player and management at this point. It’s bigger than just ‘work stuff,’ where you’re leaving one job to go to another, so you give the old boss a call to say thanks,” wrote Lowry. “Nah. It’s deeper than that with me and Masai. When you’ve been through what we’ve been through? When you share the history we share? That’s not just the GM on the other end of the phone. That’s big brother. That’s family.”

Which is why his return to Scotiabank Arena for the first time since he joined the Miami Heat as a free agent will be different than any reunion that has come before.

For so many years the Raptors vacillated between being the NBA organization no one respected or — even as it slowly gained its footing — the one no one widely recognized for how it had grown and had the potential for more.

If you knew, you knew, but not everyone did. And it’s not a coincidence that so often — like, every time — the difficult partings between Raptors stars and the team and the city left a bitter aftertaste.

Any long-time fan knows the roll call: Damon, Tracy, Vince, Bosh, DeMar (even though in DeRozan’s case it was him who was understandably hurt and angry after the franchise-shaking trade) and even Kawhi, though the fact he left on the heels of a championship certainly helped smooth things over. But his choosing the Clippers in free agency and leaving one or more titles on the table clouds things a bit.

That wasn’t going to happen this time. Lowry and Ujiri had grown close over their eight shared season in Toronto after some rocky earlier years and tension following Ujiri’s decision to trade DeRozan, his best friend.

It was famously Lowry who pulled Ujiri onto the floor for the victory celebration after they won the title at Oracle Arena moments after the Raptors president had been assaulted by a police officer working security. They grew closer than ever during the pandemic as they worked on committees charged with figuring out the NBA’s return to play and again in the bubble as they discussed how to harness the momentum for social justice issues following the murder of George Floyd.

The relationship deepened in Tampa where they would cross paths at the Raptors’ temporary practice facility during early-morning workouts, communicate about the logistics of the team’s temporary relocation and — ultimately — how to manage the exit of a legend.

In the lead-up to the trade deadline last season — with Lowry very much in play as the Raptors pivoted to the ‘Tampa tank’, everything was done transparently, there were no surprises. It’s not that Lowry’s wishes were put ahead of the best interests of the franchise, it’s that making sure Lowry was looked after was deemed in the franchise’s best interest.

The moment was right, for all concerned.

“It’s almost like you’re handing the regime down to them. And Kyle did it in a beautiful way,” said Ujiri. “Look at the torch has passed to Fred, Pascal and OG and how these guys are doing it.

“We can’t ask for anything better as an organization. The best thing I love about them is they’ll tell you stuff that they learned from Kyle, they’ll tell you stuff that they learned from DeMar, they’ll tell you stuff they learned from Kawhi and (Marc) Gasol. That stuff, I’m telling you, that’s going to turn into something and that something is winning and unbelievable human beings. That’s what it’s going to turn to, and they’re all going to be leaders. I know it.”

The Raptors wouldn’t be where they are without Kyle Lowry, but his legacy is such that they wouldn’t be where they are now — young and competitive and brimming with potential — without him moving on.

Threading that needle might go down as Lowry’s last, most important pass as a Raptor. As usual, it was on time and on target.

Sunday’s ovation will be proof of that.

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