lowry

When Kyle Lowry was brought to Toronto in the summer of 2012 by then-GM Bryan Colangelo the acquisition was hailed because the Raptors organization appeared to have found their elusive “point guard of the future” [as an aside, I’ve really grown to loathe that term and what it supposedly implies]. Unfortunately, under Colangelo’s watch Lowry struggled to live up to such a lofty expectations. He clashed with his coach, he failed to buy-in to Toronto’s defensive principles and the team as a whole never looked cohesive under his leadership. When the Raptors stumbled out of the gate this season, Lowry was very loudly put on the trading block and wasn’t expected to see 2014 as a member of the Toronto Raptors.

Well, it’s 2014, and Lowry looks as established with the Raptors as he’s ever looked, so much so that he’s reportedly been pulled off the market and instead been slotted into Toronto’s future team-building plans. How’s that for a quick turnaround?

The genesis of Lowry’s reclamation was the departure of good friend Rudy Gay, as so much of Toronto’s good fortune has been been this season. With Gay gone, Lowry was thrust into a leadership position with the team, and while that might have been a disaster only a year ago, this season it’s been the key to unlocking the full potential of Lowry’s game. Since Gay’s departure Lowry’s usage has increased (from 18.7% of possessions used to 20.8%), his assist percentage has spiked (from 30% to 36.5%) and he’s shooting the best true shooting percentage of his career (59.6 TS%). The team has catapulted from basement-dweller to one of the hottest teams in the NBA and made Lowry one of the most intriguing free agent options on the open market this summer.

Which, obviously, has Raptors fans worried.

Toronto is not famous for its ability to retain its own free agents without wildly overpaying to keep them. With Lowry having a career-year before heading into free agency, a good number of fans think that the Raptors should divest themselves of Lowry now for whatever they can get instead of losing him for nothing next summer. After all, Lowry is getting All-Star attention, so why would he limit himself to Toronto when there are so many better options out there for him in free agency?

To that point I have to ask: what team is a better option than Toronto? I’m serious, find me a place on the NBA landscape that is better equipped to sign Kyle Lowry next summer than Toronto. It’s not easy.

Let’s first assume that even if starting isn’t a huge factor in Lowry’s decision making (though it probably is) then playing time will be. While some teams will split their minutes at point guard pretty evenly between two options, the following teams probably won’t because of how good their current starter is: Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Golden State, LA Clippers, Minnesota, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, San Antonio, Utah and Washington – that’s sixteen teams eliminated right off the bat from contention for Kyle Lowry’s services because they simply don’t have the minutes available to allocate to him to justify his going there.

After that you have a smattering of teams that may not have an All-Star in tow but aren’t exactly on the hunt for an upgrade (Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis and Indiana), teams that can’t afford to sign Lowry (New York and Miami) and a team that is more interested in finding their point guard in the draft rather than in free agency (Orlando). Detroit and Milwaukee spent a lot of money to swap point guards last summer, and while those guards have done well to show their new teams why their old teams gave up on them, that fact also makes it hard for either team to clear the decks to offer Lowry the money and minutes he’ll probably be seeking in July. Sacramento wants a point guard upgrade now, but given how thoroughly Lowry’s flourished out of Rudy Gay’s shadow, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he steps back behind it again in free agency. Oh, and good luck getting Kevin McHale and Lowry to ever work together again, a situation that basically kills any chance of Lowry winding up in Houston.

That leaves one team as a credible threat to lure Lowry away from Toronto: The Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers have the glamour town, a ton of cap space and superstar to play alongside. The problem with Los Angeles, though, is that they appear more interested in giving Kobe Bryant an epic two-year sendoff than building a competitive team under the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement. That organization looks like a mess right now from a competitive standpoint, and while you can never totally rule out the Lakers as a free agent destination (*cough*stevenash*cough*), going there would appear to fly in the face of the competitive nature that Lowry has come to be known for.

What about Toronto, though? This is a young team on the rise in, let’s face it, an easier conference to compete in. Lowry is basically the undisputed leader of the team, but he also has a blossoming shooting guard as a sidekick that makes life a lot easier for Lowry out on the court. The Raptors are in a good position to bump Lowry’s salary up into the range of his peers (the $7-$9-million rage of Goran Dragic and Jeff Teague; remember, Lowry will be 28 when free agency hits so he doesn’t get the benefit of ‘young player on the rise’ money) while still maintaining a lot of flexibility for roster moves to improve the overall quality of the club. He’s finally got a coach that stands behind him, so much so that he’s stumping for his All-Star candidacy, and a GM that understands how to build a team with a small, aggressive point guard at it’s centre. The fan base has embraced him, the media can’t stop singing his praises and it’s hard to envision a team that could make better use of his particular skills while better hiding his particular flaws. It may have taken far longer than Colangelo would have liked, but Lowry and Toronto have indeed developed into a hand-in-glove fit, which is probably the organization is bullish about their ability to re-sign him this summer.

The fact is that for the first time in a long time, and maybe ever, an All-Star calibre player in Toronto may hit free agency with Toronto still representing his best and most desirable choice on the open market. Toronto has (eventually) given Lowry everything that he’s wanted in his career and Lowry has (eventually) given Toronto everything they could have wanted out of him. Yes it’s early still and things might still go sideways (that’s the kind of hedge you feel obligated to give about the Raptors after writing about them for a decade) but right now the Raptors look smart for holding onto Lowry and have every reason to feel confident that they can secure his services again this summer. Just chalk it up as another smack-in-the-face reminder that these Raptors really are starting to make a break from their underwhelming past. Now all they have to do is keep it up.