The Toronto Raptors are going to keep the success of the greatest era in franchise history rolling a little longer.
In the most pivotal offseason in franchise history, the Raptors worked swiftly to lock in their core for a three-year window, signing Kyle Lowry to a three-year pact worth a reported $100 million plus incentives and signing Serge Ibaka to a three-year, $65-million contract. The lengths of these deals line up with the player option on the five-year near-max deal that DeMar DeRozan signed shortly after the stroke of midnight last year, and all told Masai Ujiri has sent a clear message in free agency’s opening weekend: This team is going to try to compete until 2020.
Lowry was the biggest piece, and while his signing came after Ibaka’s, it was the priority of the summer for Toronto. At the start of the season, the discussion centered on whether the Raptors could stomach giving Lowry his enormous maximum, particularly with a fifth year. Closer to free agency, the talk was whether Lowry wanted to come back, or whether the Raptors would pony up the necessary cash to make him happy. The market for point guards sorted itself out quickly, and Lowry didn’t have many destinations remaining as leverage. At one point, multiple reports suggested that Lowry may only earn in the $27-million range annually on a shorter deal, a far cry from the five-year, $200-million contract that had once been bandied about.
All told, to secure an All-Star point guard for three years at a sub-max rate, even a 31-year-old without a substantial market, is a fair piece of business. A source indicated to Raptors Republic that Lowry wanted a fourth year, and these negotiations probably weren’t as smooth as they were with DeRozan a year ago. Upping the annual salary to something closer to the max likely helped knock off a dangerous fourth year in a season in which Lowry would turn 35, limiting the back-end downside for Toronto. This is a good deal from Toronto’s side, and while Lowry’s spent his career being mostly underpaid, this is life-altering money, a clear statement that the franchise believes in Lowry as a top-tier point guard and someone worth continuing to build around.
And make no mistake, Lowry is immensely important to this franchise. Not only does he serve as a sort of avatar of the accidental, unpredicted quality of this era, he has been the engine through all of it. He fits perfectly with the way the Raptors have presented themselves as the NBA’s “other.” His feisty demeanor, while occasionally off-putting for short bursts, has helped set the Raptors’ own identity as one of the league’s more sustained comeback specialists and difficult-to-play teams. His friendship with DeRozan and their leadership of the locker room, along with head coach Dwane Casey, has helped to instil the type of off-court culture the Raptors have long sought to achieve. He is the beating heart here, and losing Lowry would have meant ripping the heart out of the entire core.
On the court, he has been reason 1A for the team’s success over the last four years. He has made himself into one of the league’s best scorers off the drive, a strong pick-and-roll playmaker, a gritty defender when consistently engaged, and perhaps most importantly, one of the league’s most lethal high-volume long-range shooters. His ability to spot up around DeRozan’s work inside the arc is immensely important, and the threat of him pulling up from 30 feet helps stretch out defenses in transition. He is the best creator of threes for teammates, too. Any talk of this team becoming more reliant on the three without Lowry was outlandish.
For years now, the on-off numbers have screamed that Lowry is not only Toronto’s most important player but one of the league’s most important. He has been worth more than 40 win shares over the last four years and consistently graded well by just about any catch-all metric we have available to us. However flawed those may be individually, there is a consensus among them that Lowry has spent this team’s peak years as one of the 20 most important players in basketball, if not one of the top 10. Before his injury a season ago, he was playing at a level that may have earned him some fifth-place MVP votes had he continued.
(As always, this is to say nothing of DeRozan’s value, or to needlessly rank them. They are a duo, and will tell you as much. The team has built itself that way. They can be appreciated individually without slighting the other, and they can be appreciated together. Their friendship and chemistry has been one of the best Toronto sports subplots of the last decade.)
There are some concerns with Lowry, to be sure. His defense slipped some last year. He’s broken down in three of the last four seasons (the team can probably help their own cause in that regard by no longer playing him top-10 minutes). While he’s been mostly good overall in the postseason, he’s had some shaky stretches and shot the ball poorly overall. He is 31 and undersized. These pale compared to the reasons for re-signing him. Still, He ratchets his defense up when it matters. His injuries have been somewhat fluky and unrelated, and the Raptors should take better care of him. The postseason struggles are hard to explain, but that’s why the team is exploring a change in their offensive approach. He doesn’t have 31-year-old minutes on him, he’s learned to take better care of his body as his career’s gone on, and shooting is a skill that ages well.
He is among the three or four best players in franchise history, and while nobody will touch Vince Carter for most important unless they win a championship, Lowry will have a very compelling case for “best” when this contract has run its course. (I imagine he and DeRozan arguing about this over McFlurrys at age 45 on a beach somewhere.)
If the Raptors wanted to remain competitive, re-signing Lowry at this price is a no-brainer.
Hanging over any offseason moves Toronto made was always going to be the question of whether to continue with this group or take a few steps back for a better window to compete down the line. It’s a tough call, something there is no right or wrong answer for. It’s a matter of perspective, on what constitutes success for a team, on whether a championship is the only barometer, on whether a franchise rising to the level of quality organization and sustaining it for four years, or seven, or however many, is important enough to lock in to the league’s second tier a while longer. Retaining a superstar is still a big deal for this franchise. Turning their back on the best run they’ve had would have been painful, if comparably justified. It’s not a decision Ujiri and company took lightly, and while some will pine for a tanking if and when the Raptors fall short of a championship in this window, there is justification for being good and maximizing a window most teams – even the tankers – dream of getting to open at some point.
The deals for Lowry and Ibaka, then, need to be viewed through the lens of the Raptors making the most of this core. It’s an expensive Sunday, with $165 million committed to go along with the some $82 million DeRozan is owed over the next three seasons. But both signings are at roughly market value and significantly lessen the risk by shortening the term and coming in under the max, meaning both will probably be moveable if the team opts to pivot before 2020. If they don’t, they have a few seasons to try to fortify around an expensive trio, armed with eight young players of varying degrees of intrigue on entry-level contracts for this season.
The work is not done. The Raptors have plenty of cap gymnastics to work their way through, still. If Lowry and Ibaka’s deals are both fully back-loaded, the Raptors have an estimated $132.2 million in salary committed to 14 players. That’s not only well into the luxury tax, but it’s past the tax apron. The Raptors have the $5.19-million taxpayer mid-level exception available to use on a 15th player, but it seems a near certainty that they will unload a salary at some point, maybe two. Their commitment for 2018-19 is nearly as large already, making a few assumptions, with no players set to come off the books and only one player option. Norman Powell is due a big raise in restricted free agency next summer. (Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo will also be restricted free agents, albeit easier cap casualties if need be.)
The Raptors are committed to this core, but the core needs to lose pieces to feasibly supplement it in the coming years, odd though that may seem. They have until their 82nd regular season game to trim their tax bill, but they’d be well-served trying to do so now so they have a better sense of what they’ll look like and can begin building accordingly.
Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, and Jonas Valanciunas have all had their names come up in rumblings. Joseph is a valuable piece and a well-liked player but somewhat redundant with Lowry back and Delon Wright ready to take up backup minutes. Of the names they could shop, Joseph is the most likely to return draft-pick assets, but he alone doesn’t drop them below the tax, if that’s the goal. Carroll is more needed in the wake of P.J. Tucker’s departure and may cost a pick to unload, but his contract is the worst of the three. Valanciunas and Ibaka at their salaries, with two other decent young centers on the roster, is a poor allocation of resources, and Valanciunas has long felt like a potential piece for sale if Ibaka came back. It is immensely difficult to give things away, especially when those players are useful or well-liked.
None of this is about the individual player, really, but about the realities of paying for top talent at the top of the roster. Something has to give, and Toronto will either say goodbye to someone for fiscal reasons. This is part of why Ujiri and company have kept a steady pipeline of young talent despite any pull to add cheap veterans at the end of the roster, as Wrights and Powells and Poeltls should, theoretically, be able to step in as the second tier of players become too expensive. It’s risky, but a look around the league at most of the teams trying to remain competitive in an increasingly top-heavy league shows it’s hard to keep middle-class talent along with stars. Again, these are the sacrifices of keeping the group together. Your best players are more valuable than the role players who support them, and you have to trust your player development to catch you behind those sacrifices.
How you feel about the deals will almost surely align with your position on the tank-or-compete continuum. This is not a championship core as currently constructed, and with a good many of the same pieces coming back, the “culture reset” that was promised at the end of the season appears set to be more tweaking than overhauling. That might be fine. LeBron James still exists, but he’s a threat to leave the Cavaliers and the conference next year. Boston still hasn’t cashed in for the near-term, though they continue to try. Philadelphia is incredibly exciting, but their three most important pieces have played a combined 31 NBA games and zero playoff games. Milwaukee and Washington are good. Toronto will have stiff competition at the top of the East’s second tier. Looking the other direction, the apparent tanking vacuum that was setting itself up has been filled by a handful of East teams taking steps back. The Raptors may not have been able to get bad enough fast enough to beat those tankers, and even if they had, blowing things up and kicking the can five or six years down the line offers no promise – of a title, or of even returning to this level.
As I’ve written a lot this offseason, preferring either path is totally justified. The Raptors have chosen to stay competitive, and they’ve signed two of their three stars, including one of the best players in franchise history, to reasonable deals to keep the window open for three years. It is not a championship window, but it’s a window to be relevant, competitive, and be in a position to take advantage of any major shift of tides in the East. They are on a clock now. So, too, is Ujiri as he tries to massage the margins here and find creative ways to make this core better.