The Toronto Raptors gave up a likely lottery pick, now property of the Oklahoma City Thunder, to make Kyle Lowry their starting point guard of the present and future — the dynamic off-the-bounce creator that boring old Jose Calderon could never be. Lowry had worn out his welcome amid lineup uncertainty in both Memphis and Houston, alienating coaches and rubbing some teammates the wrong way. But he'd also grown into an above-average starting point guard playing on one of the best bang-for-the-buck contracts in the league. He’s Philly tough, and his fast-paced style and defensive intensity figured to mesh nicely with Raptors coach Dwane Casey.
But like the anointed Calderon Replacers that came before him (T.J. Ford, Jerryd Bayless), Lowry now finds himself backing up the 31-year-old Spaniard — a perfectly suitable veteran who also happens to be playing on an $11 million expiring contract that stands as Toronto’s best trade asset in their on-again, off-again pursuit of building blocks like Rudy Gay.
It’s clear that Casey prefers Calderon’s pass-first style of play for now, even as he pushes Lowry to embrace his aggression and denies he’s had any of the “coachability” issues that dogged Lowry in other places. “We haven’t had any of that here,” Casey told Grantland before the Raptors’ loss in Brooklyn on Tuesday. “And Kyle’s edge is what makes him a great player.”
Both Casey and Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo are pleased with how supportive Lowry has been of Calderon — screaming encouragement from the bench and even mock-cooling Calderon with a towel during a hot streak last weekend against Milwaukee. "Kyle has been through something like this in other places, and the outcome wasn't good for anyone," Colangelo says. "He has done it right this time. Almost to a fault, he has done exactly what the coaches have asked him to do."
But Casey has said repeatedly that Lowry needs to find more balance in his game between passing and shooting, between rushing and pausing to see what openings might emerge for teammates. “That’s the Kyle everyone is looking for,” Casey said after Tuesday’s loss, when Lowry exploded for 21 much-needed points trying to lead a comeback on a badly sprained ankle. “We need him to be aggressive, but still make the right basketball decisions.”
Casey has repeated the “basketball decisions” line often, and league observers read it as a clear message from Casey that Lowry needs more Calderon in his game. Colangelo seems a bit uncomfortable with that. “When you put the reins on Kyle, you take away some of his best attributes,” Colangelo told Grantland during a pregame courtside chat on Monday. “You can’t take an alley cat and turn him into a house pet.”
It’s a step too far to suggest there's a bitter divide between the front office and the coaching staff on Lowry. But there is at least a difference of opinion, and how the team handles that is crucial as the Raptors work to assemble a core that might be able to contend in a post-Miami world. Calderon will be a free agent this summer, and though he’ll be 32 by the start of next season, folks around the league expect his competent play will still command something in the $6 million to $9 million range on the open market. Lowry’s contract expires after next season. Giving both market value is a waste of resources. Paying just one market value will take Toronto off the list of teams with max-level cap room in the summer of 2014, though they should get back there the following July. (Note: That could obviously change if Toronto makes some dramatic cost-cutting moves, including the use of the amnesty provision on Andrea Bargnani, but the smart money is on Linas Kleiza as Toronto’s most likely amnesty candidate).
So who should Toronto choose?