Kyle Lowry’s bags were packed.
It’s a story that’s been told plenty of times now and one Lowry iterated this week on J.J. Redick’s incredible podcast: New Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri had agreed to deal Lowry to the New York Knicks as the next step in his three-tiered strip-down of the roster he inherited. Lowry wasn’t as good as gone. He was gone.
“The trade was done,” Lowry said on the podcast. “We had our plan. I was going to go to New York, sign a one-year deal, and play it out with the Knicks.
“I packed my bag. Had two duffle bags ready to go.”
Knicks owner James Dolan reportedly balked at giving the Raptors another pick, New York’s 2018 first-rounder, to accompany Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. (or some deal like it). Instead, Lowry stayed in Toronto, finished out the year with unexpected success at the team level, put pen to paper on a four-year pact that immediately looked like a discount for the Raptors, and has since become one of the most important figures in Raptors history.
That’s not overstating things: Lowry is already among the greatest Raptors of all time. Vince Carter and Chris Bosh own the top two spots, and that’s not really debatable, but Lowry’s making a push toward the top with one of the most sustained runs of success the team has ever seen. He already ranks 13th in games played as a Raptor, seventh in points and steals, and second in assists. More notably, with a trip to the second round of the playoffs this year, he’d move forward tied for the franchise lead in playoff games played, a nod to his being the leader during the team’s best three-year stretch of regular season play.
And on Monday, Lowry added another statistical note to his resume, posting his sixth triple-double as a Raptor, giving him one-third of all triple-doubles in team history. That stat means little, of course, but considering he did it against the Knicks, and specifically against former teammate and starting point guard competition Jose Calderon, serves as a nice little reminder of exactly which timeline the Raptors exist on right now. Sure, they’ve been knocked out of the playoffs in back-to-back first-round playoff series, and yes, I conceded it was disappointing they didn’t make a move at the trade deadline, and sure, the specter of impending first-round doom haunts my DMs and GChats at night, but things could be much, much worse.
This isn’t to be voyeuristic toward the Knicks, who at least have Kristaps Porzingis to be excited about. They’re a bit of a mess still, overall, and don’t own their own lottery pick in a rebuilding season (thanks!), but this is much more about what the Raptors could look like.
Instead of Lowry dropping a hyper-efficient 22-11-11 for the Raptors last night, he could have been doing it against them. Or, just as likely, for another team. In return, the Raptors would have almost nothing present-day to show for it. They’d have that first-rounder two years down the line, Hardaway, and perhaps the 2014 first-round pick the Oklahoma City Thunder were ready to surrender for Shumpert at the deadline later that same 2013-14 season. Meanwhile, the Raptors would have been much worse in the time since. Simply subtracting Win Shares is foolish, but using Lowry’s production as a rough guide, maybe instead of Bruno Caboclo and Delon Wright the Raptors have, say, Dario Saric sitting overseas waiting, Caboclo (from the later Thunder pick), and Justise Winslow. The future might be bright, filled with cheap, intriguing assets and a wealth of cap space, but it would be coming after some lean years.
In all likelihood, DeMar DeRozan, 26 years old and in the final year of an incredibly affordable contract, would have been shipped out at some point, too, shifting his own 22-point night elsewhere. Jonas Valanciunas, who shook off a poor start opposite Robin Lopez to turn in a really solid 20-point effort, would be a much bigger focal point of a much worse offense. Cory Joseph, his excellent defense, and his herky-jerky 13-and-6 performances might be starting. We’re still begging for SAVE.US.YTJ.
But Dolan balked, Ujiri opted to let the weird 2014 chemistry experiment play out, and the Raptors have continued to tweak that core to the point where there’s room for optimism heading into the stretch run. Following a very shaky two-game stretch that served as a reminder that the team’s 14-wins-in-16-games stretch was masking a few issues, the Raptors have put together back-to-back wins. The first was an ugly slugfest with a shorthanded Memphis Grizzlies team that should never have been so close. Monday’s performance was every bit the thorough drubbing it should have been, but nobody was comfortable predicting because the Raptors have been lightly stumbling and have so often played down to their competition.
The Raptors shot 52.9 percent from the floor, moved the ball well in totaling 26 assists, opened up clean 3-point looks (11-of-25), saw six players score in double-figures, protected the ball well, and even opened things up enough to get the prospects 3:21 (Wright and Lucas Nogueira) and 1:49 (Anthony Bennett and Norman Powell) some actual floor time. Luis Scola steadied himself some after several poor showings, though his shot remains somewhat missing in action. James Johnson had his best game since weeks before his ankle sprain, doing a great job on Carmelo Anthony (4-of-12 against him, 4-of-5 when Johnson sat) and scoring 12 points within seamless flow of the offense.
The defense still wasn’t anywhere near where it needs to get, as the Knicks scored their 95 points on just 89 possessions, grabbed offensive rebounds too freely, and were some cold shooting at the stripe and beyond the arc from keeping things close. That was in large part due to a tough start on the defensive end, and again, the Raptors found their footing enough to put things away – Lowry played 35 minutes, DeRozan 32.
From here, the Raptors have to make sure not to lose the script against the Minneosta Timberwolves (again) on Wednesday, because the Cleveland Cavaliers visit on Friday. The Raptors trail Cleveland by just three games for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and the fanbase is hungry for a victory against a quality opponent. Considering the Raptors could very easily have been looking at Lowry starring elsewhere with Rae Sremmurd in the headphones, that’s a pretty fortunate situation to be in.