Come out to watch party at Sportsnet Grill (tickets on sale) | Lowry extension. Lowry Legacy. Lowry happy. Lowry. Lowry. Lowry.
Join us at Sportsnet Grill to watch the first game of the Toronto Raptors’ 2019-20 NBA Season, where our Raptors will take on the Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Tonight will be special as the Raptors will be receiving their Championship Rings and raising the Championship Banner.
The deal does have a potential impact on two other Raptors: Siakam and VanVleet. Depending on how much you value flexibility versus certainty, this could signal that a new deal for Siakam will wait until next summer. The Raptors have until Oct. 21 to work out a rookie-scale contract extension with Siakam, lest he become a restricted free agent next summer. If Siakam’s camp is seeking the max, which our Shams Charania has reported they are, there’s little incentive to get that deal done now. The upside for the Raptors is in getting a deal done beneath the max. If they are committed to paying Siakam that max – which is entirely justifiable based on how his growth projects from here – it would make more sense to get it done in the summer. That would allow the Raptors to keep Siakam’s modest cap hold on their books, go about their free agent spending (with at least $28 million in space, and possibly more if they so choose), then re-sign Siakam to his larger deal. It’s purely a flexibility play, not a value-judgment one. You could make a case that the free agent opportunity cost of extending Siakam now is low enough in a weak class for it not to matter, but staying lean can open up opportunities in trade, as well, and the Raptors would sacrifice a projected $22 million in cap space by doing the Siakam deal now.
VanVleet is the more interesting, if less urgent, wrinkle. An unrestricted free agent this coming summer, VanVleet is not extension eligible. Extending Lowry in no way signals a vote of no-confidence in VanVleet, as VanVleet’s next deal will be more about how much space it eats up in 2021, which is now firmly established as the team’s pivot season. Where this could come into play is if VanVleet is insistent on being a starter on his next deal and there’s hesitancy on Lowry’s part to move to a bench role, or if it in some way reshapes the minutes distribution this season. These considerations are real but minor – this is a big season for VanVleet to show whether he can grow into a starter in a larger role – by minutes and responsibility – independent of what is happening with Lowry. There would be 2020-21 overlap, but VanVleet’s season and summer are about his future with the team in 2021 and beyond.
Just as important as any cap-space wrinkle is what Lowry’s deal signals about the Raptors’ near-term intentions: They’re going to compete while they transition. Masai Ujiri has been adamant that their program has been built to put winning first and has held steadfast for years that the team won’t tank to eventually rebuild. They’re built such that a tear-down would be unsuitable, anyway, and securing Lowry for an additional year extends that thinking. While Lowry is now 33, he has shown little sign of impact decline and projects as roughly a top-30 player again this year. Smaller point guards don’t have a terrific track record of aging, but with Lowry’s shooting, savvy and the Raptors’ ability to lessen his workload thanks to VanVleet, they should be able to manage the beginning of his decline well enough that Lowry remains a positive contributor.
That a deal did get done reflects a few factors.
One is that Raptors president Masai Ujiri and the club are truly appreciative of their point guard and what he has meant to the team’s culture. There is no six-year playoff run without Lowry and most certainly there is no NBA title without his combination of tenacity, smarts and skill. That Lowry played the last 13 games of their championship run with torn ligaments in his left thumb that required he take pain-killing needles prior to every start wasn’t lost on anyone.
There’s also the recognition that any chance the Raptors have of mounting a respectable title defence post-Kawhi Leonard this season relies on healthy, happy and engaged Lowry.
But even with that appreciation, Ujiri wasn’t going to give Lowry the multi-year extension – three years was the dream scenario – he was angling for when the two sides began talking earlier this summer. As much as Lowry is determined to do the work to extend his career into his late thirties, Ujiri did not want to bet big money on Lowry remaining at an all-star level beyond his age-35 season.
As a result, any championship bonus Lowry was going to get was going to have to come in the form of a one-year lump-sum.
By keeping the extension to one season, Lowry’s deal is only using cap space that was never likely to be used. The free-agent market in the summer of 2020 doesn’t include the kind of players the Raptors would likely be looking to dole out max-type deals to.
Even with Lowry’s $31 million on the books for 2020-21, Toronto would still have $28 million to spend in a targeted manner or to use to acquire salary in a trade next.
They have also kept their powder dry for free agency – or the trade – in the summer of 2021 when Giannis Antetokounmpo is projected to hit the market, along with a number of other high-end talents.
However, this is more than just a reward for his years of service and effort in delivering the team its first title. Despite his age, Lowry is still a productive player and one of the most valuable point guards in the league.
The Raptors may not be contenders without Kawhi Leonard, but as long as Lowry is healthy and on the court they’re sure to be among the top teams in the East. There had been some speculation that Toronto could look to trade Lowry’s expiring contract ahead of February’s trade deadline and pivot to a rebuild, but his extension signifies a desire to remain competitive, even in the post-Leonard era.
From the Raptors side of things, a one-year extension allows them to maintain their coveted long-term flexibility.
Had the Raptors allowed Lowry’s deal to expire next summer – in addition to Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet – they would have had more than $90 million coming off their books. However, the free agent class in the summer of 2020 is expected to be underwhelming.
By extending Lowry a year, they will defer much of that cap space to the summer of 2021 when several marquee players could become available, including Bucks superstar and reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who Ujiri is known to be infatuated with.
If they hope to recruit Antetokounmpo, or any other big-name free agent, this was an important and necessary step: continue to build a winning culture while taking care of a well-regarded player who has bled for the franchise, literally in many cases.
The new deal also provides Lowry and the Raptors some stability going into a season of uncertainty.
Toronto is only the third team in NBA history to try and defend its championship without the reigning Finals MVP on its roster, and the first team to do it with said Finals MVP on somebody else’s roster.
That is always the rub with Lowry and whatever gripe he might have at the time: As much as you question his motives away from the floor, his playing style is so commendable and his competitiveness is so evident that it is tempting to wipe all of the little things away. He could not bring himself to publicly support Dwane Casey after the Raptors’ embarrassing playoff loss to Washington; he has openly flirted with other teams in free agency instead of taking DeRozan’s route; he bristles at coaches who don’t see the game as he does, and executives who make moves he doesn’t like. But none of it really matters as long as he keeps spilling his soul on the court as a Raptor, which he will do because he simply cannot help himself.
Asking what would make Lowry happy for an extended period of time misses the point. Lowry is clearly capable of moments of clarity and extreme professionalism. As much as you want to tell Lowry to make things a little easier on himself by kissing a few babies and shaking a few hands, his refusal to do so is a byproduct of the chip on his shoulder that drives him. So as much as his circumstances may change for the better, in his mind he will forever remain a late first-round pick who two organizations (Memphis and Houston) decided wasn’t good enough to start.
No matter what Lowry or Ujiri says, or what the powerful image of Lowry pulling Ujiri over the barricade after the president’s altercation with security in Oakland may suggest, the marriage between Lowry and club has always been one based on circumstance instead of passion.
How will Lowry’s story with the Raptors end? Probably poorly, and Monday’s news does little to change that. The ending, however, won’t be what we remember most.
To see that dollar figure may give a person pause, however. To put on our general manager hat for a second, $31 million for a 33-year-old point guard (who will turn 34 before the end of this season), is a lot of money for a player likely to start entering some kind of decline. Biology remains what it is, unfortunately. Lowry will make $35 million in the 2019-20 season, the last year of his previous deal, and we’ll soon see just how much he has left in the tank.
The Raptors obviously didn’t need Lowry to be their primary or even secondary scorer last year, but this season he may need to rise to the occasion more often than not, depending on what kind of jump Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and even OG Anunoby make. As has been noted repeatedly, an undersized point guard heading into his mid-30s is usually not an on-court asset for a team. The Rockets discovered that with the atrophying of Chris Paul, and the Lakers are about to risk it all with whatever is left of Rajon Rondo. Toronto is in a different situation with Lowry, but it’s worth noting all the same.
Still, this rounds out as a low-risk investment. Toronto makes a good faith signing with the one player who has been on the team since before the We the North era began. Lowry, meanwhile, continues to build his resume as one of the best point guards of his generation at the highest possible price. Yes, a short term deal is a risk for him, but Lowry likely knows he wasn’t going to see north of $30mil anywhere else, at least not in the summer of 2020. And now with a championship under his belt and the immediate pressure off Ujiri to do something to try and win one, Lowry’s status in Toronto is even more secure. This likely figured into the calculus somewhere too.
Unlike, say, trading DeMar DeRozan — a decision that made a lot of sense both basketball- and contract-wise for Toronto — moving Lowry does not necessarily mean as much of a significant return. (Toronto certainly wouldn’t get a Kawhi-type player in the deal, that’s for sure.) There are teams who could use Lowry’s services, for sure, but it is unlikely one would give up much in the way of assets — and the cost in fan acrimony would be way too high. As it stands, a mid-season trade featuring Lowry continues to feel unlikely; Toronto remains the best fit for Lowry, and vice versa. The Raptors want to compete now and maintain their financial flexibility for the future. This is the best way for Lowry to do the same thing.
With the deal, Toronto commits to fielding a strong team for the next two summers before being able to open up the bank in search of a marquee free agent. The 2020 free-agent class is perceived to be weak, whereas the 2021 crop should be headlined by league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, so the move gives the Raptors more certainty for an extra year.
Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet are all slated to hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2020 and Pascal Siakam will either be offered a big-money extension in the next couple of weeks or next summer.
Lowry, 33, is the franchise leader in many categories and is approaching the top of a number of others. This is the third extension he has inked with the Raptors since being acquired from Houston in 2012, making him the first basketball player to score a Toronto hat trick.
There’s little question Lowry has had the best Raptors career of any player in the franchise’s first 24 seasons. While Kawhi Leonard (and perhaps Vince Carter) had greater individual campaigns, Lowry has been the beating heart and motor of a string of strong teams, culminating in the 2018-19 title-winning edition.
Team president Masai Ujiri spoke at media day of giving Lowry “legacy” treatment owing to his history with the franchise and then delivered.
“We are so appreciative of how Masai and Bobby (Webster) handled every aspect of this negotiation,” Lowry’s new agent Mark Bartelstein told ESPN.
Lowry can be a prickly sort and his seven years in Toronto have not been all sweetness and light but that recalcitrance makes him what he is as a competitor and dealing with it is just part of doing business because there is no disputing the value he provides on the court. He clashed with then-coach Dwane Casey early in his tenure but the two resolved any differences and developed a relationship that helped turn the Raptors into perennial Eastern Conference contenders in the era of LeBron James in Cleveland.
Ujiri was days — maybe hours — from trading Lowry to the New York Knicks in 2013 to start a complete teardown of the roster but Knicks owner James Dolan nixed the deal at the last minute in a move that altered the course of Raptors history. Lowry sought other interested teams when he was a free agent in 2016 but settled on a three-year, $100-million deal with Toronto when other offers never seriously materialized.
He bristled a year ago when Ujiri traded his best friend and long-time teammate DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs and only a “difficult” meeting with Ujiri last February took Lowry off the trade market.
Lowry has been integral to everything the Raptors have done since then-president Bryan Colangelo obtained him from Houston in a trade for Gary Forbes and a draft pick that turned into Steven Adams, now with Oklahoma City.
And through it all, the native of Philadelphia has stayed a consummate pro on the court, the heart of the team. All the trouble was worthwhile.
“We can say whatever we want about Kyle: He comes and he gives it his all on the court,” Ujiri said. “He’ll give me a headache once a month, but that’s fine.
Lowry’s extension shows the Raptors will take care of you
Lowry’s extension isn’t just a reward for a brilliant career. It’s also a signal to stars around the league that the Raptors take care of their players.
Much like the late career extension Kobe Bryant signed with the Lakers, Lowry’s deal proves the Raptors can treat players like family, not just numbers on a spreadsheet. The franchise caught some heat for being heartless after trading longtime stalwart DeMar DeRozan for Leonard a year ago. That move proved to be one of the most impactful in NBA history. With Lowry’s deal, Toronto is reaffirming its place as an organization that treats players with full respect.
There was no comic sans letter when Leonard left. There likely won’t be vitriol from the fans when he visits in an away uniform like there was for Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City. Lowry’s championship bonus doesn’t just help the Raptors in the near-term, it could help their perception with other players long-time. If anyone deserves this type of commitment, it’s him.
This deal gives Lowry financial security – not location security. The Raptors can still trade him. But he locks in another high salary, maybe his last big payday.
Taking this extension was an interesting choice for him. Lowry will now enter fee agency at age 35 rather than 34. His next contract will likely be worth less. But the extension provides guaranteed money now.
It’s also an interesting choice for the Raptors if they’re open to trading Lowry. Does an extra season on his deal make him more or less valuable? They definitely get more time to find a trade.
Of course, this extension could be designed just to keep Lowry in Toronto longer. He’s so revered there. It’d be a happy ending if he finishes his career with the Raptors, and this deal could get him one step closer.
Toronto now has more reason not to extend Pascal Siakam, which would cut into next summer’s cap space. When the Raptors’ cap room projected to be so high anyway – about $80 million – they could have more easily justified a Siakam extension. With that projected cap space down to about $50 million, Toronto should be more cost-conscious. Extending Siakam could still work, but this nudges the Raptors toward keeping him on his low cap hold then re-signing him in restricted free agency next summer.
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