Lowry’s ready to rock-n-roll (his foundation also fed 250 families for Thanksgiving | Siakam | Rondae | Gasol … a bunch of random pieces really
Is Lowry slowing down?
“Nah, not at all. Nope,” says Nurse. “Six, seven years I’ve been here or whatever it is now, there was some concerns late in the year, etcetera, but I haven’t noticed that last year especially and the year before either.
“I think we’ve all figured that out a little bit better and I don’t really have any concerns with him as far as that goes.”
Not surprisingly, Webster remains bullish on Lowry’s ability to maintain his level heading into his 14th season.
“He takes incredibly good care of his body, the way he eats, what he does in the summer,” Webster said. “I think maybe it was four years ago where he drastically changed his conditioning. And you know, as everyone says, it’s 2019 and all the resources they have available to them, that aging curve is potentially changing.”
That may be true, but getting older and playing point guard at an all-star level in the NBA, while not impossible, is rare. Lowry has averaged 17.4 points and 7.1 assists in seven seasons in Toronto.
How many guards have met or exceeded both those thresholds as a 33-year-old?
Only four: Jerry West, Gary Payton, Sam Cassell and Lenny Wilkens.
It’s a crude measure – if Lowry could chip in 16 and seven this season on some decent percentages everyone would consider it a success, I’m sure – but it makes the point that being able to produce at that level at this stage of his career is a tall order, to say nothing of next season.
But with Lowry’s deal done the player who can only be the first to have his jersey retired as a Raptor gets two more years to keep proving people wrong and carving out a place for himself as one of the NBA’s under-appreciated greats.
In the meantime, Lowry and the franchise can look forward to opening night and all the good feelings everyone has coming to them.
The aging curve can wait.
Lowry had been awaiting clearance from the surgeon who operated on his left thumb to repair damaged ligaments. He hurt the thumb during the Eastern Conference semifinals with Philadelphia but played through the injury the remainder of the playoffs. He was in Quebec City for training camp and with the team in Japan for the two exhibitions but did nothing more than light drills and shooting until yesterday.
Lowry saw the surgeon before the team left for Japan and again upon their return this past week and according to the 33-year-old point guard the thumb is now fully healed
The extension, a one year-deal that will pay him $30 million for this 15th season in the NBA at the age of 34, is both a measure of what he has already done for the team and what they believe he still can do for them.
“Kyle has been at the heart of every successful run our franchise has achieved the past seven seasons,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said in a released statement. “He is a competitor, a winner at every level and the engine that our players and city feed off.”
Head coach Nick Nurse, a man who knows better than most how important Lowry is to the Raptors’ success going forward and what they have already accomplished was, to no one’s surprise, fully in favour of the move regardless of age or wear and tear on his feisty point guard.
“If you want my opinion on it, I think he certainly deserves it,” Nurse said. “It’s nice to have him locked in for two more years.
We know what we’re getting. We’re getting a super ultra-competitive guy, nobody plays harder. To me, he just keeps getting better and better.”
Lowry is obviously behind a lot of his teammates having undergone that off-season surgery and only now getting back on the court, but he doesn’t anticipate any dropoff by the time the opener rolls around.
“I’ve got to be a lot more of a scorer,” Lowry said Tuesday, speaking with reporters for the first time since media day late last month. “It’s going to be interesting how we play. We are always playing move-the-ball — this, that and the other, back doors — and myself and Freddie are going to be on the floor together a lot more, I believe. Pascal is going to get a lot more attention, and I’m going to get a lot more attention.
“But it’s something where I’m used to it and I’m ready for the challenge again.”
Nurse isn’t entirely sure how the offence will take shape but he knows it has to change, simply because the personnel has changed. Still, the emergence of a solid, but small, backcourt of Lowry and VanVleet last season is sure to continue this year.
“I could see (Lowry) playing a lot of two this year and that goes to (a) our needs and (b) Freddie’s emergence,” Nurse said. “They’re getting used to playing together.
“I think (Lowry’s) usage probably goes up just in general, right? I think he was super unselfish a year ago, especially early in the year. Again, I’ve said it a few times, I would think his and Marc (Gasol)’s usage both goes up ’cause there’s a different look to the team.”
Lowry agreed to his extension a week or so ago but Tuesday was the first chance they had to put ink to paper. It kicks in for the 2020-21 season. He’ll be paid about $33 million this season on the last of a three-year deal he agreed to in 2016. The extension is in part a thank you for his role in the team’s rise to last year’s title and also a way to keep peace on the roster.
“I think (team president) Masai (Ujiri) mentioned (Lowry is) kind of a legacy guy and he has a chance to go down as the best Raptor ever,” general manager Bobby Webster said Tuesday. “I think obviously he’s playing at a high level, he’s continuing to play at a high level, and there’s no reason to expect him not to.
There are reports out there that Lowry had no intention of practicing – or perhaps even playing – until he got a new contract. Was he sitting out a result of his slow-healing injury or for leverage as part of his contract negotiations? We’ll probably never know for sure. Fortunately, it no longer matters.
Last week, Lowry and the Raptors agreed on a mutually beneficial one-year, $31 million extension. It was made official on Tuesday, just before the all-star point guard finally returned to practice.
“It was an opportunity that worked out for both sides,” Lowry said. “It’s a place I wanted to be. It’s a place I’ve been most successful in my career. I think it works on both sides. It’s just something that’s really important and really special to have an opportunity to go out here and play basketball for a living and make that amount of money playing the sport that you love. It was great. It got done. We didn’t know if it was going to get done but both sides worked extremely hard to get it done, and it got done.”
It was a deal that required compromise from both sides, to be sure. Lowry’s camp wanted a longer term, preferably three years, while the Raptors insisted on keeping it shorter to maintain their cap flexibility entering the summer of 2021. In exchange, Toronto gave him a larger annual salary than he would have commanded on the open market, while also rewarding one of the most iconic players in franchise history.
Kyle Lowry says he is happy to stay as a Raptor, and that his extension was done quickly and professionally. The management and coaching staff echo the statement, adding that Kyle is a legacy player who deserves it.
When you’ve climbed to the top of Everest, how do you find the motivation to ascend that next mountain? If you are the Raptors, you simply turn the page on the accomplishment and focus on the next task.
VanVleet almost laughed at one questioner Tuesday when he was asked how long it took him to come down from the high of winning his first NBA title.
“It’s a balance,” he said. “It’s not like we went on a three-month bender. It was about 10 days for me. You come back to earth. You carry it with you. It doesn’t leave you.”
But clearly the want to do it again remains very strong.
“I worked harder this summer after last year,” he said. “It’s not impossible to be proud of the moment, be happy with what we accomplished, and still not be satisfied. Your life or your career doesn’t end after you win a championship.”
Lowry had a similar take on the same question.
“You think anyone on this team is not motivated?” Lowry asked. “We’ve all got something to prove every single night we step out there. That’s one thing I can tell you has remained consistent since I’ve been here — everyone always has something to prove.
“So why not try to get back there, right?” he said. “You don’t want to say: ‘Well, I got there once.’ You want to continue to try and get back there every single year.”
It is a fine season, with a lot of positives and a few sour notes. Kyle Lowry’s streak of five straight All-Star appearances comes to an end, but only because of games played. He is still the heart of the Raptors, and a modest bump in scoring and 3-point percentage quiet any talk of a decline. Terence Davis emerges as a potential long-term rotation piece, offering nice pop off the bench. In a hybrid role, Fred VanVleet only adds to his fan club with excellent two-way play, showcasing what he can do as a distributor more than ever before.
Some things don’t go as planned. Norman Powell’s trademark inconsistency remains; Chris Boucher can’t lock down a rotation spot, but Stanley Johnson doesn’t take it from him, either; rookie Dewan Hernandez looks decidedly raw.
On the strength of a seventh-ranked defence and 16th-ranked offence, the Raptors finish the year 46-36, good enough for fifth in the Eastern Conference. (The Nets, the surprise story of the year, top 50 wins without Kevin Durant, passing both the Raptors and Celtics in the second half of the season.) The Celtics win a dramatic seven-game series with the Raptors in the first round, ending Toronto’s season six weeks earlier than a year ago.
In the Western Conference, the Clippers and Lakers meet in an all-Los Angeles conference final. The Clippers win and go on to beat the 76ers for the franchise’s first title. Leonard needed plenty of maintenance along the way, but he once again wins Finals MVP.
All things considered, it is a fun season for the Raptors, if a little disappointing given what came the previous season. Still, things could be worse. As soon as the Raptors’ season ends, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reports that the Raptors have given Ujiri a two-year contract worth a reported $20-million.
“Like I said last year at this time, this is where I want to be,” Ujiri says in his end-of-season press conference. “Toronto is home. This isn’t about me, though. This is about the Raptors. And we have some work to do.”
2. Marc Gasol, C, Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors’ decision to trade Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-round pick to the Memphis Grizzlies for Marc Gasol this past February paid off with their first-ever NBA championship.
But when Kawhi Leonard decided to leave the Raptors in free agency to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, it raised questions about Gasol’s long-term future in Toronto.
Gasol picked up his $25.6 million player option for this coming season, but he’ll become an unrestricted free agent in July. The Raptors will also have to grapple with Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet all becoming free agents next summer as well, which may make it difficult to run back the exact same team in 2020-21.
The 34-year-old Gasol will always be beloved in Toronto for his role in helping to deliver last year’s championship, but his age suggests he isn’t a long-term part of the Raptors’ future. If the Raptors are teetering on the brink of postseason contention in January, team president Masai Ujiri may decide it’s more prudent to shop Gasol, Lowry and Ibaka than to chase one of the final few playoff seeds in the East.
Lowry just signed a one-year extension, but he’s still eligible to be traded, while Ibaka turned 30 in mid-September. The two of them could help the Raptors bridge the gap from the Kawhi era to Pascal Siakam’s takeover as the No. 1 option.
Ujiri might decide to allow Lowry, Ibaka and Gasol to have a season-long victory lap before embarking upon a hard reset in the summer of 2020. But if he expects to move on from Gasol either way in July, it makes sense to dangle him ahead of the trade deadline in case last season’s playoff run inspires a contender to see him as the missing piece to a title.
Is Pascal Siakam ready to become the man? A look at his near-meteoric rise from high-motor project to All-Star-caliber player suggests he could be, but it won’t come without challenges. With more double-teams on the way, Siakam will need to become a more adept creator while continuing to develop his shooting touch – especially from mid-range.
Role on the Team
After years operating as option 1A or 1B in Memphis, Gasol embraced his new role as a connecting piece in the Raptors championship offense. Gasol typically figured as either the 4th or 5th scoring option in the Raptors’ key lineups, and as a scorer the majority of his shots came off of catch-and-shoots, whether he was picking-and-popping, spotting-up, or spacing the floor in transition.
Once the playoffs came around, the post-up game that had been Gasol’s bread-and-butter for over a decade in Memphis was sidelined. He went from averaging 3.5 post-ups per game in the regular season to 1.2 per game in the playoffs. This wasn’t without reason, Gasol’s efficiency in the post has been slipping for years, and he was catastrophically inefficient on the post-up opportunities he was granted in the playoffs, averaging just 0.59 points per possession. Anecdotally, Raptors fans will surely recall his fruitless attempts to back down Tobias Harris in the Raptors’ second round matchup against the Sixers. As a low-post player Gasol is likely done, outside of posting severe mismatches.
Some transactional events that occurred this offseason make the above slightly concerning. Kawhi Leonard departed the Raptors in free agency, as you are likely aware, leaving a usage vacuum that the Raptors will need to fill. Pascal Siakam will make up much of the void. Kyle Lowry will likely be asked to return to his pre-Leonard usage. But logic would dictate that Gasol will be a third option rather than fourth or fifth in most lineups this year, leaving questions as to where exactly those additional shots will come from, as a return to the style he played in Memphis means a return to a post-up game that has largely abandoned him.
Outside of scoring, Gasol’s role is much more clear. He will be the de-facto starter at centre for the Raptors, ceding the role to Serge Ibaka only if his load is being managed. His ability to facilitate will be instrumental to helping Lowry and Siakam grow their roles. Lowry and Siakam combined to shoot an effective field goal percentage of 69 percent (nice) on shot attempts immediately following Gasol passes in the regular season last year. That number is unsustainable, but Gasol’s ability to make deliveries to movement shooters and cutters from the elbows, as well as his ability to find shooters spotting-up while on the short-roll should help Lowry and Siakam immensely. His ability to initiate the offense in this capacity should also take pressure off of secondary ball-handlers like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and incoming rookie Terence Davis in the in-between lineups without Lowry or Siakam.
Defensively, Gasol will presumably remain the brick wall in the post that he was when he stone-walled Nikola Vucevic and Joel Embiid in back-to-back series. While no longer vertically explosive, he can still protect the rim just by being a very large individual who gets straight up and down (he’ll also take the occasional charge). Slow and lumbering though he may be, he shows off his preternatural defensive instincts whenever he steps out on pick-and-rolls. Most bigs in Gasol’s vein are limited to playing drop coverage, but Gasol wracks up deflections and recovers after taking away driving lanes at an uncanny rate for someone with his relative lack of mobility.
The Raptors have developed a young core behind veterans Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol. Pascal Siakam, 22; OG Anunoby, 25; Fred VanVleet, 25; and Norm Powell, 26, should be just hitting their prime. To replace Leonard and Green, Toronto signed reserve forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson. Returning shooting guard Patrick McCaw, who left Sunday’s preseason game against the Chicago Bulls with a twisted left knee, is also in the mix.
With Serge Ibaka enjoying a bounce-back year at center, he may platoon with Gasol. Toronto may also offer load management to Gasol, who had a busy summer leading Spain to a gold at the FIBA World Cup. He will be 35 in January. With Ibaka and Gasol eligible to become free agents next summer, Raptors president Masai Ujiri will weigh the options at the Feb. 6 trade deadline should Toronto be underperforming at that point.
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