Ujiri says "It's in the blood" about being a Raptor.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 25, 2021
Ujiri says his own status had no impact on deadline: "This is my job. I'm a Raptor. Love this team. Love this organization." Says he's never thought about himself with team transactions.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 25, 2021
Ujiri on Norman Powell: "I want to thank Norm, his family, his mom. They've been incredible people…As much as we try to develop players and make players better, Norm made himself better."
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 25, 2021
Ujiri confirms that they were limited in market by wanting to do right by Lowry in terms of destination. "We owe him that respect."
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 25, 2021
Ujiri on Lowry's market value: "For Kyle, we are extremely, extremely biased."
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 25, 2021
On Gary Trent Jr., and the Raptors turning Norman Powell into a younger, cheaper prospect.
Trent is cool, but I get it being divisive for bigger-picture reasons.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 25, 2021
I have a few scattered thoughts about Lowry remaining a Raptor:
- In retrospect, the Trent acquisition, in lieu of more picks for Powell, makes sense. The team isn’t going to take too large a step back for the remainder of the year, and they’ll probably do what they can to get into the play-in game and see what noise they can make. Last night’s swan song is still a piece I’m proud of.
- I don’t think trading Powell is out of alignment with keeping Lowry. I wrote about as much before the deadline. Lowry was a complicated, nuanced situation where the offers reportedly never got good enough. Powell was more straight-forward, at the peak of his value ahead of getting very expensive.
- If reports are accurate that Tyler Herro wasn’t in a Miami deal, Talen Horton-Tucker wasn’t in a Lakers deal and the 76ers never made a very competitive offer, walking away is fine. You don’t have to make a bad trade.
- Showing you’ll walk away has long-term negotiating value, and Lowry still has value as a sign-and-trade piece this summer (albeit with kind of a narrow market) or as someone they can re-sign.
- Keeping Lowry around beyond this season and using the flexibility the team’s built in free agency will be tough.
- Lowry doesn’t seem the type to take a significant pay cut, and if he wants $20-25 million annually, that’s more or less it for the Raptors’ space. They can still massage via trade, the draft and the mid-level exception. It will be tough to retain Lowry and add a meaningful piece. The option is at least good to have.
- In a vacuum, I leaned toward dealing Lowry. This feels, for many reasons, like a lost season, and the chance to fortify for a better time ahead. I’m never going to argue too hard against hanging on to the franchise’s most important player ever and pushing that decision down the line a bit.
The Raptors had the 25th-best record in the league, and Lowry is going to be a free agent this summer, and Thursday he turned 35. It was probably time to say goodbye.
And then Lowry stayed, and the fan base seemed … relieved. The Raptors pushed it to the wire: the Lakers and the Heat and the 76ers were the prime contenders because Toronto didn’t want to send the greatest Raptor in history to Sacramento or Orlando or some backwater place. That’s not how you treat someone who has meant this much to you.
So the market was already narrow, and Lowry didn’t have a contract past this year, and nobody wanted to give up a young player of enough value, so the Raptors passed. Powell was already headed to Portland in exchange for a player who is nearly six years younger, and won’t cost as much. Lowry was the biggest prize on the market, unless you count Nik Vucevic going to Chicago. But Lowry was the one who might swing a title.
And this Raptors team isn’t going anywhere, is it? Right from the moment they were forced to play in Tampa, this season seemed to be an uphill job. Players were worried about housing and their families and their lives, and you could see slumped shoulders to start the year. The loss of four members of the championship core in two years for nothing — Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, as Toronto positioned itself to either re-sign Kawhi or get ready to chase Giannis Antetokounmpo — has denuded the depth. The culture that was this franchise’s superpower — how hard they played, how smart they were — has at least partly eroded, in ways wider than a Pascal Siakam outburst.
So after Wednesday’s win over Denver, Lowry had to hold in his emotions, and while a half-empty pandemic arena in Florida would be the wrong place for this marriage to end, it sure felt like that’s what was happening. Lowry had to hold in his emotions, and the post-game media session was almost a wake; everyone seemed to know it could be the end of a long, rich road. Lowry talked about how much it meant to him that the franchise had believed in him, given him a chance. It meant a lot.
But the trade deadline passed, and Kyle Lowry was still a Raptor. And Raptors fans seemed thrilled.
Which is a new experience for everyone involved. The only Raptor who has played more games is DeMar DeRozan, and when he was sent away Kawhi came back. Lowry becoming the greatest Raptor was almost an accident — one who was all but traded to the Knicks in 2013, who was given a career-changing talking-to by Masai Ujiri in 2014, who told everyone he was leaving in free agency in 2017, and who in the year the Raptors won a title still had to be asked — after somewhat removing himself in what seemed like a tacit rejection of the DeRozan trade — if he was all the way in.
He said he was, and he proved it. There was a chance in the championship year that Lowry could have been traded to the Grizzlies for Mike Conley Jr., who was the first of three different point guards to take Lowry’s job. It wasn’t close, but it wasn’t impossible. Imagine that.
Lowry is a different story. There is justification in treating him as more than another asset. He is the greatest Raptor of all time, and while you don’t want to hold on moving him out of pure stubbornness, there is some value remaining in keeping him around longer — both in his on-court play and the potential of leveraging him in a sign-and-trade if there is no agreement to bring Lowry back to Toronto with the Raptors for next season. That’s not an impossible scenario. There aren’t many teams with cap room remaining that work with Lowry’s championship aspirations: Miami and Dallas, maybe. The Knicks, if they swing into hilarious mode. Other than that, contenders would need Toronto’s help to acquire Lowry. Lowry doesn’t have a history of taking discounts.
Still, sign-and-trade deals are frequently hard to strike. The offers on Thursday would have been very underwhelming for the Raptors to not pull the trigger. Perhaps they were: Miami and the Lakers are short on assets, and the 76ers had to weigh any cost against the knowledge that Lowry might be a rental, even with his hometown team. (What if Lowry’s one true home is the golf course?) Shams Charania reported Tyler Herro (Miami) and Talen Horton-Tucker (Lakers) were sticking points for a deal with those teams. The Heat had no first-round picks to trade unless they removed the protections from one owed to Oklahoma City, and the Lakers couldn’t move a first-rounder until 2026. If nothing in their offers excited the Raptors — or worse yet, if the offers required taking back guaranteed money beyond this year — you can see why the Raptors opted to do nothing, especially because they got second-round picks currently projected to fall in the 40s for Matt Thomas and Terence Davis.
Of course, that is just another way of saying the Raptors failed to create leverage for Lowry, or at least there was no leverage for them to create. There is no guarantee there will be better opportunities in the future. In that sense, not moving Lowry and risking losing him in the summer for little or no return is discouraging in the wake of the departures that came over the last two years, even if we cannot know precisely what return they were turning down Thursday.
(For anybody arguing the Raptors should have anticipated all of this and traded him when there was more leverage to be gained, I ask: When? The Raptors finished with the second-best record in the NBA last year, and had a potential path back to the NBA Finals.)
More to the point, it keeps the Raptors in an uncomfortable state of transition, something of a middle state, this year’s standings notwithstanding. That is true not only in terms of their talent level, but also with Lowry and even Ujiri. Ujiri couldn’t address whether he sees a world in which Lowry is back with the Raptors next year, as he cannot talk publicly or directly to Lowry or his representation about the point guard’s next contract, but if the Raptors give him anything in the $20-million-or-higher neighbourhood, their cap room will disappear. Lowry wants to compete at the highest level, but his presence could very well contribute to stasis for the Raptors.
As for Ujiri, his contract expires after the year. His likely successor, general manager Bobby Webster, is signed long-term, so you can expect a smooth transition, but no two minds are the same. As he has done all year, Ujiri declined to comment on his status, saying that he will address it with ownership after the year, but he loves his job, the Raptors and Toronto as a whole.
Given all that, can it be surprising that, more than anything, Ujiri wanted choices on Thursday?
“The core of our team is what we want to build,” Ujiri said. ” We have our (2021 first-round pick) pick. We don’t know which way it goes this year. We have to … keep our options open. Our (initial) option was playing this season, giving it all we have, because I think the guys deserve that. That didn’t go our way and we have to go a different direction somewhat. The organization deserved that. And then also have flexibility in the summer. So there are many, there are different ways that I think we could get better.”
There is no question that there was an awareness on both sides that Thursday could be the day Lowry and the Raptors parted ways. Lowry didn’t hold court with the media as expansively and openly as he did for 25 minutes after the Raptors’ win over Denver on Wednesday night because it’s how he most prefers to spend his time.
He knew that he might have played his last game in Toronto and wanted to acknowledge that, albeit hampered by the possibility that it might not be his last game with the franchise.
And Lowry being traded was never something that had to happen. Lowry understands how good he has things with the Raptors — he was never pushing to leave; there was never going to be a split. Leverage wasn’t going to come into play. Instead, it was communication and cooperation.
And even the Raptors’ recent nine-game losing streak was not a factor.
Looking past a predictable short-term blip on the heels of a COVID-29 outbreak and in the midst of a compressed, dislocated season in Tampa was not going to be a problem. Toronto has had too much success for too long to believe that their formula was no longer working, that they couldn’t turn things around this year and beyond once things stabilized.
All of that was part of the context for how the day was approached. Powell was traded because in adding Gary Trent Jr. from Portland the Raptors get the rights to a 22-year-old with three years of NBA experience who has hit 40 per cent of his three-point attempts. He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer and the Raptors will be able to go over the salary cap to sign him if necessary and will be able to do so at a fraction of what the more polished and veteran Powell will command in free agency. That veteran wing Rodney Hood is part of the deal is a bonus.
The Raptors might not be better now with Powell on the move — although the hope is that Trent’s defence might close the gap — but they are in a position to see if Trent can grow into a bigger role with additional salary cap flexibility, an added benefit.
Similarly, while trading Lowry was an option, there was never a thought that Ujiri was going to let the Raptors’ most accomplished player — and arguably, at age 35, still their best player — move along without what he deemed a stellar return.
There were moments early in the day that Lowry was convinced he was going to Philadelphia, though that could have been posturing to shake a juicier offer from Miami — by far Lowry’s preferred destination. The Sixers, in the end, didn’t have an intriguing enough pair of prospects in Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle that they were willing to move along with at least one first round pick and maybe two. They added to their playmaking depth by trading for Thunder veteran George Hill for a fraction of what Lowry would have required.
And Miami wouldn’t include second-year wing Tyler Herro — they need to keep productive talent on affordable rookie deals — in a package that would otherwise have been built around Canadian big man Kelly Olynyk, rookie big Precious Achiuwa and cap fodder. They wouldn’t budge and at the buzzer pulled the trigger on a deal that yielded former All-Star Victor Oladipo for spare parts and no future obligations. And just before the deadline passed the Los Angeles Lakers were still pitching, but didn’t want to include second-year wing Talen Horton-Tucker, the kind of affordable young talent they need to keep around.
What many anticipated to be a transformative deadline day for the organization turned out to be relatively quiet, all things considered. The Raptors did make three moves; sending their second-longest tenured player, Norman Powell, to Portland for third-year wing Gary Trent Jr. and veteran journeyman Rodney Hood, and swapping a couple depth pieces – guards Matt Thomas and Terence Davis – for second-round picks. Good business, but somewhat uninspiring relative to expectations.
The sense was that this would be a crossroads for the team – a chance to choose and commit to one path or the other. Either they’d declare themselves sellers, turning the page and ostensibly bringing an end to the golden era of Raptors basketball, or they’d look to buy and improve their chances of making a run this season. They didn’t really do either, but that’s a reflection of the market as much as it’s an indictment of them.
What’s important to remember is that you can’t wish an offer or a trade into existence. The Raptors were willing to move Lowry, as difficult as that decision would have been, if they could replenish their developmental pipeline with the assets – picks and prospects – they believed he was worth. That opportunity never presented itself, though.
The two concerns that kept coming up in talks with other teams, according to sources, were Lowry’s age – he turned 35 on deadline day – and his contractual situation. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, he’s not eligible for an extension during the campaign, and any attempt to discuss his next deal prior to the off-season would be deemed tampering, so teams were flying blind on his plans for the future.
The Sixers and Lakers feared the possibility of giving up key assets for a rental. Feeling like they’ll have a good shot at signing him outright in free agency this summer, the Heat were reluctant to increase their offer and include sophomore guard Tyler Herro.
It seems like a miscalculation, particularly on the part of the Sixers and Heat, who intend on chasing a championship but are a piece away from separating themselves in a tight Eastern Conference race. It might be a case of overvaluing their own assets, or undervaluing Lowry, or some combination of the two. Regardless of age or contract, Lowry is the type of player that’s valuable enough to shift the balance of power in the NBA, and clearly the Raptors were surprised that nobody was willing to pay up for him.
Kyle Lowry Not Traded to the Sixers/Heat/Lakers: A+
Look, I understand the NBA is a business. And I understand that it’s perhaps strange for me to applaud the Raptors on their trade of Norm for business reasons while cheering for as little as 28 more games of Lowry. But also, everyone needs to understand something else: the Raptors absolutely held the entire league hostage at this trade deadline. They basically said, if your deal pleases us, we’ll make it; if it doesn’t, we can hold onto Lowry for now — and what’s more, we like our chances to maybe bring him back in 2021-22. Will the Raptors actually re-sign and retain Lowry for next season? Who knows. Yet now that option exists.
Trading Lowry was always only ever going to net the Raptors some potential — not a star player who could remake their fortunes overnight. Maybe someone like Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, or Talen Horton-Tucker is going to become an All-Star-level player, but the odds of that are not necessarily in favour of the Raptors. Or to put it another way, the odds are just as good the Raptors could acquire someone else (like Trent Jr., or some other future draft pick) who could be as good as any of those aforementioned players. Trading the greatest Raptor of all time, even if he was hellbent on leaving this summer, for that kind of return just never quite made sense — even with the Raptors at 1-9 over their last ten games.
Yes, the Raptors have historically been seen as “losers” when it comes to star players and their eventual departures. We’ve lived through the tenures of Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Chris Bosh after all. And I get why the idea of Lowry walking for “nothing” this summer makes it feel like the Raptors are now setting themselves up to fail. Please know I get that.
But consider it this way: nothing can happen with Lowry now that would set the Raptors back — not on the court, not on the salary cap sheet, and not in the hearts and minds of fans. Lowry can leave, and the team is still set up for the future. He could re-sign, and they can still compete. He could even participate in a sign-and-trade and the Raptors could then acquire the Maxeys and Thybulles of the world this summer. Despite the variables beyond their control, the Raptors are still in the driver’s seat as they head into their future.
And at this point, if Lowry is happy playing with the Raptors — even for just 28 more games — we should be happy to have him for as long as it lasts.
According to several NBA sources over the past few weeks, the 35-year-old Lowry is perfectly happy playing out this season with the Raptors and facing free agency in the summer. Had he been adamant about wanting out this week, Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster would have ceded to his wishes and pulled the trigger on one of the myriad offers they got.
Lowry wasn’t. Ujiri and Webster didn’t.
And now they can perhaps do the same dance when Lowry is a free agent in the summer, while having the opportunity to make tweaks between now and then to augment the core that still exists.
“There’s going to be good conversations at the end of the season, and we don’t know where our team will be at that time,” Ujiri said. “I am confident there will always be conversations with Kyle. We respect him that way, and we will assess the whole situation of our team and organization at that time.”
What, precisely, Ujiri was offered for Lowry will never be officially known, but the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers were the most aggressive suitors.
The Raptors had specific needs — multiple draft picks and at least two quality starters — and were not going to budge, especially because Lowry was fine with staying.
“Did we come close to doing something? Maybe in my mind I might say yes, but maybe on the other team it wasn’t so close, so you don’t even know,” Ujiri said.
So, now what? The Raptors didn’t completely stand pat. They traded Norman Powell, who is in the midst of his second straight great, that’s right, great, offensive season. They could have opted for draft picks, basically maybes. Instead they nabbed Gary Trent Jr., who is a sure thing with more room to go. The 22-year-old guard is — like Powell — an outstanding outside shooter. Nothing like his bruising father, who was also dealt from Portland to Toronto during his third NBA season, the younger Trent isn’t going to get you boards, blocks and points in the paint, but he will make opponents pay for leaving him open.
He’s hit 43% of his corner three-point attempts over his career and 59% of his shots came from three-point territory while with the Trail Blazers. Trent’s hit 47% of shots NBA.com defines as wide open three-pointers this season, a far better mark than any Raptor not named Powell or Lowry. Last year Trent hit 43% of threes defined as open, which would have led the Raptors (though he’s slipped to 34% on them this year, which is still right around Powell’s 36.8% mark). Trent also shot 42.1% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers, which with Powell (44.9%) gone, would be tied with OG Anunoby for tops on the Raptors.
It’s easy to see Trent slotting in as the team’s sixth man, Powell’s old role, with Aron Baynes moving back to the starting lineup to give one of the NBA’s worst rebounding teams more size. Hood has more often than not been injured during his career, but is a useful scoring reserve when able to take the court. Moving Terence Davis and Matt Thomas for a pair of second-round picks helps restock a war chest that was decimated during the run to the title (and with the dumping of DeMarre Carroll).
Neither Davis nor Thomas could win a steady role this season under Nick Nurse after showing some promise as rookies, so the return for them was solid, especially considering the off-court distractions Davis brings with his legal troubles. The team can also try to dip into the buyout market or test players on 10-day contracts.
They can give rookie Malachi Flynn more runway, continue to see what they have in the intriguing Paul Watson use steady veterans DeAndre’ Bembry and Stanley Johnson and hopefully continue to get more than expected from Chris Boucher. Maybe Yuta Watanabe gets another shot, despite his offensive limitations?
All the same, they’re not exactly rebuilding. Because as much as 22-year-old Gary Trent Jr. counts as a solid return on the trade that sent 27-year-old free-agent-to-be Norman Powell to Portland on Thursday, and as much as Trent is essentially a younger, cheaper version of the departing sharpshooter, one deadline acquisition hardly qualifies as a youth movement.
In other words, the Raptors are residing in a frustrating limbo. Depending on how you look at it, they’re either deftly keeping their options open or they’re futilely spinning on a not-so-productive hamster wheel of franchise statis. Either way, it’s far from comforting that the ultimate steerer of the ship, Ujiri, spent part of Thursday remaining non-committal on his intended port of call beyond this season, except to say that he and the organization will “visit this at the end of the season.”
“Honestly, our team can go in many different directions,” Ujiri said. “This team could pivot in many different directions, and this is where we find ourselves now.”
Nobody likes uncertainty. But right now, the Raptors are built on a maddeningly wobbly foundation of the stuff.
“We just have to keep our options open,” Ujiri said.
Toronto fans may vary on the return here. The idea that it was time to sell high on Powell was not a popular one. Even with a pick-and-prospect package kicked around, there was a logical counter to dealing him: Why not just re-sign him, since he’s the right age to mix with the core of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby? And that’s reasonable. Powell is good, and his scoring will be missed dramatically by the Raptors, even if their offensive woes have been exaggerated this year in comparison to their defensive issues. You can also quibble with whether getting Trent back as the key piece is truly a “sell high” or just cashing out.
In the coldest of terms, this could be looked at as an asset-management type of move. Loathe though I am to describe things that way, Powell is five-and-a-half years older than Trent and is about to sign a new deal that will likely eliminate any surplus-value. He’s a real positive right now; at $20 million, he probably won’t be. Trent, meanwhile, is headed to restricted free agency this summer at 22 and likely won’t get nearly the contract Powell will. Trent also has a significantly smaller cap hold as an RFA ($2.1 million) than Powell would have had as a UFA ($16.3 million), giving the Raptors additional flexibility on the market this summer. They can keep Trent’s minimal cap hold on the books, do their free-agent shopping, then exceed the cap to sign Trent to a new deal. That requires some cooperation, but Trent shares an agency with OG Anunoby, so the Raptors can likely play the relationship game there.
As a player, Trent isn’t Powell yet, and he might not get to that level. That’s where some disagreement about this kind of move can come in. Turning a productive, known commodity with franchise equity for a younger, cheaper, potential-driven prospect isn’t a very characteristic move for this front office. If you’re lower on Trent, it might even seem like just getting something back.
There’s a reason for real optimism about Trent as a prospect, though. The biggest thing he comes capable of replicating for the outbound Powell is wing shooting. Trent has hit 40.7 percent of his 3s over the last two seasons and has taken more than seven per-game this year. Powell has established himself as one of the better and more versatile high-volume 3-point shooters in the NBA the last three years, but Trent is elite in unguarded catch-and-shoot scenarios and can play Powell’s role in the corner or on the wing in a lot of Raptors sets.
That’s about where the offensive similarities end. Powell has turned himself into a high-end slasher, too, and Trent is far away from being that. While he finishes OK once he gets to the rim, that’s not very often. Trent is almost exclusively an outside shooter at this stage, with only the nascent ability to attack to get into a fairly nifty and emerging floater-range package. Because he drives so infrequently, Trent has the gift-and-curse of creating very little for teammates but turning the ball over less than almost any player in basketball. If he’s putting it on the deck, he probably knows he’s got a path to a shot within 15 feet, or that he’s going to have space for a mid-range pull-up. (That’s not a shot Toronto will want him to take a ton, but I’m checking off the “shot-maker” box for the real hoopers. He’s also shown some decent dump-off and kick-out instincts, just at very low volume.)
Personally, I’m done trying to figure out what Masai Ujiri is going to do. Here I, like just about everyone else, figured the Raptors were finally ready to cash in at least this season and start truly looking ahead, and somehow they might’ve doubled down on getting back in the playoff race by trading Norman Powell to the Trail Blazers. At first, that seemed like a selloff, too, but when you look at the return of Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood, it begs the question: Did the Raptors actually get better?
Trent is a stud. Portland is really going to miss him. He makes huge shots and battles like heck defensively. Hood is better than his paltry stats this season indicate: Under five points per game, under 30 percent from 3. You can’t have enough wing depth in the playoffs, and again, Lowry remains.
I still can’t fully believe Ujiri didn’t pull the trigger on a Lowry deal. Miami was reportedly offering a package around Duncan Robinson but wouldn’t include Tyler Herro. Robinson is a very valuable player as one of the best shooters in the world and his tiny $3.2 million cap hold is extremely valuable as it pertains to offseason flexibility. The Philadelphia 76ers, the Los Angeles Lakers, the big guns came for Lowry, who was the only player on the market that realistically would’ve altered the championship equation.
Give the Raptors credit. We all gripe about teams not putting their best foot forward with the league making it too attractive to lose at the expense of future gain, but Toronto plays to win and it highly values Lowry, the most important player in franchise history. But this is a stunner. Lowry is staying. And the Raptors might be a handful in the playoffs … if they can get there.