It is fair to conclude, though, that Ujiri pictured the Raptors using the Anunoby-Siakam frontcourt more often — if not to start games, then to finish them — and that some combination of injury, illness and the Raptors’ rebounding woes kept that from happening. That helps explain, combined with the grander ambitions for this offseason they once held, how conservative they were in attempting to bring back Ibaka and Marc Gasol. (By the way, it is not as if either was very good in Los Angeles this year. Things might have been different with the Raptors, but in isolation, not overcommitting to either player seems like it was the right decision.)
The problematic part was how they replaced them. In large part, Gasol and Ibaka operated as spacers on offence and rim-protecting drop-back artists on defence. On both fronts, Ibaka gave the Raptors a bit more stylistic diversity, although it was Gasol’s play defensively which allowed the Raptors to ascend a level on that end.
The Raptors decided to replace them with two players who at least had histories of spacing the floor, and tended to play a drop-back style on defence. Neither worked. Alex Len played just 76 minutes before he and the Raptors parted ways, as much for off-court reasons as on-court. Whenever Aron Baynes played with any group save for Lowry, VanVleet, Siakam and Anunoby (net rating of plus-3.9 in the largest sample for any five-man unit for the Raptors this year, although the group still struggled mightily on defence), the Raptors were abysmal. Baynes helped the Raptors’ rebounding, but they had a net rating of minus-4.4 in his 980 minutes, as the group could never quite figure out what to do on offence when he was on the floor (an offensive rating of 106.6 when he was on the floor rose to 112.3 when he was off of it).
A lot of that had to do with Baynes’ individual shooting cratering after a two-year spike. However, if the arrival of Khem Birch taught us anything, it was that vertical spacing was as good a replacement for the departed centres as perimeter spacing. Despite a rotating cast of pieced-together lineups, the Raptors scored 112.3 points per 100 possessions with Birch on the floor, slightly above their average for the season. Birch shot from deep exponentially more in Toronto than he did in Orlando — 1.9 per 36 minutes in Toronto compared with his previous career high, 1.2 last season — but it was still a minor nudge from the team perspective. Instead, it was having someone who could finish at or above the rim that really made the difference. As a Raptor, Birch shot 65.7 percent from inside 10 feet, and Baynes was at 54.1 percent. The Raptors missed both of their old centres’ touch from deep, but the absence of Ibaka’s ability inside was keenly felt, at least until Birch came and finished near the rim or with short push shots from the deep paint.
Speaking of hanging onto a young player at the expense of all else, have you heard the Talen Horton-Tucker Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs last night by the Phoenix Suns? It’s true — they lost 4-2, with THT appearing in four of those games and averaging a whopping 6.5 points. Do we think Lowry would have helped the poor Lakers out of the first round of the 2021 playoffs? Yes, of course!
I mention all this because the Lakers apparently would not include Horton-Tucker in any deal for Lowry. Now, who knows how accurate any of those rumours are, but it seems insane to consider a team led by LeBron James not doing everything in its power to acquire players to win titles right away. I appreciate that THT, at 20 years old, may one day become a good player, but James is 36 with an ungodly number of basketball miles on his body. Coupled with the made-of-glass Anthony Davis, the Lakers only have so many more kicks at the can for NBA titles — even acknowledging LeBron’s superhuman longevity. That the team went out instead and signed Andre Drummond while Marc Gasol stood patiently by, just compounded this mistake. This was a rickety team both mentally and physically, and it cost them.
This is no slight to the Suns who are a legit contending team this year: Deandre Ayton came into his own, Devin Booker blew up for 47 points in his first elimination game, Jae Crowder did his 3-and-D thing, and even Chris Paul, jarred recently again by injury, has been around to steer the ship. Maybe the Lakers making a move for Lowry wouldn’t have made that much of a difference. But unlike the other teams on this list, I’m not sure what else the Lakers can do now other than hope that maybe next year Davis stays healthy throughout, and LeBron has yet another superhuman season in the tank. Surely all eyes can’t now turn to Horton-Tucker, right?
Verdict: It’s fun to laugh at the Lakers’ expense, I think we can all admit that. Their collective delusional hubris, from both fans and front office — e.g. comparing Drummond to the signing of other Lakers big man legends — is breathtaking to behold at times. And also, they’ve won enough — both recently and historically — making it not impossible to take some modicum of joy from their misfortune.
In any case, to recap: Lowry stayed in Toronto, LA got to keep the untouchable Talen Horton-Tucker, and LeBron lost in the first round for the first time in his career. It’s possible some of these things are related.
Which is why there are more likely landing spots. The Miami Heat kicked tires on Lowry at the deadline before going with a cheaper option in Victor Oladipo. Maybe you get what you pay for. Oladipo, who didn’t come with Lowry’s playoff pedigree, played in all of four games before he was lost to season-ending knee surgery. Take Lowry’s longtime kinship with Heat star Jimmy Butler — “He’s one of my absolute best friends,” Butler said of Lowry recently. “He’s the godfather of my daughter” — and stack it atop the unceasing championship ambition of Heat patriarch Pat Riley, and it’s hardly out of the realm of possibility that Lowry could be a fit in South Beach.
Kyle Lowry has shown at least one basketball executive he knows how to win. “I’ve lived it. I’ve seen it,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said earlier this year. “I know what the guy does.”
Then again, the New York Knicks could clearly use Lowry, too. They’re in their usual Manhattan hurry to turn this year’s promising regular season into a more credible post-season after their feel-good resurgence ended in a thud at the hands of Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks.
There’s Lowry’s hometown Philadelphia 76ers, a team whose perceived needs will likely depend on the outcome of their current playoff run. There’s also the L.A. Clippers, who were playing with their season on the brink on Friday night in Dallas, where a team built around Kawhi Leonard and Paul George was facing an early exit a second straight year. Given the Clippers are run by the combustible Steve Ballmer, only the richest human being in North American pro sports, let’s just say there’s no telling the change that could come to L.A.’s second team if the Leonard-George partnership continues on an unfruitful path.
No matter what, Lowry, who earned $30.5 million (U.S.) this season, doesn’t figure to come cheap. He never has.
“Money talks, and years talk,” he said in his post-season press conference.
You’ll note he said “years,” plural.
That might seem overly ambitious for a man of 35. It doesn’t hurt Lowry’s case, though, that a point guard around his vintage — 36-year-old Chris Paul — was central to Phoenix’s Thursday-night unseating of the defending champions.
What may really entice teams to keep Gillespie around long-term, though, is his blocking ability. Even though the Raptors were short on energetic, rebound-first bigs, that doesn’t mean it’s not a common commodity in today’s NBA — what separates Gillespie is his shot deterrence at the rim.
Yes, fearlessness like this did result in some posters. On the other hand, though, it also shows that Gillespie understands taking the risk of challenging a dunk is what he’s asked to do on the basketball court. He fills that role and gives back much more than he gives up.
Though all this adds up to an NBA player, it’s difficult to say whether Gillespie is in the long-term plans for this Raptors team. There’s a chance that Ujiri and Bobby Webster go out and right their wrongs on the centre rotation this off-season and Birch is the more polished guy to keep around as a backup in 2021-22. Chris Boucher is also still floating as another centre possibility (though he looked most comfortable at the four this year). The Raptors can very quickly go from rags to riches with their big men, especially if they have Kyle Lowry’s salary come off the books. Gillespie and the Raptors may not have interest in keeping their young man as the 14th or 15th man on that theoretical roster, and his trade value as a throw-in is very high.
There’ll be a question mark this summer about whether Gillespie will be back with Toronto. What isn’t a question mark is whether we’ll see him for years to come in an NBA uniform.