Ah yes, the ol’ “should they blow it up?” conundrum. Such a constant and bedevilling question. Kevin O’Connor of the Ringer wrote a thoughtful piece on Monday — with quotes from Masai Ujiri and everything! — reviewing the path forward for the Raptors. They’re a good team, as the headline suggests, but perhaps, alas, not great. Surely not great enough to best LeBron, or deal with the terror machine in Golden State. And so the implicit question: why bother?
One supposes the Raptors should be pleased to have been written about at all, such has been their place in the NBA universe for the past two decades. Not only have the Raps been a non-competitive entity for most of that time, they were often a totally ignored organization — save for the peak of Vince Carter mania, which forced eyes to look up in every sense of the word. Every Raptors writer and blog — including us — has covered this sentiment before, it’s long been a part of the team and city’s identity, blah blah blah; you know this already. For it to change, the Raptors have to be good, with an outside shot at great, and, perhaps more importantly, the goodness must be sustained. This cannot be overstated.
For all of Ujiri’s evasions — the man loves obfuscating language — it’s fair to say he understands this idea. The “development” he mentions to O’Connor is multi-faceted, coming as it does on the court, in the D-League, around the NBA, and in the culture at large. The specific goal is, of course, to field a competitive team; that’s where all of this starts. But the tertiary benefits — of having a pipeline of players, coaches, and management, of constructing an attractive team culture, of becoming a “have” franchise — should not be overlooked.
But now you’re asking: what does having the best D-League team, or getting the All-Star game, or giving Drake a made-up job, or recalling when Raptors management got to have a meal with LaMarcus Aldridge that one time, have to do with re-signing Kyle Lowry, building a great team, and winning a championship?
The Lowry question is at the heart of the “blow it up” discussion, as O’Connor points out. The Raptors have four free agents-to-be this year, and Lowry is the most prominent among them — followed by Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson, and P.J. Tucker, in my ranking of their importance to the team going forward. To sign all of them would mean a huge tax bill for the Raptors or moving other players currently on the team — namely Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, and/or Jonas Valanciunas, the three most replaceable dudes who, rather helpfully, have the largest salaries. But it all starts with Lowry; let him walk and the Raptors take a step back.
The first wrinkle here is we literally have no idea what kind of step forward the Raptors have truly taken in the last month. Owing to wrist surgery, Lowry hasn’t played with Ibaka or Tucker at all, and spent most of January and February trying to prop up lineups without the injured Patterson and DeMar DeRozan, while coach Dwane Casey mix-and-matched the roster. The best version of the current Raptors, the one with a shot at being great, has not shared the floor for one single second.
That’s the present situation, but the second wrinkle involves the future and is much more difficult to foresee (as is, you know, typically the case). The thinking goes something like this: re-signing Lowry means the Raptors are some level of “good,” but he’s getting older, will likely decline through the run of this next contract, and may not actually help the Raptors reach “great” status going forward. Worst case scenario here sees Lowry regress sharply, thus saddling the Raptors with a huge contract and a lack of production at what is the most important position on the roster, as defined by the current NBA. As O’Connor has it, this is a real pickle.
But is it though? Is Lowry going to just fall apart next season, or in two years? Is he going to be unplayable in year four? History suggests that yes, Lowry’s size and style of play will likely wear him out in a couple of years. But history also suggests letting a franchise point guard, one of the top 15 players in the league, leave a team for nothing is not the best move. If the Raptors re-sign Lowry, their goodness is secure, and paths are still open towards greatness. There’s the rest of the roster to consider, there’s the option — as O’Connor does point out — of trading Lowry down the road, there are future moves to make. These potential paths start in a place that is far more concrete than, say, blowing it up and risking it all on the hope of maybe getting the chance to draft a prospect in 2019. Keeping Lowry secures the team’s viability in the short term, and is not an inescapable death sentence in the long term. It’s no pickle at all.
More importantly, re-signing Lowry and maintaining a certain level of goodness has currency as a symbol. Yes, while we can coldly analyze the hard Ws and Ls propping the Raptors up, Lowry, like DeRozan, represents what the Raptors are trying to build as a franchise concept. This is a organization that has been in disarray for years, treated poorly by top players (and has, at times, treated them poorly), viewed as a rudderless mess beneath serious consideration for anything even remotely good. Can you say that today about the Raptors? How about next year? Doesn’t it strike you as strange (and exciting) that the idea of Lowry signing with a different team feels impossible? The money he can make here factors in, of course, but it’s hard to say, emotionally speaking, that he’d definitely want to leave. Did you feel that way with, say, Chris Bosh? How about Tracy McGrady?
The Raptors of 2017 and beyond do not have to sell their fans on hope alone. We are hopeful — that the team can beat LeBron, or make the Finals, or win a title, or whatever else you can conjure — but we aren’t merely daydreaming here. Those outcomes may not even happen soon, but it now, today, feels like it could happen, like the franchise has the skill and will to find its way to the top. This Raptors team, and the one next year with a presumably re-signed Lowry, is what it is and will remain as such: good. When the window closes there, another will surely open. One doesn’t have to suggest that’s enough, but when you consider the long history of awful alternatives, the comforts of goodness start to feel pretty great.