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Kyle Lowry and the $30 million question

In the modern NBA, players should be paid what they’re worth. Kyle Lowry is no exception.

Toronto Raptors v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Two Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

When you first see the details of an NBA contract, some sticker shock is natural.

That’s especially true this off-season, as the market for free agents has cooled following the inflated cap room and feverish spending of Summer ‘16. Thanks to a short playoff season, that cap jump failed to continue as expected, and many players are left signing below-market deals, or short ones that allow escape paths in the near future.

It’s not surprising that in this climate, there’s been a groundswell of questions around Kyle Lowry’s contract. While middling players take cuts — either in length or in dollars paid — Lowry signed a deal for close to the max: three years, $90 million, with incentives that can push it to $100 million.

For Lowry, this is close to the max deal he was looking for heading into free agency, albeit not for the full four years (a fifth year from the Raptors was probably never in play).

The options dried up elsewhere too. The teams shopping for a point guard found their men, as a burgeoning class of young talent satisfied those who had money to spend. Sacramento has a pair of rookies they’re happy with. Brooklyn traded for D’Angelo Russell. Philadelphia has Markelle Fultz.

As this happened, there was some talk that Lowry would have to settle in the 4-year, $25 million per year range. Instead, he and the Raptors settled on a happy medium between contract length and dollars paid. Lowry will make his near-max money, but Masai Ujiri and the Raptors get an escape plan: three years, after which Serge Ibaka, DeMar DeRozan, and Lowry all come off the books (DeRozan has a player option for 2020-21).

That gives the team a genuine reset button. This core gets three more bites at the apple — and if they fail? You can blow it up in 2020 and start over.

This is, in more ways than one, an excellent deal by Ujiri and the Raptors. It pays Lowry what he’s worth, and gives the team options going forward.

What undercuts this conclusion is the argument that NBA players should take less money for the benefit of their team. This is reinforced when players like Kevin Durant sign below-market deals, such as the 2-year, $53 million deal he inked yesterday.

Though Durant has agency to do what he wants, these decisions are problematic from an NBA players’ perspective, and unearth a real problem for the league.

It continues a messy precedent that NBA players, the individuals who play the game and provide the entertainment we all enjoy, should bear financial loss rather than the billionaire team owners. Should Durant have the onus put on him to take $10 million less than what he’s worth, rather than making Warriors’ owner Joe Lacob pay excessive luxury tax? These are existential questions in a salary cap environment.

Decisions like Durant’s undercut those made by other blue chip free agents, though. Since leaving Miami, LeBron James has drawn a line in the sand, saying he will no longer accept contracts for anything less than the max. Of course! The best player should make the maximum amount of money. He’s picketed this in defense of other players too — even his nemesis in Steph Curry, who signed a max deal of his own worth over $200 million dollars.

As someone who is inclined to side with the players in any dispute with rich owners, there seems to be more sense to the argument that players should refuse to settle on contract disputes. There’s grey area: DeMar DeRozan accepted less than the max last summer, just the same as Lowry did. But it was a small compromise — not to the degree of Durant’s, or to the Big 3 era in Miami.

In the larger context of the NBA, Lowry is worth $30 million a year. Our Sean Woodley outlined all the reasons why in his post over the weekend — by many metrics, Kyle Lowry is a top ten player in this league. For him to be in that tier of money makers isn’t ridiculous.

Instead, the pressure should be on Ujiri to make these market value contracts work within the NBA cap environment. On most accounts, he’s done that successfully. The team has three very good players in Ibaka, DeRozan, and Lowry, a handful of solid role players, and a backlog of rangy, promising youth. That’s good enough to get you into a dogfight for second seed in the Eastern Conference.

There’s satisfaction in seeing your star player get paid what he’s worth, even more so when that player wins and leads your team. For the Raptors, they now have two All-Stars who have eschewed other teams and returned “home” to Toronto. That in itself is a coup for a long-struggling organization.

The greatest era of this franchise will continue. That’s worth celebrating, regardless of contract sticker shock.