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Player Preview: Is this Kyle Lowry’s grand finale in Toronto?

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Masai Ujiri called Kyle Lowry “grand” the other day, and we do not disagree. What could our point guard have in store for this season — and will it be his last with Toronto?

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors - Game Seven Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

2020-21 will be my fourth season covering the Raptors with Raptors HQ. In all that time, I’ve never written a feature on Kyle Lowry.

Obviously I’ve written about Lowry plenty of times within the larger context of the team, and many of my Five Thoughts have been about him and his play. But I’ve never written a review or preview or anything that focused solely on #7.

So when the time came to write season previews, thinking that this might be Lowry’s final season with the team, I figured I’d better take my chance while I had it.

And then I realized: Holy shit, I’m not at all ready to write about this possibly being Kyle Lowry’s final season with the Toronto Raptors.

Is This Kyle Lowry’s Final Season in Toronto?

You’re all aware of the reality facing Lowry, the team, and its fans: Lowry will be 35 in March, and, after the team extended his contract last summer, is entering the final year of his deal; meanwhile, the Raptors have made it very clear they want to have cap space available to sign a max player in the 2021 offseason.

Even with Giannis Antetokounmpo off the board, all of that leads us to the very real possibility that Lowry won’t be back next season, and the somewhat less likely but still real possibility that he’ll be traded during the 2020-21 season.

Ugh. I don’t even like thinking about it. Let’s shelve all that for a moment and just talk about Lowry the player.

What Does Kyle Lowry’s 2020-21 Season Look Like?

On the court, you know what to expect from Kyle Lowry: timely 3-pointers, sneaky forays to the rim, pick-and-roll pocket-pass brilliance, look-ahead passes to streaking forwards, eye-rolling grift (and a lack of continuation calls), incredulous looks at referees, dozens of charges taken and dozens more smart plays that illustrate exactly why we all love him so much (and why everyone else hates him so much).

The glorious 2019-20 season was the best illustration we’ve had yet of Lowry’s greatness; the team’s joyful championship defense — which saw them blow all expectations out of the water, set a franchise mark for win percentage and finish with the second-best record in the league — surely extinguished any lingering doubts about Lowry’s status as the Greatest Raptor Ever. He averaged 19/5/7.5 on 42/35/86 shooting marks, led the league with 34 charges drawn, and was top-25 in box plus-minus, real plus-minus, VORP and win shares.

Lowry also played 36.2 minutes per game last year, and with his age and play style, that number should come down if we want him to continue ably doing all of the above. Last season’s Raptors offense, which wasn’t even that great with Lowry on the floor, was noticeably worse with him off of it, so hopefully Nick Nurse find ways to keep things humming and give Lowry some more rest (new assistant coach Chris Finch should be able to help out here).

Above all, Lowry is the most important driver for the team’s success from game to game; even at age 35, even if the minutes and the overall numbers go down, I don’t expect that to change this season. Pascal Siakam might be the number one option, Fred VanVleet might be the future, but this team still goes as Lowry goes. There’s a reason the Raptors lost that game seven to the Boston Celtics in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals, and it’s not because Siakam was subpar (though he was) — it’s because Lowry was gassed from playing 53 minutes in Game 6 and fouled out before the final minute.

Barring some drastic slowdown, shooting slump or injury, Lowry should make his franchise-record 7th All-Star appearance (or should I say, selection, since there is no All-Star game this year) and, barring a trade, he should lead the Raptors to the playoffs for the 8th straight year.

But will it be the final year?

OK. I think I’m ready. Let’s run down the possibilities.

Will the Raptors Trade Kyle Lowry During the Season?

Lowry has an inordinate amount of value to the Raptors, both on the court as their leader, and off the court as the greatest Raptor of all time. Trading a player that embodies both of those things is gonna lead to a lot of upset people, and will be difficult — even for Masai Ujiri.

It’s true that the Raptors under Ujiri remain focused, always, on improving the team, even if it means making hard choices. DeMar DeRozan, flawed as he was, was the face of the franchise — Mr. Toronto — and he was shipped out to make the team better. Lowry is the better player and brought Toronto a championship, something DeMar couldn’t do, but Ujiri would move Lowry too, in the right deal.

And if there’s a chance to get something for Lowry, rather than see him walk in free agency next summer, Ujiri would have to at least consider it. And now that Giannis Antetokounmpo has signed his max contract extension in Milwaukee, the Raptors are probably more open to a Lowry deal now that might eat in to their 2021 cap space, if there’s a good fit.

The question is whether or not such a deal exists.

Is it a mix of young talent and draft picks (and salary cap ballast as necessary) in exchange for Lowry? Someone like John Collins might fit the bill here — a talented player who doesn’t seem to have a defined role, or much of a future, with his current franchise. (To be clear: I don’t think Collins is a fit on a team with OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, nor are the Hawks likely interested in Lowry. As a hypothetical, he was merely the first player/situation that came to mind!)

Or is it a superstar coming back in exchange for Lowry and draft picks? This is the DeRozan Redux scenario. Would the Raptors trade Kyle Lowry for James Harden? Bradley Beal? That probably isn’t a reality — any team sending out a superstar likely wants talent and prospects in return (unless the team in question is in cost-savings mode, which the Rockets might be). Any such deal with Lowry then might require a third team to get involved.

The team’s play this season will also factor in; if they’re a top-four team again by the trade deadline, management may decide to let them play on into the post-season and see if they can make some noise. But if they’re struggling Ujiri may think the more prudent choice is to acquire future assets.

In other words: a lot of questions, and no easy answers. There’s no doubt that Lowry still has a ton of value in the league, and any championship contender should want him. But finding the right deal is going to be difficult. I’d put the odds on a Lowry trade under 50%.

Will Kyle Lowry Return to the Raptors in 2021-22?

If Lowry is not traded, and he finishes out this season with the team, will that be the last time we see him in a Raptors uniform?

When Lowry’s contract expires at the end of the season, his $40+ million cap hold will remain until the Raptors either re-sign him, or renounce him. And they’ll have to renounce him — and lose his Bird rights — if they want to sign another max player.

With Giannis unavailable, there probably isn’t a player available worth max money (unless Kawhi Leonard opts out of his current contract in Los Angeles), which makes a Lowry return in free agency at least somewhat more likely. He could sign a new deal with Toronto worth somewhere between $8 and $12 million annually, leaving the team with somewhere between $10 and $20 million (depending on what happens with Norman Powell and OG Anunoby) to sign other players.

There’s also a possibility Lowry could return on a non-Bird-rights, team-friendly deal after the team signs another free agent.

But Lowry, as much as he likes Toronto, does not seem the type to allow loyalty to get in the way of a payday — nor should he. If another team, especially a contender, is willing to pay him more, I’d expect Lowry to go for it (and a lot of teams will have money to spend next summer).

The only other way this plays out is if the Raptors go full “Lakers-rewarding-Kobe” and forego signing another big free agent, and just sign Lowry to a lucrative new deal that hamstrings the team but keeps Kyle here until he retires. I don’t think fans, Masai Ujiri or even Kyle Lowry really want that to happen.

(Well, OK. There’s a small part of me that wants that to happen. But it’s very small!)

Before Giannis re-signed with the Bucks, I would have said with 85% certainty that this would be Lowry’s last season in Toronto. But now, things are a little less clear. I’d move the odds at Lowry moving on to another team in the 2021 offseason down to about 75%.

Enjoy Kyle Lowry While You Can

I’m not going to fully litigate Lowry’s GROAT status against the other contenders — if you don’t know by now, you just don’t know — but it never hurts to point out that Lowry has done nothing but win since he got here. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in win shares (and oh by the way, is 14th among active players and is 94th all-time in NBA history), he’s been top-6 in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus for the past five years, holds Raptors records for assists, steals and 3-pointers, Raptors playoff records for pretty much everything (games, minutes, points, assists, steals, FGs, 3FGs, FTs — he’s even tied with Jonas Valanciunas for first in rebounding!) and was the second-best player on their championship team (sorry Pascal).

Regardless of how the rest of his Raptors career plays out, I don’t see a scenario where Lowry doesn’t have his number retired and a statue built in his honour. Again, I’m not going to argue whether or not the other guys deserve the same honour, but Lowry is the best, and I hope he’s the first to receive both of those honours.

One way or another, though, all good things come to and end, and Lowry’s Raptors career will be no exception. If that end should come at the trade deadline, or next summer — and it probably will — then we all need to enjoy whatever time we have left.

It’s gutting that we may not even get to see him play in Toronto again, to cheer him on one last time. But as we watch him play this season out from afar, let’s enjoy every charge taken, every foul he baits a defender into, every PU3IT, every look-ahead-pass to Pascal Siakam, every perfect pocket pass. Enjoy them all, because they might never come again.