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Player Review: Kyle Lowry and a possible last stand in Toronto

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Already assured as the G.R.O.A.T., Lowry spent 2020-21 facing physical and circumstantial challenges. He also hinted at what the last phase of his career will look like, whether that’s in a Raptors uniform or not.

Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

After years of playoff success, the Toronto Raptors became an afterthought in 2020-21.

Playing their home games in Tampa, losing talent and depth in the off-season, dealing with injuries and illness — there was never a chance for the Raptors to rally, as they did in the Bubble, and show that championship DNA.

While his team floundered in the sad morass of mediocrity, though, Kyle Lowry was certainly a focal point for the rest of the NBA — especially leading up to the trade deadline. On an expiring contract, this season’s deadline was the last chance the Raptors had to cash in on their veteran without risking him walking for nothing this off-season. The rest of the league knew it too, as Lowry became the name for a handful of aspiring champions.

Offers were made, underwhelming as they may have been without young players like Tyrese Maxey, Tyler Herro and Talen Horton-Tucker included. All were rebuffed. With the benefit of hindsight now, maybe the Sixers, Lakers, and Heat should’ve done a bit more to entice Masai Ujiri to part with his franchise’s best player ever. All three have flamed out rather embarrassingly in the early rounds of the playoffs; all three would’ve seen serious benefit from having a high IQ point guard with the experience of success in the post-season (especially Philadelphia, given the mental cliff Ben Simmons fell off of).

Instead, Ujiri and Bobby Webster opted to keep Lowry, allowing him to finish up what may have been the strangest of his nine seasons in a Raptors uniform. Looking at counting stats, this wasn’t quite the same Kyle we’ve become accustomed to — age has caught up with his ability to score in volume (down 2.2 PPG this season); the roster around him has progressed enough to take some of that pressure off anyway. The Raptors also gave him a ton of rest time down the stretch — the most obvious part of a shadow tank that assured the Raptors their highest draft pick in years. Lowry was only active in seven of Toronto’s last 25 games.

Still, there were some signature K.L.O.E. moments sprinkled into this disappointing season. In both the tumult at the start of the season and a signature performance late, Lowry continued to be the most impactful player on a Raptors team where other players have surpassed his skill. That slight change in role gives us a hint to how Lowry will spend the rest of his career and is worth exploring.

Early Season Leadership

A 2-8 start exposed the holes in Toronto’s roster off-season building and how difficult it would be to replace the production and reliability of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. There was also a steep drop-off in bench talent from last season to this one, with players like Terence Davis and Matt Thomas ending up on the periphery of Nick Nurse’s rotations before being shipped out at the trade deadline.

Give Kyle Lowry credit where it’s due: his numbers were at their best this season when the roster was at its worst. He worked his tail off to try to turn around that abysmal start, notching double-doubles in Toronto’s first two games and marking at least 15 points, five rebounds and five assists in five of the team’s first ten games. The highlight was a 24-point, nine-rebound and six-assist performance in a loss to the Suns.

Lowry’s inability to accept mediocrity was written all over these games, as he played all the standards of his annoyed temperament. His minutes went up, he drew charges (fourth in the NBA with 20), he tried to squeeze winning plays out of a frustrating roster — even during all those games where it escaped Toronto by one or two possessions.

A tight rotation turned the pressure up even more, which eventually caught up to him in a compressed schedule. Just as the Raptors were climbing back to .500, the pandemic hit hard, as much of the coaching staff, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and others missed time in health and safety protocols. Carrying more of the team’s production and seeing his numbers improve again, Lowry ended up injured — a right foot infection — which resulted in him missing 18 of the team’s last 25 games.

Don’t get it twisted, though, before the Raptors season was truly derailed when they were forced to play through a significant COVID-19 outbreak — Lowry was the driving force in leading the team, while pushing their success back close to the .500 mark. After the playoffs became out of reach, Lowry’s role diminished and his rest days started to rack up. He still had time for one incredible moment, though.

The Lakers Revenge Game

In the midst of the Raptors going out sad, Lowry found time for a singular performance — maybe the only on-court memory we’ll take from this cursed season.

Going up against the Los Angeles Lakers, plenty aware that the 2020 champs had rebuffed a deadline trade for him by refusing to include Talen Horton-Tucker, Lowry turned back the clock with a full-out, sneering torment of hoops.

Scoring 37 points (12 to 15 of which were followed by choice curse words) and making 8-for-13 from deep, Lowry led the Raptors to their most surprising win of the season. It was proof that Kyle still had plenty to provide: part-audition, part-self-validation, part-stress relief after a miserable season.

The game showed that Lowry is still in tune with the headlines, and a reminder that one of his best skills is finding motivation where other players can’t — even in the late-season malaise of a team outside the playoff picture. That alone has provided infinite value to the Raptors over the years — it’s maybe the reason they won Game 6 of the Finals in 2019 — and it’s unsure where they’ll find that if Lowry is on another team next season.

It also gave us some context to where the Raptors’ relationship is with Lowry. Resting may have been a strong suggestion from the front office — we know that Lowry would be out there if he was capable — and having the Lakers game be the final opportunity for teams to see him before the off-season could end up being a wise move. One of the main reported reasons teams balked at a deadline trade was the combination of Lowry’s age and Toronto’s asking price. If a disappointed Lakers, Sixers, or Heat team go back and watch the tape now, there may be a temptation to improve their offers in a sign and trade.

The Future

So, that brings us to the big question: have we seen Kyle Lowry in a Raptors uniform for the last time?

That depends on a variety of factors, maybe the biggest being the desperation of the to-be championship contenders that came up short.

These are the teams without existing cap space that would have to either renounce playoff rotation players or make a sign and trade offer with the Raptors. Let’s face it, sign-and-trades are very rare in today’s NBA. The differences in this situation are Lowry’s motivating factors. Often expressed, they are winning and financial security; the teams that have open cap space to provide the latter (Thunder, Knicks, and Spurs) don’t have the structure to provide the former in the short-term. The workaround is the sign and trade, where teams like the Sixers, Lakers, Heat, and Mavericks can get on the phone and try again — just like they did in February. Situations have changed since then, untouchables may no longer be untouchable. We’ve already seen some fans musing about a Ben Simmons and Lowry swap.

If all that fails, one last sizeable contract with the Raptors wouldn’t be the worst thing for both sides. While Toronto’s current timeline — given the addition of a high draft pick and the age of their core players — may not line up with another championship in Lowry’s golden years, there’s something to be said for sentimentality. After a year of road games, Lowry would get a hero’s welcome in Scotiabank Arena this fall. Having that happen with him in a Raptors uniform is a real heart over head desire. We want that as fans, and maybe he wants it as the greatest Raptor of all time.

With that scene in the back of our minds, the next few months might be just as heartwrenching as the hours leading up to the trade deadline. Kyle Lowry’s last stand in Toronto may be behind him; we’ll just have to wait and see how the next chapter reads.