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Kyle Lowry knew it was time to leave the Toronto Raptors

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It’s a bittersweet moment in Toronto for sure, but it’s also time to say goodbye to Kyle Lowry, the greatest Raptor of all time.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Scott Audette/NBAE via Getty Images

The idea of Kyle Lowry staying with the Raptors right up to the final day of his playing career was romantic. We could close our eyes and imagine that ultimate year, the goodbye tour, the warm ovations every time he took the court in Toronto. By age 38 or 39 or even 40, Lowry would not be quite the same kamikaze player he’d been in his prime, those years spent leading the Raptors to ever-greater heights, but in this future vision, he’d be there in the team’s colours filling a role nonetheless, a sage if ornery presence on the bench. It would have been sweet.

It was also not to be. While it’s tough now to conceive of a Raptors team without Kyle Lowry, it’s useful to remember this latest chapter in his career as fitting. While he was in the process of becoming the most beloved Raptor ever, however unlikely that seemed back when he first arrived in Toronto in 2012, Lowry was also always one to do things his way. His pre-Toronto years were marked by immaturity, but also a steadfast belief that he was always right. His eventual emergence as the leader of the Raptors took time, but it only really occurred on Lowry’s terms. Sure, build the team however you want, but Lowry is going to play his way and put his teammates into places to succeed because he sees it that way — not you. This could read as arrogant unless it turned out Lowry had actually been right all along. Through whatever adjustments he decided to make — to his body, to his game, to his approach — Lowry was usually correct.

The proof of this is endless, the memories legion, the games both big and small in which Lowry decided to take over, do whatever it took to win — even if it couldn’t actually be done. We can recall his Game 7 against the Heat in 2016, or the 30-point comeback against Dallas, that 2014 run when all of a sudden the young Raptors were good, Lowry exploding into his own as if he’d personally decided enough was enough. Then of course there is Toronto’s 2019 championship journey with Lowry as both central figure and ultimate glue-guy — playing with a busted wrist but still guiding the team along in orbit around one-year superstar Kawhi Leonard. He really did score those first 11 points in Game 6 of the Finals, then made sure to save the game ball, and then had the presence of mind to steer team president Masai Ujiri away from a calamitous showdown with a moron rent-a-cop.

That ugly moment is important too in taking in the full view of Lowry. Over his nine years with Toronto, his ability and character changed — he learned new on-court skills, sure, but he also grasped how best to harness his competitive fury and intelligence. Lowry became the perfect teammate, and greatest Raptor of all time, by developing a level of awareness beyond measure. He knew what he was doing, what his teammates were supposed to do, what his opponents were trying to do, even what the reporters were eventually going to write about it all. This could make Lowry seem impatient, or perhaps reckless in his low moments. But it’s also why he’s one of the more beloved players around the league. He was always anticipating what anyone would want before they knew they wanted it.

In a way, Lowry’s departure to Miami is just an extension of that awareness. Yes, he gets to play ball with his pal Jimmy Butler, avoid another Canadian winter, and maybe even compete for one more title. Lowry has also known for some time the Raptors were looking to transition to whatever came after him. He understands his legacy in Toronto is secure, and he knows he’s already reached his peak with the Raptors. And while it may have been a romantic notion to have Lowry in Toronto right up to the very moment he decided to retire, a part of him had to know there would be no transition as long as he hung around. Besides, he was always going to play out his career his way — no sentimental notions were going to come in the way of that.

Except it’s also clear Lowry cared deeply about those around him too. He mentioned last season, a rough protracted year spent in Tampa purgatory, that he was just trying to get his teammates paid. It was said sort of as a joke, the Raptors collectively trying to find any reason to smile through a grim season, but the results now speak for themselves. His protege Fred VanVleet is set up, one-time projects Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are locked in, even a forgotten man like Khem Birch seems due for a raise from Toronto or elsewhere. These players worked hard to get where they are on their own, yet there’s no denying Lowry’s role in their development.

Like the franchise itself, the Raptors fanbase has developed too. We’ve come a long way together with Lowry since 2012 and grown in ways that seemed impossible a decade ago as the accomplishments rolled in. Yes, it would have been sweet to have Lowry play out his days in Toronto. But let it not be said this place is worse off than when he arrived. And like those many thousands of assists he completed in his Raptors career, the timing couldn’t have been better. Really, what more could anyone want?