Kyle Lowry, Raptors at crossroads in free agency

Kyle Lowry’s free agency is fascinating.

From the Raptors’ perspective, the all-star point guard’s decision will determine the team’s future. With Lowry, Toronto is a top-tier Eastern Conference power with a chance — however minimal — to knock off Cleveland. Without him, they’re potentially battling for the eighth playoff seed, straddling the NBA’s middle ground without a clear path forward.

Lowry is 31, and this summer likely represents his last shot at a big payday. Unfortunately for him, he chose the wrong year to be a free agent. So many teams are set at point guard, and others, like Philadelphia, Dallas and Brooklyn, have recently acquired young talent at the position.

All this sets up an interesting decision for both team and player come July 1.

What does Lowry give to the Raptors?

Lowry missed time due to injury last season, and Toronto played well without him. But that came against a stretch of relatively easy competition. A starting lineup anchored by DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas is limited and likely not worth committing to long-term.

Add Lowry to that core, though, and we’ve seen the upside the Raptors possess. It’s not a “Big Three” like Cleveland’s, but a “Medium Three” of Lowry, DeRozan and Serge Ibaka could do some damage for the next couple years.

Lowry provides so much to the Raptors that just can’t be replicated. He’s easily the team’s best three-point shooter. The pull-up three was long-maligned, but coaches are now starting to recognize its value as a quick strike. Lowry hit those at a 42 per cent clip, well ahead of Steph Curry (36.4), Kyrie Irving (35.1) and James Harden (33.3).

The point guard is beloved by advanced metrics, while DeRozan is looked upon less favourably due to the volume of shots he takes. Lowry also provides some “tangible intangibles,” like his penchant to steal the ball from an opposing big to create an offensive rebound, and a generally high basketball IQ.

With Lowry in tow, the Raptors can go out and sign Ibaka and one of PJ Tucker or Patrick Patterson to cement their core in a push to keep the contention window open. They would love to find a suitor for Valanciunas or DeMarre Carroll, but they reportedly offered them along with a first-round pick on draft night and still got no bites.

The market for a lumbering centre or a wing with surgeries on both knees just isn’t there.

Salary cap concerns

The Lowry/DeRozan/Ibaka core would be expensive. DeRozan is making almost $ 28 million US per year. Add $ 20 million for Ibaka, and perhaps $ 30 million for Lowry, and that’s almost 80 per cent of the Raptors’ salary cap space for next year.

(Note: they’re allowed to exceed the cap to re-sign their own players, but the luxury tax payments don’t change. MLSE, which owns the team, would have to be willing to foot a large bill).

raptors-cap-sheet

The Raptors would have to pay a tax bill of over $ 13 million US if they retain Lowry, Ibaka and one of PJ Tucker or Patrick Patterson, according to Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic. (Raptors Republic/Blake Murphy)

These Raptors are going to need a lot of luck to contend for a title in the next couple seasons. It’s conceivable, if LeBron James leaves Cleveland for Los Angeles next summer and Boston strikes out in free agency and trades, but even then, the Warriors linger out west.

Is MLSE willing to pay into the luxury tax for this team? Given a rumoured handshake deal with Ibaka, that will have to happen if Lowry comes back. This conundrum sums up the existential crisis for the non-Warriors and non-Cavaliers of the NBA.

Championship or bust?

If you’re not winning a title, then what’s the point? Will fans be happy with moderate sustained success, or would they prefer a Philadelphia-like “process” — a lengthy rebuild to acquire stars to go for a championship?

Maybe the Raptors really are better off taking the latter path, and ditching Lowry and Ibaka altogether. At that point, it may be worth floating DeRozan in trade talks instead of wasting his prime years on a middling team.

Then again, the Raptors don’t want to use up the fan equity built in the last four years on a rebuild. With the Leafs’ young core in place and ready to contend, Toronto may quickly forget about the Raptors, just like the team’s global ambassadorhas recently.

Lowry has a say in this too, of course. The mercurial guard may not want to stay in Toronto, as reported by the Toronto Star but denied by Lowry himself.

A potential return to Houston appears to be out after the Rockets traded for point guard Chris Paul on Wednesday, but a signature with San Antonio could provide Lowry a better chance at a title, if that’s what he prioritizes. The Spurs would have to clear significant cap space to make room for Lowry, but it’s possible.

Still, Toronto’s best bet likely remains re-signing Lowry, and vice versa. The Raptors can offer Lowry more money than anyone, and Lowry can still contend in Toronto alongside his good buddy DeRozan.

The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the Blue Jays with Jose Bautista following last season. A team with a shrinking window and long-standing core, and an older player who bloomed late and wants his payday, yet may find a tougher-than-deserved market.

Eventually, Bautista and the Blue Jays realized they were each other’s best options.

Here’s guessing the same happens with Lowry and the Raptors.

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