9 reasons why the Raptors should sign-and-trade Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry is unequivocally the Toronto Raptors most valuable player.
As I’ve said on the Free Association podcast, a strong case can be made that the Raptors would be better off moving on from him this summer. At the recent Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Raptors president Masai Ujiri mentioned a GM’s job is all about taking risk. A Lowry-free future would be a risk, but so too would be doing the same thing expecting different results.
Here are nine reasons why the Raptors should explore a sign-and-trade this summer for the impending free agent.
So far, so good. Well... if I'm going to pick nits, teams with consistent rosters from year to year are prone to results different enough to change playoff berths, plus differing qualities of other teams, plus players rising and falling from the age curve and... shit. It's been a while -- I better pace myself.
1. THEY HAVE INTERNAL OPTIONS What the Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet trio has proven is that none of them are as spectacular as Lowry. However, the team isn’t utterly lost with these three running the point either.
Per 100 possessions this season Joseph is averaging 18.7 points, 6.4 assists and 5.7 rebounds. In his short career Delon Wright is averaging 20.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.4 steals per 100 possessions. VanVleet per 100 is averaging 18.4 points 5.5 assists and 3.1 steals.
The question isn't whether Lowry will be more productive next year than whatever alternatives general manager Jeff Weltman cobbles together. The question is whether they'll be appreciably better relative to how much they're going to cost. And even if Lowry is appreciably better than the alternatives, the next question is, for how long? The Raptors can make do with 48 replacement minutes of point guard play a night.
I've been enjoying the spurts of 'wow' Delon Wright has shown in very limited playing time, so far this year. I haven't wavered in thinking he's a fantastic NBA prospect.
Cory Joseph has been (save the last two-ish weeks) a disappointment this season. He's seemed to regress on defence for reasons that I'm not able to explain and, while his three point shot has mostly recovered, he attacks the basket less and less, severely limiting the pressure he can put on opposing defences. He's under a nice, old salary cap-type salary figure and is under contract for one more year (leading to a player option he'll likely decline) which makes him just-as-good as trade fodder than he is to succeed Kyle as top guard.
Fred VanVleet is an affable replacement point guard who is more likely to be replaced with another affable replacement point guard next season or Ujiri/Weltman are more likely to not keep a fourth point guard on the roster than FVV is to see a larger role.
The one question posed here that matters... is the drop-off between Lowry and the other guys large enough to justify Lowry's cost? It's reasonable to argue (in this narrow binary) that it's not but only in a scenario where the goal is to fall back into a middling 7th or 8th seed and try to rebuild from the middle. If the question is: could the Raptors re-allocate cap space (which is likely non-existent even with Lowry gone if Ibaka and Patterson is re-signed but maybe there's room under the tax for a mid-level signing or an additional salary-clearing trade to open up room) and be as likely to be a two-seed in the 2018 playoffs? Cory Joseph's per 100 possession box score stats don't tell that story.
2. LOOK AT RECENT RAPTORS PRECEDENT
Look at the decision the Raptors made to give playing time to Lucas Nogueira and draft and develop Jakob Poeltl instead of paying Bismack Biyombo $72 million. When the playoffs ended last year, many thought Toronto had to re-sign Biyombo. Although Biyombo was an on-court and cultural fit, the numbers didn’t make sense. You can apply similar logic to Lowry. Given the going rate for free agents, I’m not saying Kyle Lowry doesn’t deserve to get max money. I am saying it may not be prudent for Toronto to give it to him.
I cringe at folksy rule-of-thumb precedents which plague the rest of these nine arguments... "Defence wins championships!" "You can't win without a super star!" They're created to be vague enough to fit into any narrative and churn through thousands of hours of mindless sports talk radio.
Look, Biyombo did not have Larry Bird rights and signing him would have been functionally impossible without unloading rotation players to teams with cap space without taking back salary and done quick enough to deal with DeRozan and his cap hit. No one who pays attention to the workings of the NBA thought it was possible he was coming back. Also, the defence seriously suffered this season, to the all-star break. I'm not placing all the blame on Biyombo's absence but it was a factor and Ujiri was concerned enough to make serious, if not team-exploding trades, for two players who were brought in to shore up the D. I think the defensive drop-off from Biyombo to those who picked up his minutes were severe but still not as severe as a bye-bye-Lowry drop-off, even acknowledging Kyle's age and likely decline.
3. YOU DON'T NEED AN ALL-STAR GUARD TO WIN
Back in 2006, the Dallas Mavericks were faced with a similar decision and let Steve Nash walk, in part due to concerns about his back. Nash of course went on to win two MVPs but it was the Mavericks who won a championship by spreading the money around.
When presented with a choice, the Mavericks kept the star player that could score in isolation: Dirk Nowitzki. For the Raptors that player is DeMar DeRozan. Of the 25 most recent NBA champions, only three featured an all-star point guard and none of those were on max deals.
This is a fairly insane anecdotal comparison. Does anyone think Mark Cuban doesn't regret letting Nash go? DeRozan is a parallel to Dirk Nowitzki because both could score in isolation? (You know who else could score in isolation? Kyle Lowry and Steve Nash).
Also, the Mavs won a championship seven seasons after Nash left (in '04, not '06) with the help of a 37-year-old point guard who was one year removed from nabbing an all-star stop (oh god, you made me quote back all-star appearances as proof-of-quality).
Also, Kyrie Irving wasn't an all-star last season because he was hurt at the time.
Also, Stephen Curry wasn't on a max deal in '15 because he was still a wonky-ankled shooting specialist at the time he signed his rookie extension.
Also, Tony Parker *was* an all-star in '14 (you did it again!).
Also, Wade and LeBron were de-facto point guards in terms of possessions, assist rate, guarding duties in '12 and '13. The reason those Heat teams used rookie-contract point guards wasn't because Pat Riley thought excellent point guards were cursed, it was because the salary cap said they couldn't sign one.
ALSO, you just said Kyle Lowry is the Raptors' unequivocal best player and then you go and say DeRozan, as the isolation-scoring-spiritual-brother to Dirk Nowitzki, is the more championship-y star? Which is it?
4. LOWRY ISN'T GETTING ANY YOUNGER, KEEPS GETTING HURT
The list of point guards who continue to play at an elite level after the age of 31--Lowry's age at the start of the 2017-18 season--is a short one.
Chauncey Billups is a commonly cited comp for Lowry. In his age 31 season, Billups played 78 games, averaging 17 points and 6.8 assists while shooting 44.8 per cent from the floor and 40.1 per cent from three. However, by the age of 35, Billups had played for three different teams and just 20 games because of an Achilles injury.
John Stockton played well into his 40s as a small guard, but unlike Lowry, he enjoyed incredible health throughout his career. The freak that is Stockton played in every regular season game in all but two of his 18 seasons. Lowry has played a full 82 games just once during his 11-year career. Assuming Lowry misses the rest of the regular season, his games played as a Raptor by season will be 68, 79, 70, 77 and 56 this year.
A year ago, Lowry hurt his elbow in January and carried the injury until banging it on the floor in March. It eventually needed to be drained but the inflammation bothered him and affected his shot during the first two rounds of the playoffs. In 2014 a mixture of back, hand, hamstring injuries and a bruised shin made him a shell of his all-star self as the Raptors were swept by the Wizards despite having home court advantage.
Now a wrist injury that went undiagnosed for a week during the all-star break might force him to miss the rest of the regular season after requiring surgery.
It is very true that Lowry is old, by NBA standards, and that players, especially guards, tend to decline swiftly in their 30s. There may be things to point to as signs he might have fewer miles than might first appear due to being a bench player for his first six years in the league with no deep playoff runs -- but maybe I'm wishcasting. Kyle Lowry is much likelier-than-not to be a worse basketball player in two, three and certainly five years. Ujiri needs to cost that into his team-building, no doubt.
On the injury front, you can convince me that as players age their knees, feet and backs tend to go, forcing them to miss more and more games (and affecting their value to the team). But I'll be damned if a bruised elbow and broken wrist are trotted out as signs he is infirm. The dude plays very hard (a good thing) which sometimes leads to contact injuries (a bad thing). It's true that Casey had run him incredibly hard the last three seasons which likely leads to more injuries, but, you have to ask: why is Casey playing him so much? I think it's because he is very, very good at basketball.
Also, Chauncey Billups was super awesome in his age 32, 33 and 34 seasons, for what it's worth.
Also, I'm back to nitpicking but John Stockton retired about a month after his 41st birthday, not well into his 40s. Which I think helps your point? You're welcome?
5. HIS POOR PLAYOFF NUMBERS Another troubling aspect of Lowry's injury history is that it keeps leaving him at a disadvantage when the games matter the most. In 44 career playoff games, Lowry is averaging 14.7 points and 4.3 assists per game on 38.3 per cent shooting from the floor and 30.9 per cent from three. Until he raised his average with a strong Eastern Conference Final last year, Lowry and Lindsey Hunter shared the honour of being the only NBA players to have a post-season field goal percentage below 35 per cent while having taken at least 350 or more shots.
LOL to "he was pretty bad at something he did 37 times (have bad shooting games) 13 of which were as a 22-year-old back up on another team but then was pretty good for about 6 at something. He's obviously using the Gilbert Arenas clutch-o-meter. I won't bore you by reminding y'all that Lowry's career TS% is significantly higher than DeMar Derozan's.
6. OVER-SATURATED POINT GUARD MARKET
As good as Lowry has been, we are living in a point guard rich generation.
Half of the league now enjoys high-end point guard play on a nightly basis. Stephen Curry (23.82 PER), Russell Westbrook (30.34 PER), James Harden (27.89 PER) Chris Paul (25.66 PER) and Isaiah Thomas (26.66 PER) all have superior numbers to Lowry's (23.11 PER).
Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving (23.53 PER), John Wall (22.76), Kemba Walker (21.03 PER), Damian Lillard (23.79) and Mike Conley (22.49) all have numbers close to Lowry’s. Even the likes of Eric Bledsoe (20.75 PER) and Goran Dragic (20.09 PER) have put up numbers in striking distance of Kyle’s career best production.
Okay, sure, there's plenty of good point guards around nowadays but we have to twist ourselves into a gnarly knot to suss out how this might benefit the Raptors...
- If we're fine with the previous argument that CoJo+Delon+FVV(?) = an approximation of Lowry's value at a fraction of that cost then who cares if there's a wealth of point guard riches around the league? We have Cory Fucking Joseph!
- If you don't think that's enough to stay competitive and you instead are looking to sign a free agent point guard you have to grapple with 1) the Raptors still are unlikely to have enough cap space without a fire sale and 2) if you're frothing at the chance to get in front of Jrue Holiday (the best point guard free agent who is not Kyle Lowry and is not Steph Curry or Chris Paul who I'll be happy to bet are staying put) for a likely four-year max deal -- how ahead does that put you? Sure, he's four years younger than Lowry but that's about all he has going for him. After that? Are you excited about George Hill or Jeff Teague at maybe four years/$60 million?
- Or you trade for one of those delicious PER rates mentioned above, all of which are on max or near-max deals, except for Eric Bledsoe. Show me your trade proposal that nets the Raptors Dragic or Bledsoe (the players least loved by their current teams) and we can talk about how competitive the Raptors still aim to be
7. THEY NEED SALARY CAP SPACE
A huge consideration will be this year's $102 million salary cap and $122 million luxury-tax projections. That's down from an original estimate of $107 million and with a luxury-tax threshold of $127 million to according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.
Once they guarantee the contracts of Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet, and add the salary of their first-round pick, the Raptors payroll will be around $81 million.
And that’s before adding the current salaries for impending free agents Serge Ibaka ($18.4 million), Kyle Lowry ($18 million), Patrick Patterson ($9.1 million) and P.J. Tucker ($10.1 million), each of whom will be seeking a raise.
The Raptors figure to exceed the salary-cap threshold if they re-sign Lowry to a five-year max deal and you shouldn't expect Lowry to take a penny less than the five-year, $153 million Mike Conley got from the Memphis Grizzlies. Ibaka, although not a better individual player than Lowry, has a more rare skillset. Ibaka is a stretch-four that can play the five while both defending the rim and providing space offensively.
Kristaps Porzingis and Brook Lopez are the only players other than Ibaka averaging one three-point make per game with a block rate better than four. Only 12 players have ever had over 100 blocks and 100 three pointers in a season. In 2016-17 Serge Ibaka is already one of them.
Unless the Raptors intend to start The Process by trading a significant portion of their roster, of course they won't have salary cap space this summer. Ujiri made that decision when he signed DeMar DeRozan last summer and he doubled down by trading the cost certainty of Terrence Ross (and a late-first pick) for the expiring contract of Serge Ibaka (and a clear intention to re-sign him). Quoting the impending cap hold (150% of current salary) for those free agents is a pretty roundabout way to emphasize that. They will be a tax-paying team unless they let some free agents go (say, Patterson and Tucker) and/or trade signed players (Joseph, Carroll or JV).
Am I going to entertain arguments that Serge Ibaka is harder to replace than Kyle Lowry because of some manufactured "see? -- he's a unicorn!" stat? No, I am not.
8. CHEAPER OPTIONS ARE AVAILABLE
Part of this is supply and demand. The 2017 off-season is a unique opportunity featuring a draft class loaded with talented players, especially point guards. There are three big point-guard prospects projected to go near the top of the draft. Washington's Markelle Fultz, UCLA's Lonzo Ball and N.C. State's Dennis Smith Jr. look like all-star level players.
Does it make more sense to pay a top level young point guard $3-5 million a year on a rookie deal or Lowry $30 million?
Does he think any of these potential all-star-level point guards are going to fall to 22 where the Raptors are currently projected to draft? Does he think the Celtics, Sixers, Suns, Magic or Lakers like anyone on the Raptors enough to trade a top draft pick for? Or that one of those teams want to trade the Raptors an excess point guard for spare pieces because they're planning on landing a prize rookie? I mean, if you really want to trade for Eric Bledsoe, it's probably not that hard. What are you getting at?
9. THERE COULD BE A WILLING TRADE PARTNER
The Philadelphia 76ers are rumoured to be interested in making a move for Lowry this summer.
They’ll have some competition.
"Somewhere on the summer market—Philadelphia, New York, perhaps the Clippers, should they lose [Chris] Paul—there will be an offer in the neighbourhood of a max deal for him,” claimed Adrian Wojnarowski.
If Philadelphia secures a high pick in the draft lottery on May 16, they can draft for Toronto in exchange for the ability to trade for Lowry and obtain his Bird rights.
Philadelphia president and general manager Bryan Colangelo made the trade to bring Lowry to Toronto. The Sixers don't need more young talent, so would Colangelo trade a lottery pick for a known commodity in Lowry?
It's worth remembering Colangelo and Ujiri have a relationship from their time working together in Toronto.
Even if Toronto had to throw in its own first round pick to sweeten the deal it would still be worth it for the Raptors. The opportunity to acquire the next potential franchise player at a low salary can’t be easily overlooked.
So you've been wondering: "He said he was going to both pummel the premise AND lose his mind... what happened to that?" Well, HERE WE ARE, FOLKS. I don't even know where to start with this mishegas.
Forget the premise that Kyle Lowry dreams of playing for his hometown Sixers, which he is free to pursue via free agency. Forget Masai and Colangelo being best good friends. Forget that solutions based on a specific dreamed-up trade make for terrible, terrible strategy....
*Standing on a mountain shouting towards the heavens*
"KYLE LOWRY IS A PENDING FREE AGENT AND HE CANNOT BE TRADED AFTER THE SEASON!"
Okay I lost my mind but just for a second. I found it again. We cool.
Even if you write about the NBA and somehow don't bookmark Larry Coon's FAQ, you can rely on the ol' "if this sounds like an amazing trade strategy, how come no one has ever executed it ever, ever?" test and if the answer is "I dunno! Because I'm a genius?" then maybe it's because it's impossible. And even if it were possible, that wouldn't be a 'sign-and-trade' as the headline read. And even if you sign-and-trade one of your own free agents, they aren't entitled to the benefits of Bird rights contracts (true since the *last* CBA before the 2010-2011 strike season) which means the only value for sign-and-trades is if the free agent goes to a team that neither has the cap space nor the means to get the cap space by other means (a situation that sooooooo does not apply to Philadelphia.) If Lowry were to go to the Sixers, he would sign as a regular old free agent.
It's completely fine that you don't understand these cap rules. They are super complicated and barely fun or interesting, even to those that follow this stuff carefully. But, if I could offer a tiny sliver of constructive advice it would be: run your premise by a couple dudes. There are dozens and dozens of Raptor-loving cap experts who understand the CBA (way, way better than I do) and hang out on Twitter all day long. And if you do run your "voila!" strategy by some of these dudes and refine your argument to only include legal NBA maneuvers, it counters a perception, true or not, that your objective was to have a *STRONG OPINION!* instead of adding nuance to the discourse around the Raptors'/Lowry's future.
Look, Lowry is the team’s best player while averaging a career-high 22.8 points on 46.3 per cent from the field (41.7 per cent from three) and 4.7 rebounds.
In the East, only Gianni Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and LeBron James have added more value to their team, according to NBA Math's Total Points Added.
The chances are Lowry is a Raptor next season because it's an easy fit for both parties. But the Raptors have never been a luxury tax team, and even if they are going forward, it's not going to be a reckless decision.
Kyle Lowry’s injury and the team's performance without him is merely proving that life without Lowry next season may not be that bad.
This conclusion could have, maybe, been the entire article. Kyle Lowry is good (agreed). He's had some injuries (agree, technically, though disagree that he's somehow in serious physical decline, even if he is getting old) and that the Raptors are good without Lowry (agree, over the last six games which is a v. small sample size, disagree overall because: facts).
I am not saying that there's not an argument to be made that Ujiri has to seriously weigh the costs of committing to Kyle Lowry and, in turn, the cost to maintain a team that may not be able to overcome his likely age-related decline while remaining capped out for the foreseeable future. I am saying that such an argument was not coherently made with these nine reasons.
Too many words were shed here. Let us put this ordeal behind us.