KYLE LOWRY KEY TO RAPTORS’ LONG-TERM SUCCESS.
DYNAMIC POINT GUARD IS TEAM’S KEY PLAYER, NOW AND FOR THE FUTURE
Masai Ujiri told a Kyle Lowry story recently that I hadn’t heard before.
The Toronto Raptors president was on a panel at a conference in Boston, alongside the general managers of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, and the subject turned to leadership.
Ujiri recalled a night a couple seasons ago, when the Raptors were newly ascendant. The night Lowry passed to Landry Fields.
I asked Ujiri about it again this week. Fields, you may recall, was the free agent guard who came to Toronto and couldn’t shoot. He literally could not: a nerve issue in his right arm plagued him for years. He would play a few minutes a night and make the odd layup, but that was about it.
“It was a really tough time he went through,” Ujiri says. “But he remained an unbelievable teammate. All this time, he’s still staying positive with the team.”
For one reason or another, there came a night at the Air Canada Centre where Fields had to draw in for extra work. The Raptors were trailing the Orlando Magic by eight points in the third quarter and they started a run that closed the gap. The building was rocking, “and Kyle does this unbelievable crossover, and the crowd was going nuts,” Ujiri recalls.
And then Lowry dished to the open man. Landry Fields, the guy who never shot. “You could almost tell, everybody thought he was going to miss,” Ujiri says.
Fields hit the shot, from 23 feet. The arena exploded and Lowry was happier than anyone. “You could see Kyle’s emotion,” Ujiri says. He had watched his teammate suffer and work and not complain and finally, just for a brief instance, he had been the hero. Lowry was ecstatic. The shot opened up a five-point lead. The Raptors didn’t trail again in the game. It was the only three-pointer that Fields would make over his last two seasons in Toronto.
“It was an underrated little thing,” Ujiri says now. “But it was a good leadership moment.”
It’s also a telling moment in that it provides valuable context to those who wonder what the Raptors would look like in a post-Lowry world. With the point guard out since the all-star break after right wrist surgery, and with Toronto having surged in the past week, those musings about the Raptors without Lowry have resurfaced again, as they did last year when Cory Joseph had some strong early playoff games. So, what would the Raptors be without Lowry? Ujiri isn’t thinking about that.
“You have to remember that, everything that has happened to this team in the last few years, Kyle has been at the forefront of that,” he says.
Will Ujiri try to bring him back in the off-season, when the 31-year-old becomes a free agent?
“No question,” he says. “Before the injury, you could argue he was one of the top five players in the league this season.”
The numbers were impressive enough, with Lowry having rediscovered the shooting touch — especially from distance — that deserted him in the playoffs last year. He was the Raptors’ leader in player efficiency and minutes played and a reliable crutch in crunch time.
But it is the other stuff that makes Lowry so indispensable to this team. Coach Dwane Casey has to spend so much time answering questions about this or that little thing that Lowry did in the fourth quarter to turn a game in Toronto’s favour that he might as well begin his postgame comments every night with a Lowry-themed opening: “Kyle was great tonight. He’s our bulldog, that’s why he’s our leader. He always gets to the 50-50 balls, and he makes the right play at the right moment. I can’t say enough about Kyle. Any other questions?”
In a vacuum, there is a case to be made against signing a point guard on the wrong side of 30 to a massive contract. You could argue, as at least a couple of high-profile websites did this week, that Ujiri might want to move on without Lowry.
There are fair questions about whether Lowry and DeMar DeRozan could be the two best players on a championship team.
But there are far more questions about what the Raptors would be without Lowry. He’s the guy who does all the little things, who bails the team out late, who takes the big shot or makes the right pass — and loses his mind when the snakebitten teammate finally makes a big shot of his own. He’s their leader, full stop. You might imagine rebuilding the Raptors around someone younger, taller and cheaper, but do you really think you will do better than Kyle Lowry? It would be some kind of a gamble.
Wednesday night at the ACC was a good reminder of the Raptors without their starting point guard. They came out flat, pulled ahead of Charlotte in the fourth quarter — and then fell apart down the stretch as the Hornets drilled a series of three pointers to win 110106.
Before the game, Ujiri had offered an opinion on Lowry that ended up rather prophetic: “The way he goes is the way we go.”
It is likely to remain that way, in these parts, for some time.
Beyond the points he produces, guard Kyle Lowry is a valuable leader for the Toronto Raptors, who fully intend to bring him back when he becomes a free agent after this season, general manager Masai Ujiri says.