Kyle Lowry is somehow succeeding in a competition where he never seemed to stand a chance.
By all accounts, the eighth-year point guard shouldn't even be part of the Toronto Raptors' story anymore. He spent the early portion of the season neck-deep in trade waters, the next in a line of dominoes to drop as part of first-year general manager Masai Ujiri's rebuilding plan.
Lowry's been a fixture on the rumor mill since Toronto cut ties with Rudy Gay in early December, and the team's impressive play since (21-12) hasn't necessarily silenced that chatter:
Trade rumble: Sense around league remains Toronto more likely to trade Kyle Lowry than keep him to prevent losing asset for nothing. But ...— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 27, 2014
Issue here hasn't changed: No team out there willing YET to meet Raps' asking price for PG who, nice as he's playin, can bolt in free agency— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 27, 2014
Still, evidence is mounting to suggest Lowry may not be as available as he seems.
With a city suddenly starving for success and Lowry being best equipped to meet that need, Ujiri may need to fight his instinct and not debate any potential deals under his forward-thinking cap.
The present looks promising enough to stay in win-now mode for the moment. The executive will have a full offseason later to decide how his franchise proceeds with its surprise savior.
Even with the "contract year" caveat in place, Lowry's numbers are almost unfathomable.
He's always been someone capable of throwing together a clean stat sheet, but the hoops world has never seen him quite like this before.
By themselves, the stats are impressive. Add a little context, though, and that's when you start questioning their validity.
As good as he's been all year, he's been even better since Gay left the picture. In the 33 games since Gay's removal, Lowry has notched 18.0 points (on .444/.402/.801 shooting), 8.0 assists (against 2.2 turnovers), 4.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals.
That's pretty impressive company to keep. Almost as good as the five players who have produced more than the 7.9 win shares (an estimated number of wins a player contributes to his team) Lowry has given the Raptors: Kevin Durant (13.5), LeBron James (10.0), Kevin Love (9.6), Blake Griffin (8.6) and Curry (8.6).
Lowry looks every bit the superstar part. He's not quite untouchable, but Ujiri can and should seek a king's ransom in return if he decides to shake things up before the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
The Raptors would be foolish not to keep their eyes and ears open just in case a no-brainer offer comes across the table. During his weekly chat, ESPN Insider Chad Ford said "they've been aggressive looking for the right deal for him."
As the reasons for Toronto to keep Lowry have grown, his asking price has increased along with them. This isn't the same player thrust out onto the trade market at the beginning of the season:
The Knicks are in fact interested in Toronto's Kyle Lowry. Classic Knicks. Could have had him two months ago, backed out now want him again.— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) February 11, 2014
Ujiri can't settle for a deal he likes; he needs to get something back he absolutely loves. Not only is Lowry playing at a level that typically comes with an "untouchable" tag attached, he'll also leave a massive void in the Raptors backcourt if he exits.
As it stands, Toronto could almost stumble into a first-round series win in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Ujiri might have visions of carrying this franchise further—and a salary equally as lofty—but a series win would be tough to sacrifice for this fanbase. The Raptors have made just five postseason trips in their existence and only once made it out of the first round.
Lowry helps this team's chances to make some playoff noise, probably significantly more than the pieces Ujiri is after on the trade market. That, more than anything, is what will likely keep him in Toronto through the end of the month:
Toronto has shown significant reluctance to part with Kyle Lowry, preferring to make a playoff run with him, league sources tell Yahoo.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) February 12, 2014
It does not, however, mean Lowry has found a permanent hoops home.
Raptors fans might disagree with the following statement, but Lowry picked the absolute worst time to have his "Aha!" season.
Not only is he enjoying this breakthrough on a team in transition, he also could be headed for a rude awakening when he becomes an unrestricted free agent at season's end.
"Lowry is ornery, but he’s also very good, and the market for him could be cool this summer," Grantland.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "Most of the 10 or so teams set to have $10 million or more in cap space don’t need a point guard, and Lowry’s clashes with head coaches could deter the rest."
Teams might already be wary about trusting his contract-year box scores, and his track record won't buy him any brownie points. He was a handful for Lionel Hollins after Mike Conley snatched his starting gig, and he reportedly gave the Houston Rockets a him-or-me ultimatum after his relationship with head coach Kevin McHale soured, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.
Lowry also doesn't have the cleanest medical history. He's missed 14 or more games in three of the last four seasons, although he has played in all 51 of Toronto's games in 2013-14.
Of course, it's hard to tell what, if any, impact his suddenly clean bill of health will have on his future earnings.
A bearish market for Lowry could be great news for the Raptors. The last thing Toronto wants is a bidding war, as NBA.com's David Aldridge noted:
The Raptors do not want to give Lowry a big-money contract this summer along the lines of what other point guards who've signed extensions recently: Denver's Ty Lawson (four years, $48 million), Golden State's Stephen Curry (four years, $44 million) or New Orleans' Jrue Holiday (four years, $41 million from Philadelphia)...The fear of investing heavily, only to find that this season is fool's gold, a contract drive by a player with a history of injuries, is likely too great.
The Raptors don't want to dig too deeply into their pockets, assuming they even see Lowry as part of the future at any price.
Just because Ujiri is holding this together for now does not mean he's moved on from the idea of demolition down the line.
With three prominent pieces all under the age of 25—DeMar DeRozan (24), Terrence Ross (23) and Jonas Valanciunas (21)—Ujiri should not feel rushed in making any personnel decisions. His job is to help Toronto create a path to the top of the basketball world, and he'll make the tough calls needed to get it to that point.
Keeping Lowry around past the deadline is not one of those difficult decisions. Short of a "Godfather" offer that doesn't appear to be coming, nothing would make it worthwhile for the Raptors to move on without him.
Not yet, anyway.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.