Can Kyle Lowry Be a Key Piece on an NBA Title Contender?

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Can Kyle Lowry Be a Key Piece on an NBA Title Contender?
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

If NBA history can be understood by positional epochs, we're well in the midst of the Point Guard Age.

Top to bottom, you’d be hard-pressed to find any era so flush with talented floor generals—from the flashy to the steady, bucket-getting to dime-dishing.

But there’s a downside to such an embarrassment of positional riches: The risk of otherwise eminently talented players getting lost in the shuffle.

The Toronto RaptorsKyle Lowry most certainly falls into that camp.

In a league increasingly prone to positional specialization, Lowry can do a little bit of everything: pass, rebound, defend and—occasionally against his own better judgment—shoot. At 27, Lowry is putting up by far the best statistical season of his career, narrowly missing out on his first All-Star bid back in February.

If you're looking for a fiery, hypercompetitive baller who can both see the floor and find his own shot, Lowry's your man.

Whether he can be a top-flight player on a contending team is a different question entirely.

In just a few months, Lowry will become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his eight-year NBA career. Given his production and as-yet untapped promise, there are bound to be suitors aplenty.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Lowry could approach free agency in one of two ways: Either he looks to land with a team with the most money to spend (but likely not much in the way of championship aspirations), or he signs at something of a discount with a contender.

First, we have to figure out what Lowry might be worth on the open market. As our best attempt at a facsimile, we’ll use the New Orleans Pelicans’ Jrue Holiday, who signed an incentive-laden four-year, $41 million deal with the Philadelphia 76ers ahead of the 2012 season.

Both Holiday and Lowry are what we might call stalwarts of the league’s point guard middle class—good, even very good players who arrived NBA-side amid a full-on market glut.

So how do their numbers shake out?

Lowry vs. Holiday
Player Age Points Assists PER
Jrue Holiday 21 13.5 4.5 14.7
Kyle Lowry 27 16.8 7.7 19.7

Basketball-Reference.com

While his numbers are better pretty much across the board, Lowry’s age may well play a factor in how much some teams are willing to shell out.

Again, the two aren’t perfectly analogous, but Holiday at least provides a useful template for how much Lowry might be looking for this summer—something in the neighborhood of four years, $40 million.

So who might be looking to spend that kind of money? The current CBA would allow Toronto to tender Lowry for both more money and more years while still avoiding the luxury tax apron, which is slated to be just at around $75.7 million next season, according to our Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster.

The Raptors have been one of this season’s pleasant surprises—a team many believed would be looking to unload its assets ahead of this summer’s highly anticipated draft, but instead finds itself firmly in the playoff fold.

Unfortunately, according to NBA.com’s David Aldrige, all of this might be moot:

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).

One intriguing gamble would be to ink a deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, who are looking at oodles of cap space heading into next season.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously the Los Angeles Lakers will be targeting top-flight talent first and foremost—Carmelo Anthony being the most obvious example—but might be willing to give Lowry beaucoup bucks to shore up a backcourt that has quickly become razor thin.

Subjecting an aging Steve Nash to the stretch provision—something Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding says remains a distinct possibility—might make the Lowry pill a bit tougher to swallow. At the same time, these are the Lakers we’re talking about. Their office coffee makers print money.

Depending on how the free-agent markets of 2015 and 2016 shake out, L.A. could go from bottom-dweller to contender close to overnight, and Lowry would be sitting pretty on all fronts. And don't discount how important having someone like Lowry—a bulldog defender through and through—makes an aging Kobe Bryant's job on the perimeter that much easier.

So what about actual contenders? As in teams ready to contend right now?

Depending on whether or how many of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh choose to opt out of their $20-plus million contracts next season, the Miami Heat could be another possibility.

With Norris Cole’s non-guaranteed deal the only thing remotely resembling a point guard the Heat have slated for 2014-15, Lowry could find a willing and able suitor in Miami.

Just take a look at this table:

Lowry vs. Chalmers (2013-14)
Player Points Assists TS% PER
Mario Chalmers 9.4 4.9 .579 14.2
Kyle Lowry 16.8 7.7 .563 19.7

Basketball-Reference

Save for Mario Chalmer’s slightly more efficient shooting, Lowry’s got him beat at pretty much every turn. And while the latter’s higher usage rate could pose shot-control problems on a team that still includes any two of Miami’s Big Three, the additional scoring punch would likely be more boon than burden.

If all three of James, Wade and Bosh opt to return, however, one of two things would need to happen: Either Lowry takes a huge paycut, or the Big Three do. We'll let you guess which is the more likely scenario.

Or, imagine this scenario: The Raptors sign-and-trade Lowry to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Kendrick Perkins' expiring contract, Reggie Jackson and a possible first-round pick.

That way, should the Thunder decide to move Russell Westbrook between now and 2017, OKC would have a nifty little insurance policy in the backcourt.

So, yes, it’s conceivable that Lowry could soon be a key cog on an upper-echelon team.

That being said, Lowry isn’t without his detractors. Back in December, Bleacher Report's Josh Martin wondered aloud whether landing Lowry might not be “fool’s gold”:

Of course, Lowry's aggression often comes at a cost. He gambles for steals fairly frequently, thereby leaving his teammates scrambling in support whenever he comes up empty. His approach, combined with his lack of size, has left him vulnerable to getting torched by opposing point guards of all stripes, from Jeff Teague (17 points, 12 assists) and Mike Conley (29 points, five assists) to Damian Lillard (25 points, eight assists), John Wall (37 points) and Nate Robinson (23 points, five assists).

As for the extracurricular baggage, well, that certainly makes things a bit trickier. Take, for instance, the battery charges brought against Lowry by a referee during a training stint in Las Vegas in November of 2012, per Huffington Post.

Being feisty is one thing, but being a loose canon of that caliber? That might scare some teams off, and understandably so, regardless of how sincere the attendant apology.

While Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri has admitted being weary about breaking the bank for Lowry, even he can’t help but be impressed by his mercurial point guard’s performance. From an interview with the Toronto Sun’s Mike Ganter:

People are going to say it's a contract year, but in our opinion the kid has played all out and he has given it his all. Kyle has adjusted. We set some good rules and had good talks with him (at the beginning of the season). He was up front with us and we were up front with him ... and he is living up to his part and I think we have lived up to our part too and that's how you build partnerships and we'll see how he grows.

Toronto might not be a contender today, but all signs point to it at least being on a promising, sustainable track.

If, however, Lowry decides to take his talents elsewhere, there’s plenty of reason to believe he can be the kind of player to help push a team over the top—even if he’s not putting them there himself.

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