It almost had to end this way: Kyle Lowry, triggerman for four of the Toronto Raptors’ previous six shots, barreling his way through the paint and into the waiting limbs of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who saw it all coming from light-years away—a righteous revolt routed by its own predictability.
It was Pierce—less than a hair’s worth of air beneath his aging feet—who managed to stick his mitt on Lowry’s would-be game-winner, sealing the Brooklyn Nets’ 104-103 Game 7 victory Sunday afternoon.
Afterward, a dejected Lowry managed to salvage something of a silver lining from the day’s nail-biter-turned-heartbreaker.
Lowry: "I’ve had the best core group of teammates I’ve ever had in my life, in my career."— Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) May 4, 2014
More apocalyptic Raptors fans might be tempted to read into Lowry’s remarks a palpable past tense, as if the mercurial point guard has already made his mind up to bolt Toronto for greener pastures—literally in light of Ontario’s wicked winters, figuratively from a financial perspective—when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
And yet, few Eastern Conference teams boast a better combination of youth, bottom-line flexibility and tantalizing upside than these Raptors.
After shelling out in excess of $71 million in 2013-14, Toronto enters the summer with Lowry as the only real question mark. At 28 years old and coming off by far his best season as a pro, Lowry is bound to fetch lucrative offers aplenty, be they by virtue of sheer salary or situational promise.
Even if Lowry opts to bolt, however, the Raptors boast a compelling contingency plan: Greivis Vasquez, the versatile fourth-year point guard cleaved away from the Sacramento Kings in last December’s Rudy Gay trade.
While Vasquez is certain to fetch a tender beyond his current $3.3 million qualifying offer, Toronto would have the right to match—which, if Lowry flees and the free-agent market dries up quickly, it may well do.
The Raptors also boast Bird rights for forward Patrick Paterson, another solid role player and valuable stretch 4 who could well land a lucrative payday (qualifying offer: $4.3 million).
Meanwhile, Toronto will weigh whether or not to exercise team options for Amir Johnson ($7 million), John Salmons ($7 million) and Las Vegas Summer League legend Dwight Buycks ($816,000).
Given the team’s wing logjam—DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross are youth-laden talents with oodles of upside, while Landry Fields’ onerous contract ($8.5 million for 2014-15) will render him virtually untradeable—the Raptors likely have little interest in retaining the 34-year-old Salmons.
Let’s assume Toronto retains one of Vasquez or Patterson at $6 million per season (an educated guess—nothing more) and exercises Johnson’s option. That would put it in the neighborhood of $54 million in salaries heading into next season—roughly $9 million under the expected salary cap of $63.2 million, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
That might not be enough to reel in an upper-echelon star, but nor is it a fiscal pittance. And if seasons past are any indication, creeping over the cap is by no means anathema to Raptors ownership, which might well wield its Bird rights to extend a sizable payday for Lowry.
Whether or not all of that will be enough to foster the kind of free-agency appeal capable of luring in a franchise-altering superstar is another question entirely.
That, as the Toronto Star’s Cathal Kelly underscored in a column from early March, makes the development of fifth-year shooting guard and recent first-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan all the more critical:
Coach Dwane Casey still likes to stress DeRozan’s “growth.” And maybe he can get better. But it now seems like damning with faint praise when he’s corralled in a ‘young possible’s’ group with Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. He is light years from his contemporaries, and gathering speed. Bottom line — while DeRozan may still be growing, he’s already full-grown.
Of course, the same logic can be applied to Valanciunas, the burly Lithuanian forward, fresh as he is off playing pied piper at his own coming-out party.
In DeRozan and Valanciunas, the Raptors boast the rarest of NBA fortunes: a pair of homegrown hardwood talents around which any team with Toronto’s unique combination of unproven mettle and [unfair] geographic non-clout would be wise to size up spokes.
Barring an unforeseen coup, Toronto’s near-future fortunes will fall on the shoulders of head coach Dwane Casey, who has survived ceaseless calls for his coaching head in helping guide the Raptors to winning-percentage upticks during each of his three seasons on the sidelines.
Few playoff teams tout Toronto’s puzzle-piece uncertainty; depending on how the free-agent landscape settles, the Raptors could just as easily strengthen their grip on the East’s upper echelon as fall fast down the lottery laundry chute.
Toronto may have been the rarest of No. 3 seeds to enter its first-round showdown the decided underdog—as clear a testament as any to the idea that regular-season success almost always takes a bitter backseat to veteran verve.
Still, in taking the bankroll-breaking Brooklyn Nets the distance, the Raptors served serious notice—accentuated in no quiet part by the “Northern Uprising” scrawled across their warm-up shirts—that their laughingstock history is ripe for a permanent revolution.