A perennial problem for his employer in the past, the 28-year-old matured into a major problem for the other 29 teams in the league. Skilled, strong and tough as nails, the All-Star snub finished his season with career marks in scoring (17.9) and assists (7.4) while contributing the eighth-most win shares in the NBA (11.7), via Basketball-Reference.
Following his lead, the Raptors avoided an apparently inevitable fire sale. While many read the early-season trade of Rudy Gay as an indicator of the team embracing the tank, Toronto instead found its way to 48 wins, the second Atlantic Division title in franchise history and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
In the face of imminent demolition, this this team managed to lay the groundwork for something worth building. Lowry was the mastermind behind that improbable (really, impossible) construction.
The unrestricted free agent's position can't change if this organization hopes to pursue something even more substantial in the future. The 2013-14 campaign must be the introduction of this tale, not the story itself:
Lowry's skill set as a scorer doesn't shine from an efficiency standpoint.
He's a 41.8 percent shooter from the field for his career, and he converted just 42.3 percent of those looks during this breakout season. He was deadly from distance (38.0 percent on 6.3 attempts a night), but he's been more good than great for his career (35.0).
If you know where to look, though, the stat sheet does capture his value better than those shooting figures would suggest.
His 20.1 player efficiency rating led the Raptors, via Basketball-Reference, and topped that of Eastern Conference All-Star guards John Wall (19.5) and Joe Johnson (15.5). Toronto outscored opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions while he was on the floor and just 0.6 when he was sitting, via NBA.com, the highest on-off differential of coach Dwane Casey's starting five.
Numbers tell some of the story, but all you needed was a remote and a Raptors game to gauge his worth. Toronto played with an insatiable fire, and Lowry was the obvious source of those flames.
"He's a hell of a player," DeMar DeRozan said, via James Herbert of ESPN.com. "The dog in him makes you want to bring your A-game every single night because you know he's going to lay it out there."
Lowry gave the Raptors everything he had and then some, even when his business associates may have advised him to do otherwise:
A knee injury cost him three games in early April. Those were the only three he missed the entire season, logging a career-high 36.2 minutes along the way—an absurd number considering the way the 6'0" point guard actively seeks out contact.
On the floor, he's everything a franchise would want in a team leader. He's a potent scorer but still a ready and willing passer. He has top-shelf talent but has the passion of a guy playing for a roster spot.
Off the court, you get the sense he's maturing by the minute. A divisive presence at each of his previous NBA stops, he now seemed to be the one holding everything together.
By all accounts, he looks like he's found a home:
"I've had the best core group of teammates I've ever had in my life, in my career," Lowry said after Toronto's season-ending loss Sunday, via Herbert.
This doesn't sound like someone who wants to leave. This doesn't either:
That interest sounds just as strong on the other side of this coin:
As well it should. The Raptors seem to be on the cusp of turning a major corner, but the entire path they've carved may crumble if Lowry slips out of their grasp.
"Anybody who paid attention to the team knows Lowry gave the Raptors the guts to punch with more experienced and expensive teams," the National Post's Eric Koreen wrote. "If he decides to leave, a step back feels inevitable."
With both parties happy with one another, what's the worry?
Well, the business aspect of this game is soon to take over. It might not be so easy to enjoy each other's company at the negotiating table.
"Lowry is a free agent now, and the good feelings will be tested," Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote. "His representatives will start negotiations high, perhaps near the max."
For his talent, tenacity and team leadership, Lowry is everything for the Raptors. He is not, however, a max-contract kind of player.
Even if his reps try to sell him as such, don't expect general manager Masai Ujiri to take the bait. The Raptors have long been weary about overpaying to keep Lowry around, as NBA.com's David Aldridge detailed in February:
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).
(It should not need to be said that there's no chance of Lowry getting anything approaching John Wall's max deal in Washington.)
Lowry's value has increased over the last three months. An eight-figure salary seems at least obtainable, provided it doesn't eclipse that threshold by much.
Luckily, the Raptors shouldn't find themselves in a bidding war for their floor general. Not a crowded one, at least:
Orlando's core is too young to justify a heavy investment in a 28-year-old point guard, particularly one who just started playing nice within the last 12 months. L.A. has already considered saving its cap space for 2015 (or later), and I'm not sure Lowry is a big enough splash to take yourself out of the running for a bigger ticket item (see: Love, Kevin).
It should also be noted that one (or both) team could address the position through the draft with someone like Australia's Dante Exum or Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart.
And if Lowry cares one lick about winning—he says he does—there's no good way to justify leaving the Raptors for either the Magic or the Lakers.
He shouldn't price himself out of the Raptors' plans. Should his tag reach a ridiculous rate, then (and only then) should Toronto walk away.
Assuming that offer doesn't come, Ujiri needs to get this contract done. No one expected this team to compete this well this quickly, but now that it's happening, there's no point denying its existence.
"The team is in the ascendance," Cathal Kelly of The Globe and Mail wrote. "Their immediate future is close to being secured. There is accord up and down the organization."
Ujiri has the kind of structure in place the Raptors paid him $15 million to build. Giving Lowry a no-brainer extension would be an awfully easy way to earn that money.
More moves need to be made to push Toronto into title contention, but a path to the podium exists. That won't change as long as Lowry is around to lead the way.
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