Why Kyle Lowry Signing Is Only the Beginning of Crucial Summer for Raptors

Jim CavanContributor IJuly 7, 2014

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As far as four-year, $48 million contracts go, it doesn’t get much lower-key than the Toronto Raptors’ recent re-signing of point guard Kyle Lowry—especially considering how inundated the rest of the NBA has been by how free agency’s bigger fish are faring.

But for as reasonable as Lowry’s re-up may be, the Raptors still have plenty of work to do if they hope to capitalize on last season’s surprising rise from conference also-ran to a youth-laden No. 3 seed.

For Toronto, that means making sure the chemistry of last year’s core remains intact.

According to The National Post’s Eric Koreen, the next step in that process is to re-sign restricted free agents Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson. The problem is, that may be easier said than done:

The message was clear: Ujiri wanted Lowry back, and he wanted restricted free agents Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, the team’s two most important reserves, back, too. He wanted them back at a fair price, but he wanted them happy.

Now, Ujiri might have to test just how important that is to him. Factoring in Lowry’s new deal and the rookie contracts for both 20th-overall pick Bruno Caboclo and Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira, acquired in the Lou Williams trade, the Raptors have committed nearly US$62-million to 12 players next year.

According to Koreen, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has given general manager Masai Ujiri “the go-ahead to exceed the luxury tax when necessary.”

However, with more paydays (Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross) and big names (Kevin Durant) on the horizon, the definition of “necessary” becomes murky indeed.

On the one hand, it’s hard not to envision Toronto as anything but a long shot to land Durant when he becomes a free agent two years from now.

The only chance the Raptors have of even getting an audience with the superstar small forward lies in becoming an elite-level team as soon as possible.

Presumably, that means spending more in the short term while simultaneously banking on one of the team’s younger prospects hitting, or even exceeding, his ceiling—someone like 6’9” Brazilian import Bruno Caboclo, whom the Raptors selected with the No. 20 pick in June’s draft.

Based on comments made by his coach and general manager, that payoff could prove to be very real indeed.

TORONTO, CANADA - June 5:  New Raptors GM Masai Ujiri  Press Conference on June 5, 2013 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is c
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"He has a chance to hit it big," head coach Dwane Casey told reporters immediately following the draft. "He's probably one of the most athletic guys in the draft -- in fact, I know he is."​

“He's a basketball junkie,” Ujiri told the press.

Caboclo turning into a viable NBA rotation player certainly won’t be sufficient in reeling in KD, but it might be necessary. As will the next-level development of Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan, with the looking to capitalize on his first All-Star appearance next season.

Until their prized prospect starts showing signs of being Association-ready, however, the Raps would be wise to focus on bolstering their overall depth.

Before re-signing Lowry became a sure thing, Toronto kicked off its free-agency foray by dealing John Salmons to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for combo guard Lou Williams and prospect Lucas Nogueira.

Dec 28, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Lou Williams (3) against the Charlotte Bobcats during the fourth quarter at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

With Williams, Vasquez and Lowry, the Raptors now have three starter-caliber point guards on their depth chart.

By contrast, Toronto’s frontcourt currently includes Valanciunas, Patterson, a solid-but-diminutive Chuck Hayes and—most crucially—Amir Johnson. The Toronto Star’s Doug Smith reports that Johnson's refusal to undergo offseason ankle surgery has the Raptors questioning whether or not to pick up his $7 million player option.

Depending on what offers Patterson fetches, it might be wise for Toronto to seriously consider parting ways with the older, only slightly more productive Johnson:

Johnson vs Patterson: 2013-14
Player (age)Points per 36Rebounds per 36FG%PER
Amir Johnson (26)
Patrick Patterson (24)

Beyond all subsequent rookie and/or training camp signingsthe latter of which would most likely be for the veteran’s minimum—ShamSports.com indicates the Raptors still have the $2 million mini mid-level exception at their disposal.

If the free-agent market continues to swell, thereby limiting the number of teams with requisite cap space, that could prove a pretty valuable chunk of change.

Any team that finishes in the top 11 in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, rebounding rate and turnover rate doesn’t have much in the way of glaring weaknesses. That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of room for improvement, however.

Mar 22, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Bobcats forward Josh McRoberts (11) goes up for a dunk against the Portland Trail Blazers in the second half at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Bobcats defeated the Trail Blazers 124-94. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Br

As such, the Ratpors should eschew strength-specific free agents in lieu of the best possible value—someone like Francisco Garcia or Josh McRoberts, each of whom might well be available for the mini mid-level.

Better yet, Toronto could take the advice of Basketball Insiders’ Bill Ingram, who made this suggestion in a recent chat session:

Obviously there are questions to answer at the 2 and at power forward, but I think I would get an audience with Vince Carter. Reuniting Vince with the team would give the Raptors outstanding veteran leadership off the bench, but also give them an impact player who is still instrumental in hanging W’s on the scoreboard.

Whatever their course of action with respect to improving on the fringes, one thing is clear: If he hopes to propel the Raptors to the next level, Ujiri had better be as creative as possible with his employer’s “when necessary” decree.

The fates of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the top-tier free agents will undoubtedly impact—perhaps even outright flip—the league landscape.

Apr 22, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) and center Jonas Valanciunas (17) and guard Kyle Lowry (7) come off the court after a play against the Brooklyn Nets in game two during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs

If the aforementioned four wind up back in the East, Toronto’s prospects will likely remain the same: a young, up-and-coming team as liable to capitalize on last year’s success as it is to take step or two backward.

Should LeBron and company wind up taking their talents westward, however, the Raptors stand to benefit considerably from the resulting power vacuum back East—provided, of course, they don't rest on the laurels of re-signing Lowry.