Before LeBron James upended the NBA universe with his return to Cleveland and Carmelo Anthony decided to stay in New York, Kyle Lowry made one of the more impactful, if overshadowed, signings in free agency, when he chose to go back to a Toronto Raptors franchise that he helped lead to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Lowry was never supposed to be arguably the most sought-after free agent this offseason after James and Anthony.
He was never supposed to be the initial focus of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who, on July 1 at 12:01 a.m.—just one minute after free agency began—was in Lowry's hometown of Philadelphia sitting down with him for a face-to-face meeting.
You see, Lowry was only a first-round draft pick away from being traded to the New York Knicks in mid-December. It was this close to happening.
According to a source familiar with the Raptors' thinking, there were three likely scenarios on the table involving Knicks guards Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr., with Lowry being the only Raptors player in the deal. The clincher would have been a future first-round pick to the Raptors, but team owner James Dolan vetoed it and the trade fell through, a denial confirmed by a source close to the Knicks.
"Dolan hired those business consultants [McKinsey & Company] last summer," said the source with knowledge of the Raptors' plans. "They had sold him on this whole thing about, 'You've been exploited by giving away first-round picks.' Could the deal have gotten done? Absolutely."
That Lowry was on the trading block in perhaps his best season as a pro had nothing to do with his play, but everything with the direction the Raptors felt they were headed after trading Rudy Gay on Dec. 9.
"They were not going to re-sign Kyle," the source said.
Through Dec. 8, the Raptors were 7-11 after five previous losing seasons, and like many teams in 2013-14, they had their eyes on the future, according to the team's brass.
"The organization was at a crossroads," head coach Dwane Casey said. "New York wanted [Lowry] and the situation was ongoing. [Raptors GM] Masai [Ujiri] was upfront with [Lowry's agent] Andy [Miller] and Kyle. I was upfront with Kyle. We weren't trying to hide behind the rumors. [Lowry] was mature about it. At that time, we were kind of wavering, not knowing which way the team was going to go."
Then the tide turned in the Raptors' favor. Around the time the Knicks pulled out of the deal, the Raptors finished with a 9-3 record from Dec. 10 to Jan. 3, during which Lowry averaged 17.3 points, 8.9 assists and 1.8 steals while shooting 42.9 percent from three-point range.
"We were looking at where our team was, and he's a player that affects a team in many ways," Ujiri said. "With a little bit of luck, we started winning, and that kind of helped our decision-making at the time. Luckily for us, [the trade] did not happen and we moved on."
During the trade talks, the Raptors observed continued growth with Lowry, which stemmed from motivational conversations in the summer with his two closest mentors in the NBA, Tyronn Lue and Chauncey Billups. According to the source, Billups told Lowry, "You're screwing up a great opportunity in the NBA."
What had plagued Lowry in the past—his body language and a me-first attitude (like missing a players-only dinner during preseason), and a questioning of authority that demoralized those around him—became afterthoughts as he seemed to mature as a leader. He was also in the best shape of his eight-year career after having sports hernia surgery in May 2012, and then suffering a torn triceps and back spasms during the 2012-13 season.
"The basketball has never been the question [with him]. He's a bulldog and a two-way player that creates chaos on both ends of the court," Ujiri said. "When I made calls on Kyle, nobody ever talked about the basketball, and that struck me. He really took responsibility on those other things. He decided to turn it up."
Casey added, "Once he saw that he wasn't going to be traded, he took it as a personal challenge as far as the team and everything to make sure he put it on his back. He said, 'Look, whether I'm going to be successful here or somewhere else, I need to take this team to a higher level.' He was a man about it."
By the All-Star break, the Raptors were in playoff contention at 28-24, and the Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors were after Lowry for his services, according to the source. But at this point, the Raptors weren't touching him, partly because his contract was expiring.
"There was lots of traffic at the time and different options, but he just went on and continued to affect our team, to his credit," Ujiri said. "It made it more clear to us that this was the guy that we wanted on our team."
By season's end, Lowry had emerged as the No. 1 point guard on the free-agent market. Not only had he guided the Raptors to the No. 3 seed in the East, he had helped them improve to 10th in defensive rating after ranking 20th in 2012-13. While averaging career highs in scoring, at 17.9 points per game, and assists, at 7.4 per game, Lowry also drew an NBA-leading 84 offensive fouls (Derek Fisher was second with 55).
As one NBA scout said, "The Raptors don't make the playoffs this past season without Kyle Lowry."
"He played at a high level and sustained it," Casey said. "His defensive toughness set the tone for our team, and he's a student of the game. He knows every offensive play that we run, every defensive scheme, and that's important from your point guard. In Year 2 of us working together, that made us really grow and [improve] the trust level, as far as him making play calls or me deferring to him to make the play calls. You want that relationship with your point guard.
"He really just proved to the league and to the ownership and to the other teams that wanted him in free agency that he was for real, and 'This is who I am.'"
After losing to the Nets in seven games in the first round, the Raptors were aware that Lowry, who had never been a free agent before, would test the market.
"He had earned the right to be recruited, the right to make a choice," Casey said. "And he earned it by his play, by him making our team a winning team, by being a positive leader."
While money was a factor—the price point Lowry set was around $12 million, according to the source—there were other variables in play as he examined the NBA landscape: geography, the current success of the team and its outlook over the next couple years.
"[Lowry] analyzed [free agency] very analytically and introspectively, rather than, 'Oh, I can get the money,'" the source said.
In that first meeting with the Rockets, a source close to the situation said, Morey made it clear that he wanted his former player to return. But the GM wouldn't make an official offer until Anthony made his decision. Then Lowry met with the Raptors at 11 a.m. on July 1 in Philadelphia with Miller, Ujiri and Casey, who flew in from his offseason home in Seattle. The message was clear: They wanted him back and would satisfy his high-dollar demand.
But Lowry wasn't done window shopping. Over the next day, Miller spoke with the Heat and Lakers, but there were more questions than answers. In the Heat's case, what would happen with James? Also, the terms Miami discussed were in the same financial ballpark as Lowry's current contract at the time.
Still, Casey was nervous.
"The team I was worried about was Miami because they're probably the closest team to winning a championship again," Casey said. "We're not quite there yet. We kind of outgrew ourselves last year, but we're still a growing team, a young team."
In the case of the Lakers, Lowry was concerned because there wasn't a coach in place, the structure of the team was unclear and winning right away didn't seem likely.
Regardless of the teams in the hunt, Ujiri felt he "had to be aggressive" to lock up Lowry.
"You can't be afraid of other people in this business," Ujiri said. "I say that to players, and it's the same in my position. I respect other GMs, but I'm not afraid of anybody. That's our job. That's their job to go after him. My job is to try and keep him in this situation.
"[Miller and I] were in constant communication. Kyle was great, his agent was great. They kept me posted with what was going on, and I think that was it. We took care of what we had to take care of."
On the evening of July 2, Lowry agreed to a new four-year, $48 million contract extension. Ujiri called it a "great time." Interestingly, if Lowry had waited on Anthony's decision, the Rockets might have had the money to meet the point guard's demands.
"[The Raptors] weren't always the favorite, but Masai wanted to get the deal done, and it made it a lot easier," Lowry said in Las Vegas recently after a workout. "[Miller and I] approached it as a business and so did [the Raptors]. At the end of the day, I didn't wait for [the other teams]. I wanted to make my decision for myself."
There were several reasons. One was competing in the weaker Eastern Conference. Another was continuing his defensive evolution under the blue-collar Casey, whom Lowry said he respects. A third was continuity by staying in the same city that Lowry called "unbelievable."
Also critical in Lowry's decision was his close connection with his backcourt sidekick, DeMar DeRozan, whom Lowry described as "such a positive influence." As Lowry was contemplating his choices at the start of free agency, he phoned DeRozan, who was on a plane about to take off for the Philippines, and they talked for 20 minutes.
"He just listened to me as a friend, as a confidant," Lowry said. "He was just there for me and he didn't push me either way [to come back or not]. You've got a guy who doesn't care really about anything but your happiness, and you want to be around it. Now we have the opportunity to call the team our own."
But can that team get deeper in the playoffs next season?
For one, it will need Lowry to improve his mid-range game, as he only shot 33.3 percent from that area last season. The now-28-year-old veteran is making that a focal point in his workouts with his longtime trainer Joe Abunassar, while making sure to seek out the contact in drills that he'll get in games.
"I worked out with Kevin Garnett one time when I was a young pup, and he did everything game-like," said Lowry, who has spent part of his summer playing pickup games with DeRozan and Amir Johnson in Las Vegas. "He really told me a lot about everything and the way you train is the way you're supposed to play."
Casey, who has already watched film of nearly every game last season, believes the team's defense will improve with Jonas Valanciunas' evolution and the re-acquiring of fellow big man James Johnson. On offense, Casey wants DeRozan and Terrence Ross in more front-guard action to help Lowry with facilitating more pick-and-rolls.
"[The Nets in the playoffs] did some things trying to get the ball out of Kyle's hands and making certain players make decisions, and they were challenged," Casey said. "The more multiple pick-and-roll options you have, the more effective you're going to be offensively. Also, when the ball comes out of the double team, our guys have got to be able to make an attacking play. Learning playoff basketball is huge for our young team."
Lowry agreed, saying, "We got a lot better. [The playoffs] helped everybody on our team. We're going to be much more experienced and much more mature. The guys, including myself, grew up in that playoff series."
But being the intense competitor that he is, the Raptors realizes there's an overarching reason why Lowry returned.
"He knows there's plenty of unfinished business here," Ujiri said.