Kyle Lowry has never been here before.
It isn't a contract year. It isn't a redemption campaign during which Lowry will look to rebuild his image or successfully stave off injuries that derailed him the season before.
This is different from anything he's ever faced.
For the first time in his career, Lowry isn't looking for or trying to establish something new. He's attempting to sustain what he's built and prove things are different by ensuring they stay the same.
Last season was Lowry at his absolute best, and he was compensated accordingly.
Toronto handed him a four-year, $48 million contract after he led the franchise to its first playoff appearance since 2008 and first Atlantic Division title since 2007.
To get there, to reach the playoffs and leave lottery demons behind, Lowry and the Raptors had to defy logic.
They were among those accused of tanking. Trading Rudy Gay didn't help. It was only a matter of time before Lowry followed his exit, becoming another pawn in general manager Masai Ujiri's team-maiming game.
But he wasn't.
Collective success forced the Raptors to reconsider, and Zwerling writes that Lowry's continued development ultimately made him indispensable:
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."
Whatever was said to Lowry stuck. The Raptors won 48 games, and he set career highs in points per game (17.9), assists per game (7.4), three-point shooting percentage (38), player efficiency rating (20.1) and win shares (11.7).
Long before the trade deadline passed, it became clear Lowry was the unquestioned leader of the surprising Raptors. He was an All-Star snub, a dark-horse MVP candidate. He was one of the best—if not the best—point guards in the Eastern Conference.
Leading into next season, he's expected to do it all over again and overcome what has been his biggest problem over the years: recurring success.
This was only the second time Lowry made the playoffs, and it was the first time he did so as an everyday starter.
His per-game numbers and availability have fluctuated since 2010. His status is fluid. What he brings has never been guaranteed.
"He also has yet to prove that he can string together several exceptionally productive seasons in a row," Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb wrote in July. "There's a very real chance that we just witnessed the kind of season that won't be repeated any time soon."
Indeed, Lowry's 2013-14 can be something of a red flag because of how good it was. Roughly 28.5 percent of his career win shares came last season alone, making his performance an anomaly as it pertains to the rest of his NBA pilgrimage.
Lowry's undefined ability to duplicate that success is what rendered him a hot trade commodity in the first place.
Something inevitably changed. Lowry went nowhere and the Raptors were rewarded for retaining him...last season.
But what about next season?
Can Lowry finish in the top 10 of win shares again? Will he once more join superstars like Chris Paul, John Wall and Curry as one of only four players to average at least 17 points, four rebounds, seven assists and 1.5 steals per game?
Is last season's Lowry the real Lowry or just a pleasant irregularity?
Statistical and general performance inconsistencies are littered throughout Lowry's career. Next year is his chance to show the Raptors that the point guard they paid for and believe in is the one they're going to get.
Moving On for Good
Next season has to be the season, too.
Second chances aren't luxuries Lowry will enjoy much longer. At 28, eight years into his career, this is his shot—his last shot.
The Raptors are assuming all the risk here. They've put much of their future in the hands of a point guard who rose to the challenge for one year.
There is no evidence to suggest Lowry will follow his 2013-14 crusade with something equally impressive in 2014-15. All the Raptors have is his word and their faith.
It was only one year ago when he struggled to remain healthy and shoot 40 percent from the field. It was only months ago when the Raptors were—apparently—planning for a future without him.
Now he's their franchise cornerstone, brandishing unparalleled control over where the team goes next.
And, like Daniel Reynolds of Raptors HQ says, the path Toronto is traveling down feels right:
For the first time in forever, the Raptors feel like a franchise with identity and direction. No longer is the franchise running in circles with endless course corrections just to remain mediocre. The new front office -- led by Masai Ujiri -- have expressed confidence in the core of this team and demonstrated it by bringing them all back. The Raptors quietly went about their business of retaining their division winning roster, and now, a few months before the start of next season, the question becomes: could they be on the verge of reaching a new pinnacle?
Tweaks have been made, additional talent has been acquired and trades have been struck. However, the 2014-15 Raptors are largely the same team being held to different standards.
Any progress they make will be the result of internal improvement and stability. The Raptors are betting the core they have in place is the foundation for something even better than last season.
Headlining that core, propping up that foundation, is Lowry, the longtime question mark now enjoying the perks of stardom while ferrying the beliefs and ambitions of an entire franchise.
"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,'" Raptors coach Dwane Casey told Zwerling.
To that end, Lowry is still a question mark. Last year's Lowry may be the real Lowry, but continuity is the key. He has to prove himself again.
Never before has he been lauded so mightily or trusted so strongly. Never before has the real Lowry been expected to do so much or have a ceiling so high.
If that's who he is—someone worthy of such assumptions—2013-14 will happen all over again, and Lowry's new, much-improved status will reveal itself as a tried-and-true certainty.
Not a potential illusion.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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