Potential Landing Spots for Kyle Lowry in 2017 NBA Free Agency
Kyle Lowry didn't need long to ponder the first step for his NBA future. The morning after the Toronto Raptors became the latest Eastern Conference contender to meet the Cleveland Cavaliers' playoff broom, Lowry told local media that he would, in fact, opt out of his contract and re-enter free agency this summer.
The 31-year-old also made clear what he wants at this stage of his career.
"A ring. Nothing else," he said, per TSN's Josh Lewenberg. "I just want a ring."
But where? In Toronto? Somewhere south of the U.S.-Canada border?
Lowry's answer: "I think I can do it anywhere I play."
The three-time All-Star declined to declare the criteria by which he'll choose his next destination. He insisted he hasn't "thought too far ahead of any of that."
Lowry will have nearly two months to weigh all the pros and cons before the Association officially reopens for business on July 1. These seven destinations (listed in alphabetical order) may well wind up on his eventual wish list, based on finances, roster fit and upside success, whether immediate or down the line.
Last summer, the Denver Nuggets jumped into the surprising Dwyane Wade sweepstakes—not just because they wanted him (they did) or thought they could get him (they thought so), but also as part of a longer game. A good meeting with Wade, one of the league's most respected veterans, could resonate among his peers and make the Mile High City more appealing to other big-name free agents.
With Lowry, the Nuggets can test the veracity of that approach. Denver could have max-level cap room to throw his way, assuming Danilo Gallinari follows through with opting out of his current contract this summer.
Gallinari's desire to return need not preclude the Nuggets from reapportioning their resources with Lowry in mind. Even if Gallo leaves, Denver will have plenty of wing scoring at its disposal between Wilson Chandler, Will Barton and Jamal Murray. Should the Nuggets find a taker for Kenneth Faried, they may have the financial wherewithal to bring back Gallinari and chase a max free agent like Lowry.
Add in productive youngsters such as Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris (along with valuable prospects such as Emmanuel Mudiay, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley), and Denver has the makings of a team still on the rise out West after squeezing out a surprising 40 wins in 2016-17.
According to ESPN's Marc Stein, Lowry might give "legit thought" to switching conferences, if only to avoid another ill-fated showdown with LeBron James. A situation like the one in Denver—with its established talent, considerable upside, need at point guard and distance from LBJ—could be the perfect landing spot.
With or without Paul George, the Indiana Pacers will need to add a point guard this summer. Jeff Teague is ticketed for unrestricted free agency. So is Aaron Brooks. Beyond those two, Joseph Young is the only floor general on Indy's roster, and his 2017-18 salary isn't guaranteed.
How the Pacers go about filling that hole will have everything to do with PG-13's future.
If George declines a potential extension in Indy and the team believes he'd be a goner in free agency come July 2018, the Pacers would seem keen to get ahead of the problem by dealing their homegrown All-Star while he's still under contract. In that case, they'd probably prefer to bring a younger, cheaper point guard—perhaps as recompense for George—to be part of a rebuild around Myles Turner, rather than splash cash at the 31-year-old Lowry.
Should George settle down in the Circle City for a while longer, though, the Pacers would do well to add Lowry to the mix. He would be not only a clear positional upgrade over Teague, but a legitimate co-star for George, who's been crying out for just the kind of help that Toronto's All-Star can provide.
Luring Lowry would be a considerable coup for the Pacers. Their track record of inking big-time free agents is scant, at best. If they decline Lavoy Allen's $4 million team option for 2017-18 and cut some from among the non-guarantees for Young, Rakeem Christmas, Glenn Robinson III and Georges Niang, they should be able to open up enough cap space to sign Lowry to a max deal.
Whether he'd want to play for the Pacers is another story. If there's any team that knows the pain of losing to LeBron James, as the Raptors have done in back-to-back postseasons, it's Indy, which has suffered four defeats to James' squads in the last six playoffs.
"They've got LeBron James," Lowry told The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski. "Nobody's closing the gap on him. I mean, that's it right there: They've got LeBron James and nobody's closing the gap on him."
Nor would the Pacers, even with Lowry joining George.
Los Angeles Lakers
So far, there's been nothing to suggest that Lowry and George are at all connected at the hip, aside from their shared stint on Team USA en route to the gold medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But if George gets his wish for a way out of Indy's "treadmill of mediocrity" and winds up with, say, the Los Angeles Lakers instead, Lowry could do worse than tag along.
With those two in tow, the Lakers would flip almost instantly from their full-on tank-a-thon into Western Conference playoff contention. George may not be keen to join a club that's sacrificed a slice of its core to get him, a la Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks in 2011. As Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus noted, the Lakers must walk a similar line when considering who from their young core (i.e. D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac) they would be willing to sacrifice for a proven franchise player:
"There must be a line that the Lakers are willing to cross to acquire George before next season but also a limit where the expense in outgoing talent is too rich.
"Los Angeles need the ability to build a quality team around George—give up too much and it ends up in the same position as the Pacers, good but not great."
L.A. may have the flexibility to close whatever gaps open up in the wake of a PG-13 trade. If Nick Young opts out of his contract and the team cuts Tarik Black's non-guaranteed deal, the Lakers could clear close to max-level cap space for a player of Lowry's caliber.
Leaping to the Lakers wouldn't move Lowry any closer to winning a ring right away, what with the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets among those stalking the terrain. In time, though, a partnership with George in L.A. could form the foundation of another title contender for a franchise that knows a thing or two (or 16) about hardware.
New York Knicks
In a not-so-alternate universe, we might be talking about Lowry contemplating an escape from New York right about now. In December 2013, the Raptors, fresh off dealing Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, came this close to sending Lowry to the Knicks.
"That deal was done," Lowry told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt in February 2016.
Instead, Knicks owner James Dolan reportedly stepped in to stop the deal. According to the New York Daily News' Frank Isola, Dolan feared for his squad giving up another future asset (i.e. a 2018 first-round pick) after watching Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri hoodwink the Knicks in previous exchanges involving Andrea Bargnani and, when Ujiri was with the Denver Nuggets, Carmelo Anthony.
"Dolan didn't want to get fleeced again by Masai," one Knicks source told Isola. "They had a deal ready."
New York's need for a point guard is just as dire now as it was back then. Derrick Rose is a free agent and, despite putting up solid numbers (18.0 points on 47.1 percent shooting, 4.4 assists), seems unlikely to return after a campaign chock-full of losses on the court and bizarre moments off it.
The Knicks wouldn't necessarily have to deal with Ujiri to add Lowry as Rose's replacement. They can approach $26 million in cap room by cutting the non-guaranteed contracts attached to Maurice Ndour, Marshall Plumlee and Chasson Randle and non-tendering Ron Baker.
Would that be enough to convince Lowry to come to the Big Apple of his own accord? Would he—or any other big-name free agent, for that matter—consider signing with the Knicks after watching the way team president Phil Jackson and the front office threw Anthony under the bus time and again while bungling Kristaps Porzingis' early years?
And would Lowry want to play for a lesser team and a more dysfunctional organization without dodging the one-man road block that LeBron James has become in his career?
Perhaps Lowry would be more amenable to staying in the Eastern Conference if he can do so close to home in the City of Brotherly Love.
Lo and behold, the Philadelphia 76ers are once again long on cap room, short on point guards and a stone's throw from his old stomping grounds at Cardinal Dougherty and Villanova. Moreover, the Sixers are run by the same guy (Bryan Colangelo) who brought Lowry to Toronto in July 2012. That trade changed the entire trajectory of both the Raptors and the Houston Rockets, who later flipped the pick from the Lowry deal to snag James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Lowry could have a similar impact in Philly. The Sixers are in dire need of someone with his veteran leadership, experience and know-how. As promising as Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric may be, none of them can run an NBA offense quite like Lowry can—not yet, anyway.
In theory, having someone of Lowry's stature around would take pressure off Philly's prospects to carry the team so early in their careers. They, in turn, could be productive enough to ensure that Lowry won't have to do it all on his own.
But as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale pointed out, the question marks surrounding the Sixers' blue-chippers throws the thought of a homecoming into tricky territory for the budding Torontonian:
"Uncertainty is part and parcel of every rebuild, and the Sixers' future appears brighter than most others. But there are too many things to wait on. Lowry could join them, everyone could stay healthy, and they still might not be ready to make a playoff push in the Eastern Conference for another year or two."
If Lowry wants to wait out King James' reign, he could do worse than settle down in Philly. By the time LeBron is dethroned, the Sixers' youngsters might just be coming into their own, with the goods to contend for years to come.
That is, if Embiid and Simmons can ever get (and stay) healthy. Even then, Lowry may have to wait until the twilight of his career to have even an outside shot at winning a ring.
San Antonio Spurs
How badly does Lowry want to win? The San Antonio Spurs might like to know.
Where once the Spurs looked to be a dark horse on this year's free-agent market, they may now push toward the front of the pack for a point guard in light of Tony Parker's ruptured left quadriceps. According to the San Antonio Express-News, Parker's particular injury could require an eight-month recovery.
In truth, San Antonio's floor general had been on the decline long before that gut-wrenching setback. According to ESPN.com, Parker ranked 41st among point guards in real plus-minus during the 2016-17 season, when he posted his lowest outputs in points (10.1) and assists (4.5) since his rookie season.
There's no easy way to demote a six-time All-Star, former Finals MVP and franchise stalwart like Parker. His $15.45 million salary for next season would only complicate matters either way.
But if there's any silver lining to the dark cloud surrounding Parker's untimely exit, it's this: The Spurs' hole at point guard is now just as glaring as its need for another star to complement Kawhi Leonard and compete with the West's best.
Lowry would check both boxes at once in the Alamo City. And when Parker returns, perhaps the Spurs could coax him into a bench role to replace Manu Ginobili, assuming the 39-year-old calls it quits this summer.
San Antonio would have an exceedingly difficult time clearing the requisite cap room to sign Lowry to anything approaching a max deal, especially if Pau Gasol picks up his $16.2 million option for next season. But if Lowry wants to come and doesn't mind taking less than what he might earn elsewhere, the Spurs can figure out other ways to make it work—perhaps with LaMarcus Aldridge as an enticement—and offer him his best shot at a title in return.
For all that the rest of the NBA can offer Lowry, nobody can outbid the Toronto Raptors head-to-head.
That's particularly true from a financial perspective. The Raptors can offer him a five-year deal worth in excess of $200 million. The most any competitor can propose is a four-year pact at close to $153 million.
Granted, either would be a mind-blowing windfall. But Lowry has every reason to maximize his earning potential, starting with his age (31), size (6'0") and injury history. Where some players can look forward to making up some money sacrificed now on the back end, Lowry might not have that luxury.
Nor can he be sure that the grass will be any greener elsewhere. As frustrating as it is for him to run up against LeBron year in and year out, would he be any happier out West getting ground up by the Golden State Warriors' unforgiving machinery?
In Toronto, Lowry can reasonably expect to win 50-plus games and a playoff series or two each year while playing with DeMar DeRozan, a close friend and fellow All-Star. He'll always be beloved for spearheading the franchise's current golden age.
If things break right—if the Cavs mysteriously collapse, if LeBron suddenly falls apart, if any of the Raptors' youngsters pop—Lowry could be staring down a trip to the Finals one of these years, with all of Canada rallying behind him.
All of which makes Toronto's approach to negotiations with Lowry that much more critical, as ESPN's Zach Lowe explained:
"Play hardball with Lowry, and he might leave—just like Al Horford bolted Atlanta after the Hawks haggled over that dicey fifth season. Lowry's a prickly, proud dude, and he will have suitors—including his hometown Sixers. He signed what turned out to be a wildly below-market contract in 2014, and he (justifiably) wants to be paid as a franchise guy. He led the sad-sack Raptors out of the sullen Andrea Bargnani era, to places where they had never been."
The Raptors may yet reach more uncharted territory with Lowry at the helm, and they might not. Such is the challenge of chasing championships in a league as top-heavy as the NBA. The status quote may leave Lowry well shy of his ultimate goal, but short of signing with Cleveland or Golden State for the veteran's minimum, is there really a better option for him outside of Toronto?