Kyle Lowry is averaging 16 points and 7.5 assists per contest (Getty Images)
The Toronto Raptors are enjoying a rare two-day respite from active games before embarking on a 13-day swim of a schedule that features contests against lesser opponents like Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Boston, the Lakers, Charlotte, the 76ers, and technically the below-.500 Minnesota Timberwolves. There is a very real chance that the Raptors, who have won 11 of their last 16 to improve their record to 17-17, could come out of that run winning seven of eight games, with a home matchup with the 20-16 Dallas Mavericks serving as the squad’s toughest pairing.
This is an interesting turn for a team that just about committed to tanking the season last summer under new general manager Masai Ujuri, a franchise that further committed to try to shed salary and accrue lottery balls when it traded leading scorer Rudy Gay for a litany of reserves, a group that save for one player in Chuck Hayes most assuredly won’t be around next season.
Once fearful that the team would make the playoffs because of the arcane and pointless NBA rule that affords a guaranteed playoff berth to a division winner, the Raptors now seem to be certain to secure a spot outright by virtue of their record. If the team truly does play somewhere in the middle of the current 11-5 run, as it has since the Rudy Gay deal, and the 17-7 overall record, then the squad will have no problem working out a win total in the high 40s. That number might even net the Raptors the third overall seed in the East, should Al Horford’s continued absence mar the Atlanta Hawks’ season.
Pretty interesting stuff for a team that was designed to lose. The squad’s front office, though, seems somewhat chuffed and confident about the turnaround. From Cathal Kelly at the Toronto Star:
However, if the team stumbles through this three-week period, then a lot of hard decisions have to be made about personnel. That failure would put the franchise back on a trade footing.
“But that won’t happen,” the Raptors source said confidently. “We’re winning this.”
All this was posited after Kelly ruminated on the future of lead guard Kyle Lowry, who has been involved in trade rumors for the entirety of his 102-game Toronto career:
Though history suggests that Lowry will be looking elsewhere to find a big free-agent deal once the season ends, that’s not the feeling amongst the Raptors management. They remain convinced that Lowry is willing to sign long-term in Toronto. Lowry isn’t saying one way or the other.
Regardless, the team is comfortable taking their chance of losing Lowry for nothing, if it means the possibility of a substantial post-season run.
This is where the uneasiness sets in.
The Raptors are not only a good team, but a feel-good team. The franchise has managed to scrape out of the hole that former general manager Bryan Colangelo dug for them, dealing BC favorites like Andrea Bargnani and Gay for both draft picks and eventual cap relief. In return for two starters, the Raptors received no starters, and no talent that is likely to be retained, should Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez leave the team this summer as the Raptors chase down cap room.
Ujiri didn’t bring in the players that have sparked Toronto’s turnaround – Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas and the reborn Terrence Ross were all Colangelo acquisitions – but he did mold a plan for the future that seemed cogent in the wake of Colangelo’s missteps. The team could have in upwards of $14 million in cap space this offseason if all the free agents flee and Johnson’s $7 million team option (great value) is kept around, along with that likely lottery pick in a stacked draft.
The Raptors probably aren’t getting that lottery pick, though. And now there’s talk about retaining Lowry, who at almost 28 is in his basketball prime. At fair market value, he’ll cut into that cap space, which is why he was on the trade block to begin with. Teams have been hesitant, however, to hand an asset to Toronto (who could survive somewhat with Vasquez leading the show at point guard) in exchange for a player in Lowry who could flee in the seller’s market of a free agent season this summer.
This is why, despite all the wins and potential playoff run, things aren’t exactly perfect in Toronto. The team’s core is to be respected, make no mistake, but we also don’t see a star here. And once the free agent class thins out this summer, with most players expected to stay with their incumbent teams, will there be a franchise-level player out there to sign? And will the Raptors have enough money, if Lowry is around, to offer a star?
The 2014 lottery pick was supposed to fill that role. No dice, say the Raptors. They’re “winning this.”
Wins are exhilarating. Long range planning isn’t always is fun, though it’s often far more important than a tidy mid-January run. Lots of interesting things going on up north, these days.
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