Kyle Lowry planning to opt out, hopeful for a Raptors future

Winning Olympic gold with Team USA was a big experience for Kyle Lowry. (AP)
Winning Olympic gold with Team USA was a big experience for Kyle Lowry. (AP)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The best year of Kyle Lowry’s basketball life began in a most contentious training camp setting a season ago, an assistant coach seething over the stash inside the All-Star guard’s socks. Welcome back to the old push-and-pull of Lowry and the Toronto Raptors, a borderline misdemeanor meeting the franchise’s fear of Lowry regressing to his turbulent younger self.

Here was Lowry – fantastic condition, crushing the practice drills – wondering: Who cares that I slid a bag of peanuts into my sock? Come on.

“There’s a problem with me eating peanuts?” Lowry said. “There shouldn’t be a problem with me eating peanuts when I’m doing every drill. And my team is winning every drill. Why is there an issue with me eating peanuts?

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“I get a call from my agent Andy [Miller], and the team told him: ‘Kyle is disrespecting the game by eating peanuts.’ How am I disrespecting anything when I’m eating my peanuts, on the side, when I have a chance?

“Somehow, one year ago we still had issues. From getting swept in the playoffs until that preseason, there was still tension, and a little bit of, ‘Oh [expletive], what’s going to happen?’ ”

Around the Raptors, they were still understandably sensitive over the way the 2014-15 season ended – a playoff sweep to the Washington Wizards – with much blame cast upon Lowry. That spring, his exit meeting with the Raptors management and coaches had an edgy tone to it – “Maybe fairly,” Lowry allows – and it left him determined to come back for the 2015-16 season sleeker, stronger and resolved to re-establish himself as an elite point guard.

“I took my punishment,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I did what I was supposed to do. I made sure they couldn’t put me on punishment – or give me an ass-whupping – again.”

Lowry shoots over LeBron James during the Eastern Conference finals. (Getty Images)
Lowry shoots over LeBron James during the Eastern Conference finals. (Getty Images)

Now, Lowry is sitting inside the second-floor restaurant of the Fairmont Pacific Rim and everything has changed for him. Again. Few players have reinvented themselves like Lowry, turned talk of career change into such decisive and dramatic action. Out of the uncertainty of a year ago, Lowry has been voted an All-Star starter for a second straight year, delivered the Raptors within two victories of the NBA Finals and earned Olympic gold with Team USA. Within a year, Lowry had gone deeper into an improbable career transformation: From journeyman malcontent to a franchise guard, from his bags packed for a trade to New York in 2013 to a burgeoning Canadian sporting icon, Lowry has never had so much opportunity, so much leverage.

Lowry plans to opt out of the final year of his contract, he told The Vertical, passing on a $12 million salary in 2017-18 to join a point-guard marketplace that will include the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul and Golden State’s Steph Curry, who has already said he plans to re-sign with the Warriors.

As an organization, the Raptors have richly rewarded those responsible for the franchise’s unprecedented success: From DeMar DeRozan’s five-year, $139 million extension in July, to the extensions and high-end raises for president Masai Ujiri and coach Dwane Casey, Toronto conducts itself as a legitimate big-market powerhouse.

Lowry, 30, loves the life he has there, the contending core, the endorsement opportunities, the manic fanbase and the chance to someday raise his No. 7 into the arena rafters. Somewhere on the summer market – Philadelphia, New York, perhaps the Clippers, should they lose Paul – there will be an offer in the neighborhood of a max deal for him. Nevertheless, Lowry’s preference is a painless, fast, five-year deal to stay in Toronto, to take him into his mid-30s with the Raptors.

“If you’re that franchise’s guy, and you’re the guy that they’ve been rolling with, and you’ve given that franchise everything you have, yeah, I think [the talks] should be easy,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I think it should be a situation where a guy shouldn’t have to talk to another team. DeMar didn’t have the chance to talk to another team. …

“For me, I think that at 12:01 a.m. on July 1 – something should be close. If not, I’m open to seeing what else is out there.”

This is no ultimatum out of Lowry, no threat: It is simply the reality of a robust market, where All-Star players reaching the conference finals are compensated accordingly now. Ujiri makes no negotiating promises in public, but understand: Toronto hasn’t lost a player that it’s been committed to keeping. History’s on Lowry’s side here.

“Kyle has been at the forefront of the Raptor movement,” Ujiri told The Vertical. “How he goes, we go. He has helped establish a culture that will grow even more. We really appreciate that. He is a winner, and we want to win.”

Nevertheless, free agency is in the distance – and now LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers stand between Toronto and the hardest step of all: the NBA Finals. Lowry spent his USA Basketball summer with Kyrie Irving, whom he had a hellacious battle with in the Eastern Conference finals. “A future MVP,” Lowry said, but the Eastern Conference has been about one player – one mountain – for the past decade: LeBron James.

“Somebody has to break through against them – and him,” Lowry told The Vertical. “To beat him, it takes a lot. It takes a whole lot. He is LeBron James. You’ve got to beat him.

“You’re always chasing Cleveland. You were chasing Miami before. You’re chasing the team that’s the conference champion and now the NBA champion. They have the guys, have LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and a trophy.”

It wasn’t so long ago that Lowry was nowhere near these pursuits – not for conference championships, nor max contracts. “There’s more for us to get, more for us to do,” he told The Vertical. So yes, Kyle Lowry keeps coming for everything, the NBA’s great self-revitalizer, pushing past the best year of his basketball life to pursue something even bigger, even better, even richer.

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