Points of Contention: The Raptors Off-Season Priorities

By: Dan Grant

In my first ever article for the Same Page, I discussed the Toronto Raptors all-time point guard situation. What I found was spotty at best. The Raptors had just added Kyle Lowry from the Houston Rockets via trade, which led me to examine the franchise’s history with floor generals. There were some flashes in the pan, some brief excellence, one fan favourite and several painful failed experiments. At the time, I revelled in Lowry’s potential; he had a combination of bulldog-like tenacity and skill. I wondered if he could be the premier guard that this team so sorely needed.

It’s two years later and he’s done just that. After an injury plagued first campaign, Lowry lived up to and surpassed any expectations last year, reeling off the greatest point guard season in Raptors history. The only thing that comes close is Damon Stoudamire 1996-97 campaign, and that team won just 30 games. Lowry became the heart of the upstart Raptors, relentlessly driving to the basket, taking charges and fearlessly burying big shots whenever it looked like an opponent was beginning to gain momentum. He was the teams motor, its leader, its vitality. Add in a healthy dose of third guard Greivis Vasquez, with his excellent playmaking skills, streaky shooting ability and Sam Cassell-sized cajones and for the first time ever, Toronto looked like it had solved one of the toughest NBA riddles, combining two castoffs with chips on their shoulder to bake a delicious point guard casserole. Yes, I will continue mixing my metaphors, thank you very much.

Well don’t look now, but that delectable sweetness may be short lived. The NBA draft is Thursday night and both Lowry and Vasquez can become free agents one week later. It’s a tumultuous situation for Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri. Since he doesn’t know (officially) if either guard will return, will that affect his decision making come Thursday? If they need to, can the Raptors find a viable point guard with the 20th pick in the draft? Does he make a trade, or a series of trades? How does this affect other potential free agent targets? It’s more up in the air than Clooney circa 2009!

It’s clear that bringing back Lowry is his number one priority but the number at which he does so matters. The team would love to retain Vasquez as well but this is a guy who led in the NBA in total assists in 2012-13. He can play both guard spots with an attitude and fire that any team in the league would covet. He’s going to get paid. So what do the Raptors do? Can they bring back both? Is it even feasible? Just how the hell are things going to shake out? WE WANT ANSWERS!!!

Let’s try and sort this sloppy mess out together.

SCENARIO ONE: BOTH PLAYERS LEAVE

OK, let’s do the bad news first. Kyle Lowry is courted by (insert team) here, decides he wants to team up with (insert superstars) and bolts from Toronto. Lowry does seem like a player who wants to win and he’s no spring chicken; at 28, he’s in his absolute prime and this is probably going to be both his best contract and his best chance at making some noise in the playoffs as a primary contributor. The Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets would all love to add a player like Lowry, regardless of financial feasibility. In the NBA, nothing is impossible. So let’s say he bolts.

Then, feeling slighted that the Raptors didn’t prioritize his signing, Vasquez, who is a restricted free agent, signs a nasty offer sheet with whatever one of those four teams didn’t land Lowry. He’d be a great addition to the bench of any of those teams and to the starting lineup of a couple of them.

"WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN THEY'RE BOTH GONE, DRIZZY!?"

“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN THEY’RE BOTH GONE, DRIZZY!?”

HOW THIS AFFECTS TORONTO’S DRAFT

This would be an abject disaster. These players simply aren’t replaceable on the open market – they’re the two best point guards available by a long shot (sorry Shaun Livingston but you can’t shoot and Isaiah Thomas, you are miniature), as you have to figure Phoenix is willing to do anything to retain Eric Bledsoe. Once you get past those names, you’re into the Ramon Sessions and Kirk Hinrichs of the world; serviceable players but not franchise point guards. The only positive would be sizeable cap space, but any free agents that Toronto might want to take a run at would likely want to see at least Lowry in place before signing. Luol Deng (my personal dream choice), Trevor Ariza et al are not going to sign here for the hell of it.

What’s the best scenario for this potentially rudderless Raptors team? 35 wins? Is it even that high? If this happens, I think you’ll see DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson dealt and the team rebuilding around Jonas Valanciunas. And Daniel Reynolds at the top of a tall tower somewhere [Ed. Note: For real].

It would also probably mean that Toronto would draft a young point guard. UConn’s Shabazz Napier, Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis (Maple alert) and Missouri’s Jordan Clarkson are all projected to be in the mix when the Raptors pick. If Louisiana-Lafayette’s freak athlete and destructive defender Elfrid Payton somehow slips to 20, expect to see Toronto take him regardless of what happens. Ujiri has said he’ll take the best player available and not necessarily draft by position; however if both these guys are bolting, he may not have a choice. His selection Thursday might give us some insight as to how negotiations with Lowry and Vasquez are progressing.

WHY THIS WON’T HAPPEN

As I mentioned Vasquez is restricted. For the uninitiated, that means Toronto can match any offer another team makes and if it does so, it retains Vasquez.  It would take a crazy offer sheet (eight figures per season) for Toronto not to match should Lowry leave town. That brings us to:

SCENARIO TWO: LOWRY LEAVES, VASQUEZ STAYS

This wouldn’t be the worst thing that’s ever happened but it would be pretty crappy. I love Greivis but he’s perfectly suited to being a third guard, not a starter. He’s too slow to guard most other NBA guards, be they 1’s or 2’s and his streakiness is just that, which means it’s subject to cold stretches. He led the NBA in total assists on a New Orleans team that had no other options and won a total of 27 games. If the Raptors are forced to bring Vasquez back for an average salary of 8 million per season or higher, it means this off-season hasn’t gone at all the way they envisioned.

HOW THIS AFFECTS TORONTO’S DRAFT

If this happens, I think it affects the team in much the same vein as scenario 1. You’ll see the Raptors draft a young point guard and let him compete for minutes with Vasquez.

WHY THIS WON’T HAPPEN

Everything Lowry said during and after the season leads me to believe that he wants to be in Toronto. He’s a  no-nonsense competitor and fiercely loyal. He likes being the man in Toronto; he’s also from Philadelphia, so he’s used to cold weather and his hometown isn’t actually all that far away.

Wait, you’re saying people from cold climates like to move to warmer climates too and that just because they were raised in the cold doesn’t mean they don’t hate it? Well shut up! We’re trying to build something here!

Can Masai lock Lowry up?

Hold him tight Masai!

SCENARIO 3LOWRY STAYS, VASQUEZ LEAVES

The big question with Lowry: how much money does he want? He played out his mind last season but it’s really the first time he’s done it for a whole year. His entire career has been riddled with injuries, with questions about his attitude, his commitment to staying in shape and his prickly demeanour. Is this a classic case of a player getting it together for his contract year and then showing up looking like Oliver Miller’s little brother? It’s a real concern. Former Raptors coach Butch Carter said repeatedly on the FAN590 during the season that he wouldn’t sign Lowry to any long term contract unless there was a stipulation in it about his playing weight. However, as an unrestricted free agent and highly coveted player, this isn’t a situation where Lowry would have to submit to such a condition. So it comes down to this: the Raptors need to decide whether they can trust Kyle Lowry. If you decide you can, you need to be all over him, every day.

If you’re Lowry’s agent, you’re saying:

1. He’s the top free agent at his position.

2. You’re screwed without him.

3. He wants to be here, many players don’t.

4. He did everything you asked last year, even when you were trying to trade him. Now pay the man.

If you’re Ujiri you’re saying:

1. Yes, but he’s only done this once.

2. We took a leap of faith and kept him, rather than shuttling him off to Charlotte or the Knicks.

3. We want him here too but we need to be able to add players around him. He is not Magic Johnson, and even Magic had Worthy and Kareem.

4. We stopped trying to trade him as soon as we started winning. Kyle is a winner and we want to reward that, within reason.

Seems like they might come to a resolution no? I sure as hell hope so. A contract of 3 years/30 million with an option year at 12 million would seem fair. It’s probably more than you want to pay him but you have to pay the ‘unrestricted tax’. Any more than that and bringing back Vasquez is going to be difficult, particularly if you want to add a big wing player and a rim protector, which Ujiri has said are priorities. Coupled with the fact that Patrick Patterson is also a restricted free agent and the number that Lowry agrees to becomes the lodestone for Toronto’s entire off-season. I can definitely envision a scenario in which Lowry’s agent forces a contract for 11 or 12 million per season and Toronto is forced to let Vasquez walk.

HOW THIS AFFECTS TORONTO’S DRAFT

This might result in them drafting a point guard but since they’re just looking for a backup at that point, you might see them sign a veteran free agent along the lines of Kirk Hinrich, Darren Collison or Mo Williams to replace Greivis in the 2nd unit. If that happens, look for Toronto to play the odds and just take the most talented player on the board, either someone who has slipped (James Young maybe?) or a player that they really covet. If Lowry is around, it frees up a lot of possibilities.

WHY THIS WON’T HAPPEN

Lowry wants to win. He’s not a dummy. He knows how important Vasquez is to the team; you could see their shared passion throughout the playoffs. Toronto was at its most dangerous when it played small ball, with Lowry, Vasquez and DeRozan on the floor all together. The Raptors also have an ace in the hole. Ujiri was the man who originally found Vasquez playing in Venezuela, when he was an international scout. He got Vasquez set up in an American prep school and helped guide him through his college career. They’ve known each other for ten years and love one another. Worse comes to worse, maybe Ujiri can convince Vasquez to take a one year deal and be granted unrestricted free agency next summer.

Byyyahhhh!!!

Byyyahhhh!!!

Which brings us to:

SCENARIO 4THEY BOTH STAY

Because this team is about due for a happy ending isn’t it? Everything would have to break right; Lowry would have to sign for the right number and Vasquez really want to come back. Everything I saw from this team in a post-Rudy Gay world leads me to believe this is possible. Right Kevin?

HOW THIS AFFECTS TORONTO’S DRAFT

It frees them up to actually take the best player available, point guard or not. Even if they were leaning towards a point guard in any of the previous scenarios, the lack of one or both of Lowry and Vasquez means they’d more towards an NBA ready guy, as opposed to the player with the highest ceiling (not that these are always mutually exclusive). This would remove any such restrictions. It would also let them open their eyes to taking a useful player such as Adreian Payne or Doug McDermott (if he slips) that could effectively play the stretch 4 position. There doesn’t appear to be a late round rim protector in the draft, now that Willie Cauley-Stein is returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season.

WHY THIS WON’T HAPPEN

I think it will. Up top!

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