Lewenberg: Raptors cannot afford to lose Lowry

Josh Lewenberg
7/2/2014 3:42:47 PM
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TORONTO - As the country celebrated Canada Day two years ago the Raptors sent a small army to Manhattan, led by then general manager Bryan Colangelo, in an effort to recruit the most coveted free agent point guard on the market.

The Raptors' contingent - which included Dwane Casey, Jay Triano and Larry Tanenbaum - pulled out all the stops trying to sell Canada's own Steve Nash on a move to Toronto. After a two-hour meeting, highlighted by a video presentation featuring hockey icon Wayne Gretzky, the Raptors left Nash with a generous offer. Days later he turned them down, opting for less money and a better shot at a championship in Los Angeles.

Colangelo went forward with his Plan B, a trade for Rockets' point guard Kyle Lowry.

Now the Raptors find themselves in a similar predicament, only this time the approach couldn't have been more dissimilar. They didn't send a front office mob, there was no video cameo made by The Great One. This time they left the kitchen sink in Toronto.

Instead, Raptors' GM Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwane Casey had a quiet sit down with Lowry in his hometown of Philadelphia Tuesday afternoon. True to form Ujiri and his coach exuded confidence. Calm, cool and collected, the Raptors brass did not find it necessary to camp out on Lowry's front porch at 12:01 AM, the time in which teams were able to officially commence negotiation with free agents.

Their sales pitch centred on a simple premise, one that the team had already been preaching publicly for months - they want him back.

What they didn't say, and would be reluctant to admit, is that they need him back.

Rightly or wrongly, the perception that players don't want to come to or stay in Canada has dogged the Raptors since their inception.

After all, Nash wasn't the first player to spurn the Raptors. There's a long history of it in fact. Damon Stoudamire was the first star to want out, followed by Vince Carter - the franchise's best player - seven years later. Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh each bolted via free agency, while both Kenny Anderson and Alonzo Morning refused to even put on the jersey.

The new regime intends to snuff that stigma once and for all. Along with MLSE boss Tim Leiweke and global ambassador extraordinaire Drake, Ujiri has helped empower a fan base that had lost hope prior to their arrival a year ago.

"Why can't I change it," Ujiri said, challenging that perception as he was introduced as the Raptors' new GM last June. "It's our job to make it better, it's our job to make it good, it's our job to create a winning environment and that's why I'm here."

With the embattled franchise finally on the precipice of turning the page and changing a culture that has beset them for the better part of the last 20 years, the stakes are much higher now than they were in 2012 when they struck out on Nash.

For all the progress the Raptors made in 2014, turning heads as a result of their breakout campaign, spirited playoff run and We The North campaign, the wind could be taken out of their sails in a hurry should Lowry fly the coop, especially if he leaves for Houston or Miami.

This is their first big test, one they don't intend to - and can't afford to - fail.

Lowry is Toronto's No. 1 priority, they've made no secret of that. "We're going to go full force," Ujiri promised last week. And they have. The Raptors' initial offer to Lowry was substantial, said to be in the $11-$12 million range annually over a four or potentially five-year term. A salary in that range would make Lowry the seventh highest paid point guard in 2014-15, not including Kyrie Irving whose max extension won't take into effect until the following season.

Of course, there's more to Ujiri's pursuit of Lowry than just pride. The Raptors' GM would happily show Lowry, or any other player the door if he felt they're not worth their price tag. Like any other investment, Lowry is a calculated risk but the Raptors are betting the 2013-14 version will be more of the norm than an anomaly going forward. It's because he's a player worthy of the money that Ujiri has done - and will continue to do - everything in his power to keep Lowry in a Raptors uniform.

Still, the decision belongs to Lowry. The 28-year-old will take a few days to weigh his options with his family and agent Andy Miller as Raptors' fans hold their collects breath.

With Toronto's 20th year anniversary season around the corner, keeping Lowry would go a long way in the continued saga to rewrite the franchise's troubled history.  

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