TORONTO – Kyle Lowry tends to keep a low profile during the off-season.
He spends time in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and his hometown of Philadelphia. He hangs out with his kids and plays golf. Sometimes he’ll go weeks without stepping foot on a basketball court but he works hard on taking care of his body, which is why he’s generally in his best shape by the fall.
But one of his favourite things about the summer, as he often tells the media – jokingly, or maybe not-so-jokingly – is that he doesn’t have to speak to the media.
Hey, that’s fair. It’s not exactly his preferred activity anyway, and outside of the work year it’s not required of him. Do you, Kyle.
However, he made a noteworthy exception this past summer. Attending a USA basketball camp in Vegas – the same one at which he declined to comment on the trade of his good friend, DeMar DeRozan, a year earlier – Lowry told reporters that he hoped to sign a contract extension with the Raptors. Publicly and privately, he made no secret of it: he didn’t want to go into the season with an expiring deal.
His status through the first couple weeks of training camp was somewhat of a mystery. While he was with the team in Quebec City and then in Japan, he was mostly a spectator as he continued to recover from the thumb surgery he underwent in late-July.
That’s where the confusion comes in. On the eve of camp, Lowry told TSN’s Kate Beirness that he had been medically cleared for contact the week prior. A few days later, head coach Nick Nurse said the team was still waiting for him to be cleared by his surgeon in New York City.
There are reports out there that Lowry had no intention of practicing – or perhaps even playing – until he got a new contract. Was he sitting out a result of his slow-healing injury or for leverage as part of his contract negotiations? We’ll probably never know for sure. Fortunately, it no longer matters.
Last week, Lowry and the Raptors agreed on a mutually beneficial one-year, $31 million extension. It was made official on Tuesday, just before the all-star point guard finally returned to practice.
“It was an opportunity that worked out for both sides,” Lowry said. “It’s a place I wanted to be. It’s a place I’ve been most successful in my career. I think it works on both sides. It’s just something that’s really important and really special to have an opportunity to go out here and play basketball for a living and make that amount of money playing the sport that you love. It was great. It got done. We didn’t know if it was going to get done but both sides worked extremely hard to get it done, and it got done.”
It was a deal that required compromise from both sides, to be sure. Lowry’s camp wanted a longer term, preferably three years, while the Raptors insisted on keeping it shorter to maintain their cap flexibility entering the summer of 2021. In exchange, Toronto gave him a larger annual salary than he would have commanded on the open market, while also rewarding one of the most iconic players in franchise history.
An added benefit for the Raptors: appeasing Lowry removes some of the uncertainty hanging over their heads going into an already awkward season.
They’ll still have to defend their title without the player most responsible for winning it in the first place. They’ll still have to decide whether to pay Pascal Siakam, the next face of the franchise, ahead of the Oct. 21 extension deadline or wait until the summer and risk souring that relationship. They still have Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet going into the last year of their deals.
At least locking Lowry up and ensuring that he’s content and in the right frame of mind ahead of opening night alleviates some of that ambiguity.
“That was always our goal,” said general manager Bobby Webster. “You don't want to go into seasons with anything kind of hanging over the team. So we talked early in the summer and we knew this was something that was really important to him, and it was something that was really important to us. As far as timelines go, the plan was always to have it done before the year.”
“If you want my opinion on it, I think he certainly deserves it,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “It’s nice to have him locked in for two more years. We know what we’re getting. We’re getting a super ultra-competitive guy. Nobody plays harder. To me, he just keeps getting better and better.”
With Lowry back on the floor, along with Gasol – who’s been eased back in after a busy summer playing for Spain – the Raptors can finally ramp up their preparation a week before their season officially tips off, at home to the New Orleans Pelicans on Oct. 22.
It was Lowry’s first time playing organized basketball and going end-to-end since he played a crucial role in Toronto’s championship-clinching Game 6 win in Oakland on June 13. Naturally, he was a bit winded but said his surgically repaired thumb held up fine.
“It felt great,” he said. “I needed a couple of oxygen tanks and took a couple of breaks but it went well. It was fun. It was good to get back up and down.”
Even at 33 – turning 34 in March – and coming off a long post-surgery layoff, Lowry insists he’s never felt better and credits that to the way in which he’s taken care of his body as he’s gotten older. That’s one of the reasons why the Raptors were confident in giving him an additional year at over $30 million.
They’ve also found a better way to manage his workload over the last few seasons. After years of overworking Lowry early, only to see him wear down towards the end of the campaign and into the playoffs, they’ve been more conscious about keeping his minutes down and lessoning the wear and tear on his body.
That’s easier said than done, given his style of play, but it’s been crucial in making sure that Lowry is fresh and healthy enough to produce at a high level come playoff time.
His role should be a bit different this season, though. After taking a step back last year, embracing more of a complementary role behind Kawhi Leonard and the emerging Siakam, Lowry will be asked to do more offensively.
“I’ve got to be a lot more of a scorer,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting how we play. We are always going to move the ball, this, that and the other, backdoors, play through [Gasol]. Myself and [VanVleet] are going to be on the floor together a lot more, I believe. [Siakam] is going to get a lot more attention and I’m going to get a lot more attention. But it’s something that I’m used to it and I’m ready for the challenge again. Got to do what’s best for the team and get back to the promised land.”
How good can the Raptors be this year? What will their post-Kawhi future look like? There are plenty of questions left to be answered but, at least for the moment, you don’t have to worry about Lowry. He’s here, he’s healthy and happy, and he’s ready to go.