TORONTO – Kyle Lowry only thought he would be in Toronto for a year or two, tops.
It was supposed to be a brief pit stop in the middle of what could have been a largely forgettable NBA career.
The Raptors traded for him as a Plan B after coming up empty in their pursuit of Steve Nash during the summer of 2012. That first season was a mess. Lowry showed up to camp out of shape. He got hurt and lost his starting job to Jose Calderon. He knew he only had one year left on his contract and didn’t even bother to get his teammates’ phone numbers.
He was nearly traded the following season, and then again several times in the years to come. He almost left in free agency a couple times too. But something kept them together long enough for the unthinkable to happen.
Lowry came to Toronto as a brash and defiant journeyman, who had a reputation for clashing with coaches and grumbling over his role. Almost a decade later, he leaves as a respected leader, NBA champion, potential future hall-of-famer, Canadian sports icon, and the greatest Raptor ever.
After nine seasons, Lowry’s historic tenure has finally reached a natural endpoint. He’ll become a member of the Miami Heat, via a sign-and-trade deal that can be made official as early as Friday afternoon.
It was hardly unexpected. South Beach always seemed like a fit and the most likely destination for the 35-year-old point guard, who was one of the biggest names on the market when free agency opened Monday evening.
He and his young family can settle down in Florida, where they’ve been living comfortably for most of the past year. He’ll join forces with his close friend Jimmy Butler and have an opportunity to chase another title with a team that’s one year removed from making it all the way to The Finals. He’ll also get to do it while making roughly $90 million over the next three years – a remarkable, but well deserved contract, for a player his age.
It makes complete sense, yet this had to be a day of mixed emotions, for Lowry and the team that he’s become synonymous with, as well as for its fans.
Most people came to terms with Lowry’s likely departure at the trade deadline in March, the last time he was nearly moved. Would it have been nice to see him finish his career in a Raptors uniform? Of course, and both player and team would’ve been all for it in different circumstances. Still, most can understand and accept that they simply came to a crossroads together.
Lowry is still a productive player, but at 35 his competitive window is shrinking. Meanwhile, the Raptors have gone younger and are looking further ahead to the future. For the first time in ages, their short-term goals no longer align.
But for all the club records he set and all the firsts he achieved, it’s only fitting that he add one more on his way out: Lowry is the Raptors’ first ever amicable breakup.
In the 25-plus year history of the franchise, they’ve never had a star leave on good terms with both the organization and the fan base. Rightly or wrongly, Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh were booed for years after engineering their exits. DeMar DeRozan felt betrayed by the team following his trade to San Antonio. Even Kawhi Leonard, who delivered a championship in his lone season with Toronto, rubbed the front office and some fans the wrong way with the perception that he used them as leverage in free agency.
This time there are no hurt feelings, zero animosity or bitterness from either side. The legacy that Lowry leaves behind is forever.
When Masai Ujiri challenged him to figure out what he wanted from basketball all those years ago, he sparked something in the ornery guard. It was always there. It just needed a push. And so he channelled all of his best and worst qualities into becoming the greatest version of himself, and as he did, the team began to take on his identity.
Seven straight playoff appearances. Nine post-season series wins. An NBA championship. There are a lot of people responsible for the most successful era in Raptors franchise history, but none more than Lowry. He was their engine. He was their heart and soul.
He was also, occasionally, a pain in the neck. Admittedly, he rarely saw eye-to-eye with Dwane Casey. He would often go weeks at a time without speaking to various members of the media for writing something he disagreed with. He gave Ujiri the cold shoulder for half a season after his best friend, DeRozan, was traded. He wasn’t always the easiest to deal with but that’s part of his charm, and perhaps the best way to explain his transformation into one of the league’s unlikeliest stars. He was too stubborn to settle for anything less.
“My one comment that I always make, that I think is the highest compliment I give him, is he plays harder than anybody I've ever seen,” Nick Nurse said ahead of the trade deadline. “On the court coaching, or coaching against, or watching games or anything, he plays harder than anybody I've ever seen, I can't give him a higher compliment than that.”
There are still some people that don’t get or fully appreciate Lowry’s game, which is something that used to infuriate him. With age and all of his success, he’s come to accept it. He’s embraced it, in fact. It works for him. He’s still defiant, but his gripes are less frequent and he holds fewer grudges these days. He’s comfortable with where he’s at in this stage of his life, but he’s also never lost that edge. It’s what defines him.
“I grew from an immature kid trying to find his way,” Lowry said back in March. “From ‘Why is everybody this, that and the other,’ to ‘Man, how do I help this young guy, how do I help this guy get paid, how do I help give my knowledge?’… I was literally trying to figure out who I was, I always knew my niche was to play hard, but for me, now it’s like how do I help everyone else?
He’s usually the smallest player on the court. He’s never been the quickest or the most athletic, but he’s almost always the smartest. He’ll outthink you, outwork you, and more often than not, he’ll outplay you. That’s what makes him special, and it’s why he’s aged so well: sheer will and determination.
“It’s got me a long way, by playing hard,” Lowry had said. “I pride myself on being one of the hardest basketball players out there, no matter what happens I know I gave my all and I won’t regret anything I’ve done because I played my butt off, I played hard, I laid my body on the line, I did everything I could possibly do. So, for me, that’s just something that I live by.”
The lasting images of Lowry’s time as a Raptor aren’t your typical highlight plays. They’re not dunks. They might not even be shots, although he hit some big ones over the years. They’re hustle plays – charges, deflections, diving on the floor, boxing out or ripping a rebound away from a bigger opponent.
“I remember times when in a three-minute flurry he'd make like six plays,” Nurse said a few months back. “He'd steal the ball, he'd take a charge, he'd keep a ball alive at the offensive end, he'd knock three people over and make a layup, just like in a whirlwind of action and one play after another.”
“But I think the defining moment without question for me, and probably for him too, is that start to [the title-clinching] Game 6 of the NBA Finals. I kinda remember looking at him in the locker room before we were heading out and man, he just looked ready like he couldn't wait for the ball to go up. I think he had 11 points in the first few minutes of the game… So that I'll never forget, that moment in the locker room and that tear in the biggest game of our organization's history.”
Like Lowry, the Raptors will move on. They don’t have time to get nostalgic. They’ve got plenty of work to do over the coming weeks as they build this new-look roster around their young core, the players that will ultimately determine whether the franchise’s next era is as successful as the last.
The direction is becoming clearer. As of Monday night, they had six players on guaranteed contracts for next season: Fred VanVleet – the natural successor for Lowry, positionally and spiritually – Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Malachi Flynn, recently drafted fourth-overall pick Scottie Barnes, and the newly re-signed Gary Trent Jr. The average age of those six players is less than 24. None of them are older than 27. This is a new day, a symbolic turning of the page.
But Lowry’s story isn’t over, even though his tenure is. His No. 7 will be the first jersey the Raptors retire and it’ll hang from the rafters at Scotiabank Arena next to the championship banner he helped deliver. He’ll have a statue outside of the building, hopefully of him taking a charge, diving for a loose ball, or arguing with an official.
Lowry’s time in Toronto could have been short-lived. Instead, it changed a franchise, city and country forever.