Monday’s spotlight shined brightest on the Toronto Raptors’ new addition. Nearly every team held a media day, but somehow the quietest player in the league was the talk of the day. Kawhi Leonard seemed at ease on the dais in Toronto for the first time, easing any possible tension following a trade to a team that he never aspired to play for. It was an encouraging sign for the Raptors and their fans. He even laughed! (Sort of.)
But there might be bigger worries in Toronto than whether Kawhi’s, um, playfulness was forced. TSN reported Monday that Kyle Lowry has been “dodging” calls and texts from Raptors team officials, including Masai Ujiri and new head coach Nick Nurse. Lowry didn’t show any signs that he was unhappy at the podium during media day. “I’m here to do my job,” he said. He was civil and said all the right things, even if some felt a little forced. “He’s my teammate now, so I’m excited to play with him,” he said of Kawhi.
But it’s not a giant leap to assume that Lowry is still miffed that the Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs in exchange for Kawhi. To Lowry, DeRozan was a friend first and a teammate second. Kawhi is just a coworker, one who might be around for only a season.
But Lowry’s apparent displeasure could be warped into an opportunity for Toronto. Since the Raptors already took a big risk in trading for Leonard for what could be a one-season window, why not go all-in and trade Lowry for Jimmy Butler?
Butler is as available as a star player can get, dangling from the edge of the Wolves’ franchise as people bicker over whether to trade him and where. Butler’s original wish list reportedly included only the Clippers, Knicks, and Nets. But what’s to stop the Raptors from jumping into the fray again? Toronto is already a top contender in the East, and though the Celtics appear to have the most loaded team in the conference, the Raptors may have the best player. If they trade for Butler, they could very well have two of the top three.
With discord brewing in Minnesota, it could be the perfect time for Ujiri to step in. An offer that includes another All-Star player (ahem, Lowry), and a young guy who isn’t OG Anunoby, plus picks if needed, could do the trick. Which team could top a package headlined by one of the league’s best point guards—who just so happens to be the sort of salty, pitbull defender that Thibs loves—especially with Butler able to walk at the end of the season? Butler and Kawhi on the court together would be explosive. On defense, they would turn the perimeter into a hunting ground. They can both be primary ball handlers if need be and play off the ball, too; both shot at least 35 percent from 3 in their last full seasons.
For the Raptors, going all in isn’t shortsighted, it’s opportunistic. They probably won’t go to the Finals with Kawhi and Lowry as their top two, but they just might with Kawhi and Butler. (As an added bonus, Butler is set to make $12 million less than Lowry this season.) LeBron’s gone, but the East will only get better with Giannis Antetokounmpo improving and the Sixers and Celtics rising. Windows in the NBA open and close in the blink of an eye, and this could be the Raptors. If Leonard walks this summer, the Toronto may wind up trading Lowry and starting over anyway.
A similar short-term approach is currently being conducted by the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Jared Goff isn’t a great quarterback, but he’s good enough to make his rookie contract a bargain. The Rams have used the money they’re saving on a signal-caller to spend heavily on the rest of the roster—trading for defensive stars and adding offensive weapons—to take advantage of their window. The Raptors don’t have a star on a cheap contract, but they have been able to develop young contributors. Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam are rotation players still under their rookie contracts, and Anunoby started 62 games his first season. Accumulating valuable players with low price tags allows Toronto to boldly go after stars like Kawhi and Butler.
Going all in could certainly backfire on the Raptors; after all, what they have now could work. But they’re already committed to a high-risk path. Why not take it even further?