Kyle Lowry celebrated the end of the 2018-19 NBA season by hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy with his Toronto Raptors teammates, a watershed achievement defining a career spent doing all the little things that add up to big victories on the court. He’ll celebrate the start of the 2019-20 campaign with a different kind of win—a lucrative new contract extension.
Lowry, who was set to enter unrestricted free agency after this season, has agreed to terms on a one-year extension worth $31 million, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Tacking the extension onto his current deal means Lowry is now under contract through the end of the 2020-21 season, at a total cost of $64.3 million.
On one hand, that’s a lot of scratch for the age-33 and -34 seasons of a small point guard. (Lowry is listed as 6-foot-1, surely evidence of kind hearts and generous spirits among measurers.) Lowry’s on pace to enter the top 20 this season in career games played for players his size, and those are hard-driven miles; he has long played a physical, punishing style, predicated on his willingness to sacrifice his own body for a chance at ending an opponent’s offensive possession. Only nine guards standing 6-foot-1 or smaller have managed to post a value over replacement player higher than 1.0 after turning 33. That seems like an argument for not shelling out more than $30 million a season for one of them.
On the other hand, though, while extending Lowry does have a cost, it also doesn’t carry a ton of risk. From a PR perspective, the Raptors, in the wake of their first NBA championship, get to trumpet their rewarding of arguably the most consistently valuable and important player in franchise history. (This time last year, the Raptors were in a very different situation, massaging wounded feelings after jettisoning franchise icon DeMar DeRozan in the deal to import Kawhi Leonard. Things can change a lot in a year, though, especially when you win.)
The extension makes sense in terms of future planning too. Committing $31 million to Lowry for 2020-21 makes it unlikely that Toronto will make major moves in next summer’s free-agent market, though it doesn’t eliminate the possibility, since the contracts of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will still fall off the books after the season. (It also takes yet another name-brand player off said market, which could prove positively frigid compared with what we witnessed back in July. Woj reports that Lowry “had not been enthusiastic about entering the free-agent market as a 34-year-old,” especially with only a handful of teams on track to have a lot of money to spend, including several—like the Hawks, Hornets, and Cavaliers—who have gone all in on other options at the point.) But by keeping the extension to one year, Toronto ensures that Lowry’s massive cap figure will be gone in two summers’ time. This means that, even factoring in what might wind up being a maximum-salaried extension for Pascal Siakam, the Raptors could still be in position to make a splash in what promises to be a monstrous free-agent class in 2021. (One thing worth monitoring: whether this means anything for the likelihood that the Raptors will re-up Fred VanVleet, who’s in line for a promotion from understudy status after a monster postseason, and who will enter unrestricted free agency this summer.)
Locking in Lowry’s deal through 2021 also doesn’t necessarily preclude the Raptors from trading him, should circumstances conspire to convince Masai Ujiri to give up the ghost on an attempt to defend Toronto’s title. There’s no trade restriction on his new deal, he doesn’t have a no-trade clause, and any team looking to upgrade at the point would now know it’d be getting Lowry for two seasons rather than just the balance of one. He might still be a rental, but he’d be a longer-term one, at least; that provides an added measure of cost certainty, even if it’s coming at a pretty dear cost. (I’m already drawing an imaginary dotted line from Toronto to Orlando, where the Magic are run by former Raptors GM Jeff Weltman; I’m guessing I’m not the only one.)
Lowry should be a good bet to remain productive through the duration of the extension. He performed well as a tertiary option in Toronto’s offense last season, ceding shots and possessions to the newly arrived Kawhi and the ascendant Siakam while continuing to stir the drink when he did have the ball in his hands; Lowry assisted on a career-high percentage of his teammates’ baskets last season, despite logging his lowest usage rate since 2010-11, when he was still with the Houston Rockets.
Even in a down shooting season—just 41.1 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from 3-point range in 2018-19—Lowry remained Toronto’s bellwether. The Raptors outscored opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass; his positive impact held true even when he played without Leonard (plus-12.8 points-per-100 in nearly 2,000 possessions), and without Leonard and Danny Green (plus-6.6 points-per-100 in just more than 800 possessions).
That’s nothing new for Lowry and the Raptors. Over the years, no matter who else takes the floor with him, he has been one of the league’s advanced stats/plus-minus kings—a smart ball mover who hunts and exploits advantages, one of the sport’s most tenacious backcourt defenders, a guy whose teams always seem to perform much better when he’s on the floor, whether or not he’s putting up gaudy stat lines. Players who make other players better have value: a Raptors franchise that has benefited greatly over the past seven seasons from Lowry’s ability to do so has pegged it at north of $30 million per year. That sounds about right in a league where a dozen point guards now sit around or above that average annual value.
The Raptors have ensured that they’ll keep a player who can join Siakam, VanVleet, Gasol, and Ibaka in keeping them competitive as they move on from a championship run to figure out what’s next. They do so while retaining the flexibility to go big-game hunting in two years’ time. Lowry gets to stay put in the city that has adopted him, to further build his legacy with the franchise for whom he’s had the moments that have defined his career, and to stack an extra $31 million in the process. Deals don’t seem to get much more win-win than this.