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The Raptors Shouldn’t Trade Kyle Lowry Just Because They Can

The losses keep coming in Toronto—er, Tampa Bay. But keeping a franchise icon could mean more than adding a couple of future assets.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s playing out like one of those “be careful what you wish for” stories: the ones where a mostly-well-intentioned person really wants something, badly enough to accept some sort of supernatural aid—making a wish on a monkey’s paw, striking a deal with a mysterious stranger who smells strongly of brimstone—without fully considering what horrors might await on the back end.

I just wanted everyone to talk about how great Kyle Lowry is, says our protagonist, the Raptors fan, face drenched in ice-cold panic. But not like THIS!

It’s mid-March, and the Raptors are drowning. They’re 17-23 after losing eight of nine, posting the NBA’s fourth-worst net rating in that span, with their lone win coming against the even-more-haunted-and-desiccated Rockets. When one chance of grabbing an all-too-rare victory is snatched from your clutches by Tony friggin’ Snell, and another falls short—despite a career-high 43 points from swingman Norman Powell—to the last-place Pistons, you are, as the kids say, Down Bad.

They’re down for a reason. COVID-19 has ravaged the Raptors, with positive coronavirus tests sending a half-dozen staffers, including head coach Nick Nurse, into isolation. Associated contract tracing put five players—including starters Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby—on the shelf for nearly three weeks, prompting a pair of postponements when the Raptors couldn’t muster the minimum eight required players. The Raptors’ remnant has done its level best to stay afloat; Powell and Chris Boucher are combining for 52 points per game, for cripes’ sakes. But it hasn’t been enough to stem either a slide to 11th place in the East, or the trade chatter that becomes inevitable when such a downturn runs into the ramp-up to the March 25 trade deadline.

And so: Lowry. In a trade-chatter discussion on his podcast on Thursday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said he thought the six-time All-Star “could” be on the move before the deadline. Woj added, though, that he thinks the Raptors will give Lowry “a lot of voice—if he wants to be moved, and where he would like to play.”

You can understand why the Raptors would think about dealing Lowry. The 34-year-old point guard is in the final season of his contract; moving him in exchange for players who, and draft compensation that, might help Toronto after this season seems like smart business. The Raptors also have an All-Star-caliber replacement for him on hand in VanVleet, which would ease the transition of playmaking power from Lowry, the tip of Toronto’s spear for the past nine years.

On top of that, the trade market appears to be exceedingly frosty. Since I set the table last month, top prospective target Bradley Beal became an All-Star starter, and the Wizards started to look more like a professional basketball team he’d want to stay with. (They promptly ceased this with an extended post-All-Star losing skid, but Beal reportedly remains off-limits.) Fall-back option Zach LaVine made his first All-Star team, and the Bulls just shuffled their starting lineup in pursuit of a jolt to stay in play-in contention in the East. Most of the players who might be on offer don’t really seem to qualify as true-blue difference-makers in the title chase. Lowry would.

He’s still an excellent facilitator and efficient three-level scorer with enough juice to average 17.8 points, 7.5 assists, and 5.6 rebounds per game on 44/39/88 shooting splits; the only other players hitting those marks on that level of efficiency are Nikola Jokic, James Harden, LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, and Luka Doncic. He also remains a solid point-of-attack defender and off-ball pest—3.5 combined steals and deflections per game, another league lead in charges drawn. Add in nearly 100 games of playoff experience and a championship ring on his résumé, and the fact that he doesn’t need to lead a team in usage rate to make an impact, and you understand why would-be contenders would want Lowry—and, by extension, why team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster would entertain the notion of dealing him for a rich return.

This has led to no small amount of scuttlebutt—including from here—about Lowry being on the move, which in turn led to refutations of those rumors, including Lowry himself denying them and insisting he’ll one day retire as a Raptor. (For what it’s worth, Amar’e Stoudemire technically retired as a Knick and Joakim Noah will technically retire as a Bull … but only after multiple stints with other teams.) The most recent rounds of reporting—from Michael Grange at Sportsnet, from Sam Amick at The Athletic, from Chris Mannix at Sports Illustrated—suggest that no suitor is looking to pony up the kind of package it would take to be able to absorb Lowry’s $30.5 million cap figure, and that it’s most likely the 15-year veteran will stay put at the deadline.

Which would be just fine. Better than fine, in fact: good.

This might get me excommunicated from the ranks of basketbloggers who spend an inordinate amount of time dreaming up fake trades and breaking down real ones, but here is a modest proposal: Teams shouldn’t trade good and helpful players, even older ones, just because they’re about to hit free agency. I understand that getting something for a player on an expiring contract is preferable to seeing that player walk for nothing a few months later. Sometimes, though, keeping the player around for those final few months isn’t “nothing.”

If Lowry actively wants a trade, then yes, sure, Ujiri and Webster should do what they can to oblige him and develop a mutually beneficial exit strategy. But if he does indeed want to remain a Raptor until he decides to hang ‘em up for good, would what’ll likely be a hodge-podge return—something like rookie Tyrese Maxey plus the expiring contracts of Danny Green, Mike Scott, and Vincent Poirier—really be enough to make that worthwhile?

Maybe it is, if you really like Maxey, or if Ujiri’s somehow able to snare Matisse Thybulle in the bargain, too. But I think we’ve reached a point in our transactional discourse where we tend to privilege the buyer’s side of a deal—why Team A should want Player X, how he’d fit, how he’d help—to the detriment of considering the seller’s, and whether “we got a young guy and some cap flexibility” in and of itself always best serves the team with the player under consideration. Especially when there’s an argument that just keeping said player may well be the thing that keeps the team most competitive in the near term.

And especially when that player just so happens to be the most beloved one in your franchise’s history—one to whom millions of fans have developed lasting emotional attachments, who has come to define the identity that permeates every aspect of the organization, and who walked every step of that tortuous path of perennial playoff disaster alongside the fan base before finally reaching the mountaintop. Maybe the Mavericks could’ve gotten an extra draft pick or good young player if they’d traded Dirk Nowitzki in, say, 2015, after he made what would be his final All-Star Game (not counting the ceremonial selection in his farewell season). It would’ve been wrong, though: a franchise failing to recognize its saints. Basketball is a business, we’re constantly reminded, and business is bloodless. But it doesn’t have to be; it can be something else, too. Sometimes, it should.

Maybe it won’t here. Maybe Lowry takes stock of the state of affairs and decides he wants a better shot at a ring while he’s still close to his best self, and we’re watching him sprint the court in a new uniform by the end of next week. And maybe that’ll be exciting, invigorating—something new to talk and write about in an environment always searching for more. But in a league where rosters now never seem to stop churning, and where connections like the one Lowry has built with fans in Toronto seem to become rarer by the year, the idea of a trade deadline quieted because teams decide not to ship out their cultural cornerstones in pursuit of marginal future upgrades … well, it might not be the worst thing in the world. Maybe we’ll even wind up talking a bit more about how good and special Lowry is as he continues to work to elevate the Raptors; maybe Torontonians will get their wish, no monkey’s paw required.