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The Trade That Wasn’t Has Kyle Lowry and the Raptors Facing Questions About the Future

While most everyone around the NBA expected Lowry to change teams last week, the Raptors don’t seem too disappointed about keeping their emotional leader around at least through the end of the season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Raptors president Masai Ujiri showed up to his post–trade deadline press conference on Thursday wearing a black T-shirt and a calm look on his face. Kyle Lowry was next door, Ujiri said, not out golfing, as one reporter had asked, but rather getting ready for Friday’s game—his 593rd as a Raptor. “I wish he was golfing,” Ujiri said. Just hours before, that Lowry even would be in the building for Friday’s contest—let alone play in it—had been far from a guarantee.

“I know you guys wanted that farewell story, huh?” Ujiri joked. “Sorry. You’re gonna have to postpone that. All those stories you have to postpone now.”

Though nearly everyone in the league expected the Raptors to deal Lowry at the deadline, Ujiri’s demeanor showed no signs of disappointment or failure. It was clear that this was the position he and the Raptors were taking: less damage control about the trade that didn’t happen, and more messaging that it was a pleasant surprise that Lowry was still around. Ujiri projected the calm confidence of a poker player who had not gone all in, but rather had left the table up.

Just over 24 hours after Ujiri spoke, Lowry showed up to a postgame press conference with a black T-shirt of his own, a “7” gold chain, and a hat that read “GOLF.” He joked with the assembled media that they were the ones who were trying to kick him out of Toronto, and that he couldn’t believe he spent 25 minutes answering questions on Wednesday about the trade that wasn’t.

“It was a crazy day,” Lowry said. “The [Raptors] felt I was valuable to be here and be part of this franchise. That’s a big thing, that they valued me here.”

Even though the Raptors had given every indication that they were ready to part with Lowry at the deadline, the unique relationship between player and team seems to allow both parties to be at peace with the end result. Lowry and Ujiri were vocal about recognizing that trades (and trade talks) are part of the nature of the business. And during a time when many other big-time NBA transactions have ended with burned bridges or unceremonious departures, it’s hard not to appreciate the amiability of their relationship.

Still, now that Toronto is keeping Lowry around at least until the end of the season, the Raptors have a lot of other decisions to make. Both Lowry and Ujiri will be free agents this offseason, and while Ujiri spent much of his press conference answering questions about the deadline, he also fielded a few about his own future. He refused to give answers, only alluding to his love of and connection to the Raptors, and he used words and phrases like “flexibility” and “keeping options open.”

Lowry will have options of his own at the end of the season, but he’s still in Toronto for the time being. And that gives the entire lead-up to the deadline an eerie tinge in retrospect. On Wednesday night, after a 135-111 win over the Nuggets, Lowry had been celebrated as if he was leaving. He exited the arena through the tunnel, giving a peace sign to the camera. Postgame, he fielded questions about whether that could have been his final outing with the team, and he even answered a FaceTime call from Drake. All signs pointed to him having one foot out the door. But on Friday, Lowry played in a Raptors uniform once again and will do so for the rest of the season.

Even Ujiri acknowledged that Wednesday’s graduation-like proceedings had been strange. “Honestly, to see all the circus yesterday, I also didn’t feel like maybe that was the right way to go,” Ujiri said on Thursday. “It seemed surreal a little bit.”

In the end, few will remember the game where Lowry all but said goodbye. Instead, what will be remembered is that the Raptors kept Lowry through the 2020-21 season. And the reasons alternate between being crystal clear, and a little bit murky.

Multiple reports around the deadline indicated that deals with the Heat and Sixers were on the brink of happening before they ultimately failed to come to fruition. One front-office source said they thought Toronto should have taken a deal from Miami if it included Duncan Robinson, which was widely reported. But at least one report indicated that Toronto wanted Tyler Herro. Ujiri reiterated Thursday that the Raptors’ valuation of Lowry was higher than anybody else’s, and said he believes Lowry can be the piece that pushes a team from a contender to a title winner—after all, Lowry did that exact thing for Toronto in the 2018-19 season. So the president admitted he was surprised that no team was willing to come up to the Raptors’ price.

For the past couple of years, Lowry has been the captain of a ship that hasn’t always sailed smoothly. He’s been Toronto’s anchor during seasons when playoff disappointment felt almost guaranteed, and their motor when he wasn’t the team’s best player but arguably its most important.

This year, Lowry’s role has continued to evolve based on what the Raptors have needed. In a season when the team has been displaced to Tampa due to Canada’s coronavirus travel restrictions and impacted by the virus as well as other injuries, Lowry has been its emotional cornerstone. “He’s always the one that shepherds us through these moments,” Ujiri said. “To be honest, he’s just been a strength and a backbone for this team.”

Ujiri repeatedly acknowledged that this season has been challenging on various levels for the Raptors. They haven’t lost their identity, but the circumstances surrounding the team have had a muting effect. Ujiri said the group’s ability to persevere despite their surroundings factored into his decision-making at the deadline, because it’s been hard to assess what type of team they really are given all the changes and hardships they’ve been through. He felt they deserved a chance to fight for something this season, and if there was not a deal they liked, why not fight with their leader on their side?

“If we were going to do something, we were honestly going to do something right by Kyle,” Ujiri said. “That’s the respect we have for him, and we have to. We’ve come a long way, we owe him that respect as a player, as a person.”

And so Ujiri and Lowry are left with the status quo. This creates a kind of team-building limbo for Toronto, but that may not be a bad thing—at least in the short term. Toronto is two games behind a slot in the play-in game and only four games behind the 8-seed. Trading Lowry could have meant a descent in the East standings; keeping him makes the Raptors a continued threat and an unappealing first-round opponent.

Things get more complicated in the long term. Ujiri touted the organization’s belief in its young core of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby, but the team is still at a crossroads. Lowry will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and reportedly will be looking for at least a two-year, $50 million deal. If he wants, he can simply sign with whoever offers him that, or Toronto could try to orchestrate a sign-and-trade that nets it at least some of the assets a deadline move would have.

For all the good vibes surrounding the relationship between Lowry and Toronto, one would think that that’s a conclusion the two parties may come to. And maybe that’s the best the Raptors can hope for at this point. That by valuing Lowry highly, and keeping the bar for a deal high, they can garner the good will to still get something for him when he departs in the summer.

Then there’s the option that would surprise people even more than Thursday’s no-trade did. What if Lowry and the Raptors find a way to stay together even after this summer? Lowry’s reported demands are high, but could a gaudy one-year deal allow both parties to extend their time together while giving Toronto another chance to trade Lowry for a worthy return next season?

At the very least, it would allow Lowry’s final game for the franchise to come in Toronto, where the fans who have cheered for him for nine seasons would be present to chant his name. But there’s an equal chance that by the start of next season, both Lowry and Ujiri will be sporting different colors instead. Even the best stories in the NBA rarely get a happy ending.