Life after Lowry: Where do the Toronto Raptors currently stand?

The Toronto Raptors are not exactly in an ideal position at the moment after missing out on the playoffs last year for the first time since the 2012-13 season. After selecting 20-year-old Scottie Barnes out of Florida State University with the fourth overall pick in last week’s NBA Draft, the team appears to be headed for the lottery once again after their failure to sign any impact free agents thus far and the departure of franchise icon Kyle Lowry to the Miami Heat. After being the heart and soul of the team for the last nine years, the 6-time All Star departs Toronto as the franchise’s all-time leader in assists, triple doubles, steals and three-point field goals to chase another championship in South Beach. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Lowry deal will be a sign-and-trade between Toronto and Miami, but the players heading North have yet to be determined. With so many questions yet to be answered, the Raptors face a seemingly steep climb back to the top of the food chain.

Photo by Paul Kagame, distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

Some fans are understandably upset after the selection of Barnes with Jalen Suggs still on the board, for good reason. As Lowry was already expected to leave Toronto, it made sense to bring in Suggs as a perfect replacement for him. Suggs shares many similarities with Kyle, a burning desire to win being chief among them. With a seemingly can’t-miss prospect in Suggs, drafting a project in Barnes rubbed many the wrong way, especially considering the Raptors missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2012-13. The biggest knock on Barnes is his limited offensive game and unreliable jump shot but the young forward earned glowing reviews in every other aspect of the game, drawing comparisons to Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors. Raptors President Masai Ujiri has built a reputation of going against the grain when it comes to the draft and this year was no different. Moreover, it is important to note that Barnes’ shooting splits at Florida State University are eerily similar to one OG Anunoby. After bouts of inconsistency and injury woes over the past couple of seasons, Anunoby averaged 15.9 PTS, 5.5 REB, 2.2 AST and 1.5 STL last season, all career-highs. He also shot 48% from the field and nearly 40% from the three-point line, a vast improvement from his time at Indiana University. If the Raptors can transform Anunoby from a relative liability on the offensive end to one of the premier 3&D wings in the NBA, imagine what they could do for Barnes. Without question, the Raptors deserve the benefit of the doubt given their stellar record when it comes to the draft in recent years. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Chris Boucher are all graduates of the Raptors Training Academy, blossoming into impact players after being projected as nothing more than role players. Siakam, in particular, has received multiple accolades including an All-NBA selection, an All Star selection and winning Most Improved Player in 2019. Meanwhile, VanVleet has become one of the top point guards in the league after going undrafted in 2016 and even generated All Star buzz this past season. Barnes already has the tools to become an All Star forward down the road and if anyone can unlock that potential it has to be the Toronto Raptors. 

The future of Masai Ujiri is also technically up in the air, with the two sides yet to reach a formal agreement on a contract extension. The architect of the Raptors over the last eight years, Ujiri is arguably most vital to the team’s success. He singlehandedly transformed the Raptors from an afterthought to NBA Champions through shrewd decision-making and calculated risks. Trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2018 was the greatest move in franchise history and also one of the riskiest in recent memory. Giving up a four-time All Star swingman in his prime for a disgruntled superstar forward who reportedly had his sights set on Los Angeles could have easily backfired. DeRozan embraced the city and the franchise like no other, carrying the team on his back alongside Kyle Lowry after the departure of star forward Chris Bosh in 2010. Lowry and DeRozan ensured the Raptors would be an Eastern Conference powerhouse for several years, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history in 2016. After being swept in the second round yet again by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018, Ujiri decided that the team could not win a championship with Lowry, DeRozan and coach Dwane Casey leading the way, opting to trade DeRozan for Leonard shortly after firing Casey who had just won the Coach of the Year. While Casey deserves credit for transforming the Raptors into perennial playoff contenders, he was fairly rigid in his ways and refused to make many adjustments come playoff time. While he had a role to play in the growth of Siakam and VanVleet, they blossomed after the arrival of current head coach Nick Nurse. Nurse had a huge role in securing the first championship in franchise history as a rookie head coach and had no reservations about trying new schemes, unlike Casey, leading to his enormous success thus far. While last season was a blemish on his otherwise stellar record in Toronto, the Raptors were able to overcome a slow start to eventually reach the .500 mark before injuries and COVID-19 ravaged the roster. It was then that the team made the wise decision to look ahead to the draft and make the best out of a bad situation instead of trying to secure a spot in the play-in tournament.

Pascal Siakam has also been shopped in recent days, with Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer reporting that CJ McCollum of the Portland Trailblazers could be heading to Toronto. While Siakam has grown immensely as a scorer, he cannot be counted on to consistently create his own shot and with Lowry departing for Miami, the Raptors may continue to have trouble with their half-court offense. Whether the Raptors choose to address this via trade or free agency is yet to be seen but as it stands currently, Toronto may not reach the playoffs for the second year in a row. However, given Siakam’s incredible progress thus far it is not entirely far-fetched to think he could eventually become a consistent three-level scorer and lead the team to the playoffs.

The Raptors were also linked to restricted free agents Jarrett Allen and Lonzo Ball in recent days before they reportedly signed with Cleveland and Chicago respectively, dashing Toronto’s hopes of shoring up the roster. Given the team’s lack of reliable frontcourt options, the 23-year-old Allen would have been an excellent choice up front and would have fit their timeline moving forward. Toronto also expressed interest in free agent center Richaun Holmes, who re-signed with the Sacramento Kings late last night and left the Raptors without many quality options in free agency. The good news is Toronto was able to re-sign one of their own key free agents, Gary Trent Jr. to a reported 3-year $54 million deal and hope to also bring back free agent center Khem Birch on a reasonable deal in the coming days. Although Trent showed promise as a scorer after coming over from Portland in exchange for Norman Powell, his defense leaves much to be desired. However, he is still just 23 years of age and yet to reach his prime, which bodes well for the Raptors. The youngster fits in well with the current core of Vanvleet, Siakam, Barnes and Anunoby but whether he will be used as a starter or as a sparkplug off the bench is to be determined.

With just under two months left till the start of training camp, the Raptors still have time to make moves to shore up the roster and usher in the post-Lowry era. As it currently stands, Toronto has certainly taken a step back and does not look ready to compete for a playoff spot. With many of the Raptors’ Eastern Conference counterparts acquiring impact players, the time may be right for another year of player development and try to build through the draft in order to eventually reclaim its spot as a perennial contender.

An Ode to Kyle Lowry

The Greatest Raptor of All Time (GROAT), Kyle Lowry is now a member of the Miami Heat. It is hard to describe exactly what he has meant to the city of Toronto after leading the team to prominence alongside DeMar DeRozan and after several disappointing playoff exits, helping bring a championship to the city for the first time just two short years ago. His unwavering resolve, toughness and consistency over the years made him one of the best point guards in the league, after initially bouncing around during his early years before finally finding a home in Toronto. The Raptors went as far as Lowry took them most of the time, his impact extending far beyond the box score every single night. The Raptors took on the personality of their leader, becoming a team synonymous with grit, determination and mental fortitude no matter the circumstances. Never the flashiest player on the floor, Lowry instead made his presence felt by doing the little things needed to win, putting his body on the line without hesitation and played every game as if it was his last. Lowry also made his presence felt within the community, especially at Thanksgiving. According to Yahoo Sports, the Lowry Love Foundation has donated meals to 250 underprivileged families for four consecutive years and has embraced the city like few others before him. Even though Lowry is no longer a member of the Toronto Raptors, the franchise icon reiterated his desire to retire a Raptor somehow. “Let me say this: I will retire as a Toronto Raptor,” declared Lowry a few months ago according to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. Perhaps that will be in the form of a ceremonial one-day contract after his time with Miami is up in three years. Perhaps he will find his way back to Toronto before then. One thing is for sure: Toronto will never forget Kyle Lowry. We cannot.

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