Landing the No. 4 pick in the 2021 NBA draft should make it easier for the Toronto Raptors to part ways with Kyle Lowry in free agency.
It’s never easy for a team to say goodbye to a franchise icon. Emotions tend to cloud objectivity, which often leads to years of treading water.
The Toronto Raptors shouldn’t fall into that trap with Kyle Lowry this summer, particularly after landing the No. 4 pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
Lowry cemented his place as the greatest Raptors player in franchise history over the past few seasons. But as he heads into unrestricted free agency, Toronto should let him sign elsewhere and retool around its remaining core.
It’s time for the Toronto Raptors to build for a future without Kyle Lowry
That starts with the No. 4 pick.
The Raptors are in prime position to land an impactful prospect after jumping up three spots during the draft lottery. Regardless of whom they take among USC center Evan Mobley, G League wing Jalen Green or Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs, they’ll be filling a hole.
Among the three, Suggs would be the closest one-to-one replacement for Lowry. But if the Raptors wind up with Mobley or Green instead, they’ll still have the surrounding pieces to justify a pivot away from Lowry.
The Raptors currently have only four players on guaranteed contracts next season: Pascal Siakam ($33.0 million), Fred VanVleet ($19.7 million), OG Anunoby ($16.1 million) and Malachi Flynn ($2.0 million). That quartet accounts for roughly $70.8 million of cap space.
Beyond that, they have a ton of financial flexibility.
Rodney Hood ($10.9 million), Aron Baynes ($7.4 million), Chris Boucher ($7.0 million), DeAndre’ Bembry ($2.0 million), Paul Watson ($1.7 million), Yuta Watanabe ($1.8 million) and Freddie Gillespie ($1.5 million) all have nonguaranteed salaries at the moment. The Raptors figure to guarantee Boucher’s salary, and there’s little harm in keeping Bembry around at that price, but the other players could be cap casualties if Toronto decides to operate as an under-the-cap team.
Add in the cap hold for the No. 4 pick (roughly $7.3 million), Boucher and Bembry to the four guaranteed contracts, and the Raptors would have $87.1 million in salary commitments for the 2021-22 season. From there, the focus turns to Gary Trent Jr.
Toronto acquired Trent and Hood ahead of the trade deadline in exchange for Norman Powell. In his 17 games with the Raptors, Trent averaged 16.2 points on 39.5 percent shooting, 3.6 rebounds and 2.6 triples per game, although he played alongside a skeleton crew in many of those outings.
Powell will be an unrestricted free agent if (when) he turns down his $11.6 million player option for the 2021-22 season, whereas Trent is heading into restricted free agency. And while Powell’s cap hold will be around $16.3 million, Trent’s will be only $4.7 million.
Since Trent figures to receive an eight-figure annual salary on his new contract, that cheap cap hold is a major asset for Toronto. The Raptors can keep him on their books at $4.7 million, spend the rest of their cap space and then exceed the salary cap to re-sign Trent using his Bird rights.
With Trent’s cap hold factored in — along with four incomplete roster charges of roughly $1.7 million each — the Raptors sit at nearly $98.5 million in total salary for the 2021-22 season. If the cap comes in at $112.4 million as expected, they’d have almost $14 million in cap room if Lowry leaves.
That wouldn’t be enough for the Raptors to sign a marquee free agent, but they’d have more of an opportunity to round out their roster.
If the Raptors re-sign Lowry, they’ll likely have to operate as an over-the-cap team. They’d thus be limited to the $9.5 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception as their primary means of signing free agents. If they allow him to walk, they’ll have the roughly $14 million in cap space along with a $4.9 million room mid-level exception.
Having an extra $10 million to play with may not sound like a lot, especially if it costs a player of Lowry’s caliber. But it could be the difference between rounding out the roster with a free-agent center and a guard/wing or having to choose between the two.
The Raptors could opt to split the difference and pursue a sign-and-trade with Lowry instead. That would limit them to only the non-taxpayer MLE, but they’d also add talent with whatever they got in return for the six-time All-Star. If they’re worried about having to overpay for external free agents, this may be the best thread-the-needle strategy.
Either way, a Raptors team building around a pair of 27-year-olds (VanVleet and Siakam), a soon-to-be 24-year-old (Anunoby) and a teenager (the No. 4 pick) no longer fits the timeline of the 35-year-old Lowry. Toronto should work its way back into playoff contention next season, but Lowry’s title window may permanently close if he remains in the North.
As painful as it might be, a mutual parting this offseason makes the most sense for both Lowry and the Raptors. Toronto needs to turn the page toward its next era, and Lowry could help a team with legitimate championship aspirations, a la Chris Paul with the Phoenix Suns this year.
After nine fruitful years together, the Raptors and Lowry should bid their farewells in August and move on from one another.