The biggest question mark surrounding the Toronto Raptors this season will have to do with Kawhi Leonard. Raptors president Masai Ujiri has a one-year window of opportunity to sell him on the franchise and the city of Toronto.
Ujiri took a major risk this past off-season by trading DeMar DeRozan to get a player who is anything but a sure bet to re-sign in Toronto after this season.
But if he does, it’ll be a home run for the franchise – giving them a player to build around for years to come.
Mo money mo problems
Given it’ll take a max deal to get Leonard re-signed, there’s 31 million reasons why the team should look to deal Kyle Lowry in the not too distant future.
The 32-year-old’s skills are in decline, and his playing time and productivity is beginning to be cut into by younger, cheaper options.
Kyle Lowry is at a crossroads in his career. He is a throwback to an era of guts and guile often seen in a lead guard. He’s a big-shot maker that willed his teams to victory. But as his athleticism declines so does his ability to guard the likes of John Wall and Kyrie Irving.
His three-year, $100 million contract has two years remaining on it. Should his play decline much more, it will become an albatross for the organization.
Prepared for life after Lowry
The Raptors are more prepared than ever to replace Lowry, platooning three players who could eat up his stats and minutes per game, in Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, and Norman Powell – at a fraction of the cost. Annually, the Raptors would be paying just over $20 million for those three players.
VanVleet, the reigning Sixth-Man of the Year, is ready and able to take on lead duties. The undrafted free agent from Wichita State flourished playing 20 minutes per game last season, averaging just over eight points and three assists.
Translate those numbers across 32 minutes, and VanVleet would most likely top out at 13 points and five assists per game. Those numbers aren’t far off Lowry’s current, declining totals of 16 points and six assists per night.
Lowry’s minutes were down last season at 32.2 per game and they could be trending further down this season. With new coach Nick Nurse running the show, Lowry’s place in the rotation could change.
Should VanVleet play in an elevated role, it would allow Wright to flourish. Wright is ready to play substantial backup minutes and can start in a pinch. Last season he proved that he can handle the opposing team’s best ball handlers with his 6-foot-4 frame and excellent anticipation skills.
Then there’s the Powell, a 25-year-old X-factor who can be the team’s sixth-man if he returns to form.
The succession plan is in place.
Window of opportunity
There’s a definite window of opportunity in the Eastern Conference now that LeBron James is gone and the Raptors should find out if trading Lowry can be both a short and long-term solution. Such a move move would free up cap space to take a run at the great free agent class of 2019, that presently includes Jimmy Butler and Anthony Davis.
Adding one of those two players, coupled with re-signing Leonard would give the Raptors a real shot at the NBA title.
Rebuilding on the fly is difficult, but the Raptors are in a perfect position to do so.