It’s been a rough season for the Toronto Raptors. Though they failed to defend their 2019 title last year, they made a valiant attempt, pushing the Celtics to seven games in the Conference Semifinals before bowing out. It made sense to assume Toronto would again be one of the East’s best teams this season, but things have not worked out that way. The team having to play in Tampa rather than Toronto has led to a general sense of things being off as has the number of games missed by players due to either nagging injuries or health and safety concerns. The Raptors have too many talented players to be truly bad, but so far this year, they’ve been about as thoroughly average as possible; they’re 14th in offense, 16th in defense, 12th in net rating, and 16th in SRS. It all adds up.
With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, opposing teams are hoping to find the Raptors willing to part with some of their players. Kyle Lowry has unsurprisingly been the name mentioned most often in the bevy of anonymously sourced articles coming out in the last few weeks. Despite not being named to his seventh consecutive All-Star Game, his absence in Atlanta says more about the depth of talent in the NBA, and the Raptors’ lackluster first half of the season, than it does about his performance. He remains one of the best point guards in the league, and even if he fails to stuff the stat sheet nightly in the same way as many of his contemporaries, there are few guards who are more impactful than Lowry.
If traded, he could be the rare midseason acquisition to tip the proverbial scales for a team. Despite turning 35 later this month, Lowry has shown few signs of decline. Throughout his late 20’s and early 30’s, at an age many six-feet-nothing guards find themselves less able to produce the same way they had before, Lowry has consistently defied these traditional trajectories. He can’t keep this up forever, but at least for another year or two, he looks to remain a player who can elevate both a team’s floor and its ceiling simultaneously. In addition to his on-court abilities, Lowry is also on an expiring deal, which makes him the rare trade chip worth acquiring for both athletic and financial reasons. And with Lowry being several years older than most of his Toronto teammates, there’s reason to wonder if him and the franchise have the same goals and hopes for the immediate future.
Judging purely by on-court impact, Lowry would certainly be more meaningful to a team like the Sixers, Clippers, or Heat than he would to the Raptors. For these teams, he could be the missing piece, the final player that fills a need and lifts them over other teams in their quest for a championship. In Toronto though, barring a late season turnaround, Lowry will be playing not for a chance to win a second title, but a playoff spot.
It’s worth mentioning that Lowry and the Raptors only won a championship because of a merciless trade. When Lowry and DeMar DeRozan became teammates in 2012, Toronto had only won one division title in team history. Together, they went on to win four in five seasons before DeRozan was traded to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. The two All-Stars were best friends and while the deal certainly paid off for the Raptors, there was a part of me, and I’m sure a part of many Raptors fans, that wished DeRozan could have somehow been a part of it all, as if the championship were slightly incomplete without him. While it would be fun to see Lowry play meaningful basketball this summer, trying to draw charges late in the postseason and win his second title in three years, there would be something similarly forlorn about seeing him do so for a team other than Toronto.
It’s easy to say trades are just business. It’s not an inaccurate statement, but one that misses what makes so many fans so committed to their favorite teams and players. A bond, however one-sided it may be, is forged by watching them night after night, seeing them play so many times that even their slightest mannerisms become easily identifiable. Even the most marginal player can become a folk hero just by virtue of sticking around long enough; for the rest of his life, Nick Collision will never have to buy his own meal in Oklahoma City. This bond may be more pronounced on a team with, relatively speaking, as short of a history as the Raptors. Lowry is not a lifer, but by playing nine seasons for the team, he’s been a member of the franchise for a third of its existence in addition to being a vital member of the only incarnation of the team to find prolonged success. He may not be the best player to ever wear a Raptors uniform, but he’s become the player most identified with the franchise and the one most beloved by fans.
What does a team owe its players, and what do players owe their team? There are the answers so obvious that they barely feel mentioning -- the fulfillment of a contract, a safe environment, and playing hard -- but in situations such as this, where a team and a player have become so identified with one another, is there a different set of rules? Do the Raptors owe it to Lowry to give him a chance to compete for a title once again or is trading him a greater betrayal than it is an act of kindness?
Of course, considerations of charity will not come into play as Masai Ujiri fields calls from teams inquiring into Lowry’s availability in the coming weeks. If there is an unspoken ethic, a sense of obligation that organizations and players may feel towards each other, it’s both subliminal and sublimated to other concerns. Whether or not Lowry is traded will depend not on sentiment, but on whether or not the Raptors and another team agree that doing so is beneficial to the future of both teams. The NBA may be much more than a business, and the bonds that are formed between fans, teams, and players are often deep in spite of their inexplicability, but the men in charge cannot afford to see it as anything else.