For the longest time, the most exciting aspect of being a Toronto Raptors fan was the mere thrill of even being involved in the first place.
Since their debut in 1995, there was only ever superficial buzz surrounding the squad. The Vince Carter era was undoubtedly an excellent one that made them somewhat trendy, but little more than that. For every step they took, it was only a matter of time before their best players shipped off for greener pastures.
Damon Stoudamire stuck around for three years. Tracy McGrady, three as well. Chris Bosh toiled in Toronto for seven years, desperate for the Raptors to lend him a hand and receiving only Rafael Araújo and Andrea Bargnani in return.
Nobody wanted to be in Toronto, and fewer still wanted to stay there. But hey, it could be worse.
Across the country, laid the haunting fragments of what ‘worse’ looked like. ‘Worse’ was launching your franchise with Bryant Reeves as its cornerstone. ‘Worse’ was drafting Steve Francis, despite his vociferous pleas not to do so. ‘Worse’ was three of the lowest winning percentages in NBA history.
‘Worse’ was the Vancouver Grizzlies, a distant memory better remembered for bright jerseys than bright prospects.
Compared to that, Raptors fans had it pretty damn good. Vince put the franchise on the map with an electrifying dunk contest in 2000 and led them to the Eastern Conference Semifinals the following year, taking Allen Iverson’s Sixers to the wire.
The Raptors weren’t often very good, but they were fun all the same. Ed Davis, he was a hoot, right?
In 2012, the loveable band of misfits looked to reverse their fortunes by enlisting the services of the greatest Canadian baller in history. The Toronto Raptors were going to sign Steve fucking Nash.
Back-to-back MVP seasons, eight all-star selections and a valiant showing for the national team at the 2000 Olympics: this was kid Canada through and through. It was the most obvious pairing since the Grizzlies overlooked him in the 1996 draft all those years ago.
Yes, that’s a specious argument, there was no way Vancouver were reaching for Nash with the third pick… Shareef Abdur-Rahim was the right guy at the right time. It still stings when you rub some hindsight into the wound.
But now, we knew what Nash was capable of, and Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo went in with all guns blazing. An impassioned presentation that included the endorsement of Wayne Gretzky himself was surely dazzling to the humble kid from Victoria: a chance to imprint his name as the man who brought an NBA Championship to Canada.
Wow, Steve Nash said, that’s wonderful! He then went to the Los Angeles Lakers instead.
Now the Raptors were scrambling. Some help you were, Gretzky, our coveted prize ended up landing on the opposite side of the continent. Instead of bringing Nash home, they had just absorbed a massive contract for Landry Fields meant to deter the Knicks from swooping in with a sign-and-trade.
Landry Fields is, by all accounts, an excellent human being whose career was curtailed by nagging nerve injuries. But even he thought he misheard them when they cited their $18.8 million dollar offer.
Colangelo’s time in Toronto is largely defined by his misfires, and yes, the Fields poison pill was one of them. To his endless credit, his subsequent rebound will go down as one of the greatest in franchise history.
Over in Houston, discontent was brewing in the backcourt. Kyle Lowry, the talented point guard whose dictionary definition throughout his career was the word ‘disgruntled’, had publicly expressed his frustrations with Rockets head coach Kevin McHale in May that year.
Sick of being overlooked in favour of less talented alternatives, Lowry was ready to push the reset button yet again, eying a third franchise after only six seasons in the league.
The Rockets ended up dealing both incumbent point guard Goran Dragić and Lowry in pursuit of Landry Fields’ old New York running mate, Jeremy Lin. Don’t worry if that doesn’t seem particularly poetic yet — we’ll circle back to it later on.
The cost was Gary Forbes and a future first round pick, and after a few days of insider reports, the deal was finalised on 11 July 2012. Kyle Lowry was officially a Toronto Raptor.
It was pretty much universally agreed that this was an excellent consolation prize for Toronto. A player whose ability exceeded his production; whose untapped potential could be utilised for a few seasons before he chased his next contract elsewhere.
That’s not judgemental or fatalistic, of course, as Lowry himself has confessed that that was his intention from the start.
“When I was traded to Toronto, I figured I’d do my thing and show my talents, but in two years I would become a free agent and I’d be gone,” he reflected in a 2016 article for The Players’ Tribune. “I didn’t try hard enough in the beginning to click with [then head coach] Dwane Casey. And Dwane was more comfortable with José Calderón and the style he played.”
It sounded like more of the same disappointment for Lowry, just in a new landscape. The Spanish stalwart Calderón wasn’t a game-changer by any means, but he was a good hand: safe, familiar, and able to run Casey’s offence. Lowry was capable of shifting momentum when he wanted to, and was given the opportunity to do so — neither of which was assured in those early days in Toronto.
By 2013, Masai Ujiri was in the driver’s seat as the Raptors’ GM, inheriting the equivalent of a busted up jalopy that had travelled over 200,000 kilometres without actually ending up anywhere of significance. His first course of action was to blow the whole thing up and rebuild with what little remained.
He started by somehow goading the Knicks into taking the bait on Bargnani, netting a package of players and draft picks in the process. Later that year, he would jettison Rudy Gay — Colangelo’s last-ditch effort to salvage his career in Toronto — in exchange for a few spare parts, the best among them being Patrick Patterson.
You’ll notice the tone in both of those linked articles echoing the same sentiment: people were baffled as to how Ujiri was able to leverage overpaid players who weren’t part of the team’s longterm plans into tangible pieces for the future.
There was almost one last deal made in the yard sale, however, and it is one that likely would not be viewed so favourably in hindsight. That same December, Ujiri was on the threshold of sending Lowry to New York for a return that consisted of some combination of Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and/or a 2018 first-round pick.
But Knicks’ owner James Dolan was still wiping the pasta clean from his ego. This Ujiri swindler was the same one who sold him that dodgy Bargnani character just a few months ago! His machiavellian ways would surely spell disaster for Dolan, so he vetoed the trade in the twilight hour. Great work, James, a gold star for you!
That near-miss aside, Ujiri’s moves paid dividends in quick order. The roster began clicking, with the combination of Colangelo holdovers DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valančiūnas and Terrence Ross moulding fabulously with the newfound additions.
No longer shackled by having to scheme around a lone force in Gay, the keys to the kingdom were handed to Lowry and DeRozan. The pair of uproarious goofballs were as compelling a force off the court as they were on it, and that season, they ended a six year drought as they guided Toronto back to the playoffs.
They were dispatched of by the veteran Brooklyn Nets in a thrilling seven game series, the final victory snatched away by a Paul Pierce block that sent Lowry crumpled to the floor. The ascent had come to a temporary halt, but at last, the Raptors were trending in the right direction.
That season’s Finals MVP, a versatile forward for the Spurs by the name of Kawhi Leonard; someone whose very presence in the game was enough to draw visible frustration from LeBron James.
Again, keep tabs on these names, as they’ll both pop up rather significantly in our story soon enough.
For the first time in franchise history, the Raptors had stability. They were a yearly lock to make the postseason in a weakened Eastern Conference, though still prone to stumbles such as an unfathomable sweep in the first round of the 2015 playoffs at the hands of the fifth seeded Washington Wizards.
Lowry and DeMar would rack up accolades ranging from All-Star selections and Olympic gold medals while reaching new heights in wins and playoff success; their ongoing bromance remaining a consistent highlight all the while. The culture had been shifted at long last, to the point where it felt like there was a real shot at landing marquee free agents like LaMarcus Aldridge when they became available.
“…I just think about that sometimes: How all of those people were telling us to blow this up, all of those years ago — but we stuck together,” Lowry wrote in a second piece for The Players’ Tribune in 2017, fresh off his latest contract renewal. This one was titled Home.
“We took a look around at the group that we had, and we said, you know, as a team, as a franchise, as a city — we can make this into a contender, into a place where hoops really matters, if we just see it through. And that’s when the Raptors decided to believe in me.
“And we’ve been seeing it through, and believing in each other, ever since.”
It was a beautiful thing to witness, and inarguably the greatest stint in Raptors history. Whatever route they took, however, their destination remained the same. LeBron’s Cavaliers were the end boss Toronto could not overcome, no matter how much they tinkered with the formula. Three straight playoff drubbings at the hands of Cleveland took the wind out of Toronto’s sails, each defeat seemingly more devastating than the last.
After the third such loss and second straight sweep, Ujiri had seen enough. That core that we figured to be untouchable was suddenly transformed into assets as he worked furiously to fit the missing piece into his puzzle. Two franchises were at very different crossroads, and one transcendent player was at his lowest point.
That’s right, I’m talking about the Kawhi Leonard trade.
To delve into its minutiae too extensively would betray this article ostensibly being a Lowry retrospective by morphing into a broader piece about the Raptors franchise. The nitty gritty is that Leonard was coming off an injury-shortened season in 2018, one where the Spurs’ organisation felt he was ready to return whereas his camp did not.
It was an ugly end to a decorated career in San Antonio, one that was on track to rival the Duncans, the Parkers and the Ginóbilis who had passed him the torch a few years prior.
There was no time to be sentimental. The stone-faced Leonard had made his intentions quite clear, and Toronto was of little interest to him. Despite this, if he could return to his previous form, his abilities would intersect perfectly with the Raptors’ ‘win now’ position.
The eventual cost for Leonard (and throw-in Danny Green, who would pay handsome dividends for such an afterthought) was Jakob Pöltl, a protected 2019 first-round draft pick and the terminated legacy of DeMar DeRozan.
As usual, Lowry did not mince words following the trade, describing his relationship with Ujiri to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols by saying, “he does his job, I do my job, right? That’s what you do.
“That’s where we stand.”
It was an unnerving callback to the Lowry of yesteryear, a man to whom perceived injustices proved a death knell to his relationship with a team.
From his perspective, he had just seen his closest friend — a man whom he had worked beside to build something special, and one of the only ones who had never turned his back on Toronto — dealt away like a trading card.
“I was distraught,” Lowry told GQ’s Tyler R. Tynes in a really excellent 2022 deep dive that is worth reading. “Because he was really distraught. That’s my brother. I ain’t talk for like five minutes—just sitting there with him on the phone. You don’t know what to say; he never thought he would be traded. For both of us, it was like, ‘Goddamn!’
“Shit happens. But, for him to have poured so much into a country, a city and a franchise, where guys didn’t wanna go and didn’t want to stay, and he’s pouring his heart and soul into that? It hurt.”
Leonard perhaps didn’t want to be there. Lowry perhaps didn’t want him there, either. They remained professional, however, and success would prove the ultimate healing factor, as the Raptors bullied their way through the playoffs. For once, they were the big dog in the yard, and their bite was harder than ever. That didn’t mean it came easy.
Much like the circumstances that brought Leonard to Toronto, the Raptors were frequently balanced on the precipice, emerging from an 0-2 hole against the Bucks to escape the Eastern Conference Finals and relying on one of the top three shots in NBA history to fell the Sixers before that.
Their final foe, the Golden State Warriors: the team that had staved off even LeBron in three out of the previous four championship bouts. In prior seasons, this would have been where the Cinderella dream ended: top to bottom, the Warriors were likely the better team, and they were riding high on a dynastic lineup that had remained largely intact.
Fate dictated otherwise. Some are led to wonder what would have happened had Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson been available for the whole series, but they don’t hand out trophies for theoretical greatness (unless it’s the Presidents’ Trophy for the 2011-12 Vancouver Canucks).
Much would be said of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard’s ridiculous postseason campaign, with good reason. Lowry rode into battle just as capably in those playoffs, averaging 15 points, 6.6 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals over 37.5 minutes of gameplay.
If you dare proclaim that Toronto only won because of Kawhi, my immediate question to you is why he doesn’t claim the championship every season. No, it’s fair to say that Kawhi won that year because of Toronto: a lineup that featured all of the handiwork Ujiri had pored into it, from Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet to Norman Powell and Marc Gasol… and including a special guest appearance by the first Asian American to win an NBA Championship, our old pal Jeremy Lin.
Life, you see, is cyclical sometimes.
“After you put so much time and passion into this game, there’s a lot of emotion that gets attached to the idea of being a champion,” Lowry penned in his final entry for The Players’ Tribune as a member of the Raptors. “Having that validation. And the closer you get to realising that goal without getting there — without actually reaching that pinnacle — the more it hurts.
“…I guess the best way to put it is that if you told someone 10 years ago that I’d one day be an NBA champion as a member of the Toronto Raptors, they probably wouldn’t have known which part was more ridiculous.”
Leonard would inevitably ride off into the sunset, leaving Lowry to lead the Raptors as he always did for two more seasons — one pretty amazing year, and one not so great one — to close out a distinguished tenure in the red and white (and sometimes black and sometimes purple and sometimes gold for some reason).
In 601 games across nine seasons with Toronto, Lowry averaged 17.5 points, 7.1 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals. He is second to DeRozan in points, games and minutes played, first in three-pointers, assists, steals and triple-doubles (some of those by a wide margin) and considered by many to be the greatest Raptor of all time.
It’s a far cry from the mercantile rental most expected him to be all those years ago, and went a long way in distancing the tortured Toronto faithful from the dark days of Raptors fandom.
Taking in Kyle Lowry’s Raptors career in its entirety somehow feels all too short, despite his longevity. In him, we had a gritty leader with ice in his veins and a cheeky smile on his face. His ability to draw charges from opposing ball handlers became just as notorious as his shooting stroke, and by bringing the coveted title to Canada, he is forever an adopted son of the nation.
There he shall remain, rubbing elbows with Joe Carter, Pinball Clemons, et al., the unlikely hero whose very arrival only became reality when plan A fell through.
No Nash, but instead an icon who dragged this silly jurassic franchise into the upper tier? Please and thank you — Kyle Lowry Over Everything.