The reign ends for the Raptors, who now look to the future
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida — Kyle Lowry was understandably torn.
Lowry and the Toronto Raptors spent nearly three months in Florida for the NBA restart. That’s a lot of time away from his children, and Lowry made no secret during his time in the league’s Walt Disney World bubble that it was brutally hard to be separated from them for that long.
He was heading home Saturday. On the one hand, that’s great news. On the other, that’s a disaster.
The Raptors are the reigning NBA champions no more. Their run ended Friday night with a Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, ending the longest season in team history and ushering in an offseason where Toronto has plenty of personnel decisions to make.
“I get to go see my babies, man,” Lowry, the Raptors’ point guard and face of the franchise, said while fighting off emotion that his Philly-kid toughness usually allows him to hide. “I’ve been going damn near three months without seeing my kids. I don’t want to be going home. I really don’t. And I know my kids don’t want me to be home because they wanted their daddy to win another championship.”
They’ll have to wait until at least 2021 for that.
Preseason expectations are the most inexact of sciences, and the Raptors were never bothered — just amused — by prognostications that suggested losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green not long after Toronto won the 2019 NBA title would have led to a freefall.
Quite the contrary. The Raptors went 53-19 in the regular season and 60-23 overall, the best single-season winning percentages in franchise history. Lowry and Pascal Siakam were All-Stars. Nick Nurse was the Coach of the Year.
“We’re going to remember how well we played considering there were some really low expectations for us,” Nurse said. “We never got hung up on that. I don’t think we got hung up on winning the title last year. We took it as this season and tried to max out what we could do. For the most part, we did.”
There are big questions for Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and the Raptors’ brain trust to deal with now. Guard Fred VanVleet is going to get a serious payday this offseason, and Lowry — who predicts that VanVleet will take over for him one day — wants the Raptors to be the ones writing those checks. Marc Gasol is 35, Serge Ibaka is about to turn 31, and they both will be free agents.
“I already miss this team,” Nurse said.
Five points as the Raptors head into the offseason:
No matter who wins what in the rest of these playoffs, the Raptors — counting regular-season and playoff contests — will go into next season having won more games than anyone else in the NBA over the last two (134), three (197) and four (252) years combined. Yes, Leonard made them much better last season. But the level of consistency proves the Raptors are no one-year wonder, either.
VanVleet came into the league four years ago making just over a half-million dollars (averaging 2.9 points per game), watched that salary climb to $9 million this season (averaging 17.6 points per game) and it’s going to keep climbing in 2020-21. Whenever free agency starts — it could be mid-to-late November, nobody knows for sure yet — he’s going to be a top priority for the Raptors. “He’s going to be rewarded,” Lowry said. “To me, that means the world that he can take care of his family and take care of his family at a high level.”
The Raptors will be walking a bit of a tightrope this offseason, almost certainly unwilling to do anything that would hurt their spending ability for the next expected NBA free agent circus of big names in 2021. A possible scenario would be to keep Gasol and Ibaka on one-year deals — that won’t work for VanVleet, who at his age will want, and deserves, a multi-year contract — and run it back in 2020-21 with basically the same core.
Nurse was the runaway choice for coach of the year in the NBA’s media balloting. The Raptors were the only team in the Eastern Conference with a winning record in games where they weren’t leading at halftime this regular season, going 16-15 in those matchups. Only the Los Angeles Lakers, at 13-11, were better.
Before he left his final postgame media session of the season, Lowry was asked to reflect on his bubble memories. “It was challenging,” Lowry said. “It was well put-together. The NBA and the teams and the players did a hell of a job sacrificing. We used our platform for our voices to be heard on social injustices and getting guys to go out there to vote. Justice for Breonna Taylor. Justice for everybody, every Black American out there that are being harmed by police and police brutality. So, I think the bubble was a success.”