Trade Candidate: Kyle Lowry

Kyle Lowry‘s season has followed a most unusual script. The point guard of a team that seemed to be disintegrating in the immediate wake of the Rudy Gay trade, when nearly every Raptor was on the block, Lowry was on the verge of heading to the Knicks before James Dolan vetoed his acquisition. The Nets and Warriors were among an “ever-growing” list of trade suitors for the soon-to-be free agent just as Toronto neared a deal with New York, but GM Masai Ujiri set a high price for Lowry even as he aggressively tried to move him. That ransom began to prove wise beginning with a stretch of three straight late December games in which Lowry scored 20 points or more. Those performances were at the start of a run of seven wins in eight games for the Raptors, who took control of the Atlantic Division.

The Raptors are 23-21 after Monday night’s win at second-place Brooklyn, and they’re tied with the Hawks for the third playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Lowry has averaged 18.6 points, 8.3 assists and just 2.0 turnovers per contest since December 20th, the night of the first of those three consecutive 20-point performances. Lowry, who’s never made more than 37.6% of his attempts from beyond the arc in a single season, is draining 44.8% of his three-pointers during this hot streak. Virtually all of his numbers are up over the past month or so, giving the eighth-year veteran a realistic chance to make his first All-Star Game.

It adds up to a dilemma for Ujiri. Lowry is 27, so his sudden leap may be a function of having entered his prime. He may also be in line for a regression. Ujiri has to gauge how much of Lowry’s improved play will persist, and what it means for his value on the trade market as well as in free agency.

Most around the league feel as though the Raptors are more likely to keep Lowry than trade him, but that could have more to do with the unwillingness of other teams to meet Ujiri’s price than Toronto’s eagerness to deal him away, as Marc Stein of reported this week. Lowry’s impending free agency complicates matters, particularly since it’s difficult to gauge what he’ll be worth on the open market this summer. Eric Koreen of the National Post recently suggested bidding could start at $8MM a year, quite a sum for a guy whose $6.21MM salary for this season didn’t seem like a bargain before his torrid play of late.

Concern about his locker room presence apparently helped dissuade the Warriors from going after him too hard last month. I think that’s more a reflection of a tight-knit W’s team not wanting to mess with its chemistry than an indictment of Lowry’s character, but it nonetheless suggests an up-and-coming club with plenty of young players might hesitate to bring him on.

That could be the case for the rebuilding Magic, one of the teams that’s drawn mention as a Lowry suitor in the past several weeks. Orlando’s interest would seemingly center on a feeling that Lowry is a better long-term option at the point than Victor Oladipo, a natural shooting guard, and the Magic would bank on the notion that they could re-sign Lowry this summer. The Magic have plenty of youth and draft picks they could offer Ujiri, but little that would help the team hold on to a high playoff seed this season.

The Pelicans, whom Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio identified as a Lowry suitor in the same report, are a curious inclusion in the race, particularly since the report came out before Jrue Holiday went down with a stress fracture in his leg. Holiday’s salaries are in the $10MM range for the rest of his contract, which runs through 2016/17, so maybe New Orleans sees Lowry as a someone who could provide similar production and, at worst, re-sign for about the same money. Ujiri might want Holiday, who’s four years younger and can’t bolt Toronto this summer, but there’s no indication that New Orleans has been considering a one-for-one swap of point guards.

Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote about the Heat’s desire to add Lowry, but Miami doesn’t have the assets Toronto would want in return, as Lowe notes. Any move that strengthens Miami would lessen the chance that the Raptors could pull an upset if they were to meet in the playoffs, and if Ujiri is optimistic about this season, that might be in the back of his mind.

Ujiri came to a team at a crossroads when he joined the Raptors this summer, and his assignment has only become more complicated since. What the team does with Lowry, and, just as importantly, what the Raptors sense Lowry wants to do regarding them in the summer, figures to have a lasting effect on the franchise. Ujiri has plenty of options with Lowry, and if he wants to add another Executive of the Year trophy to his mantle, making the right choice in the next three weeks will go a long way toward that end.

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