As we approach another year of the chaos that is best known as free agency, rumors are flying when it comes to the most coveted targets that will be hitting the market in just a couple weeks time. Here at BCB, we want to bring some clarity to exactly how much some of these players are worth, what skills they bring to their next team, and how they will fit next to the existing members.
Over the next couple of weeks, we will be breaking down three players to get a sense of what could transpire during free agency and how it could impact the futures of that player and the team. Make no mistake, all of the players we highlight will be hot commodities that command big money, but none of them will be the absolute top options on the market. So no Chris Pauls or Kawhi Leonards here. Quick disclaimer before we get started...projected teams and dollars are just that - projections. If you'd like to file a complaint, please do so calmly and respectfully. No harm done.
By the way, we have a full list of the available free agents for 2021, so please check out the comprehensive database featuring player/team options, non-guarantees, and specific details on each players new contracts once they are signed. Without further ado, it is time to get familiar with one of the most iconic figures in Toronto sports history: Kyle Lowry.
Whether or not you believe he's worthy of a big for the Hall of Fame, a very complicated discussion best saved for another day, you can't deny how gracefully he's aged up to his age 35 season coming up in just a few months. It is much tougher for 6 foot(?) guards who depend more on speed and agility to maintain effective as they age out of their athletic prime. It speaks to the basketball IQ players like Lowry and Chris Paul bring to the table when you take a long look at their production since age 30, which is when many start to slow down and search for other tools to generate offense such as distance shooting and passing. In Lowry's case, that also includes rebounding, which will be explained at length in the next section.
Believe it or not, it has been almost ten years since he arrived from Houston as a gritty "do it all" guard still searching for legitimate playoff success. Toronto welcomed him with open arms and powered through several post season disappointments (thanks LeBron!) to bring the city and nation its first NBA championship back in 2019. Sometimes it seems as though that championship was won far longer than two years ago due to the ever-changing nature of the NBA. Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard has moved on to the greener pastures of Los Angeles, underdog spark plug Fred Van Vleet is now being paid borderline max dollars, and savvy veterans Marc Gasol + Serge Ibaka have moved on as well. These unfortunate subtractions plus the black hole that the team dealt with for the entirety of last season resulted in a subpar year by Raptor standards. Their final record was 27-45 and many thought that he wouldn't even be finishing the season with the team.
Now the organization has reached a crossroads and as a result, Lowry has as well. With only a few more years left in his storied career, the time has come for him to seek a better opportunity to win another championship. Toronto may not be in full on rebuild mode with FVV, OG, and Siakam still on board, but they will most likely top out as a mid tier seed in the East at best. The challenge for Lowry in this free agency market will be the fact that most of the suitors who would entertain acquiring his services don't have much cap space to work with or draft picks to offer in the event of a sign and trade. It will be a balancing act on the part of him and the team he is trying to jump on with when it comes to the money involved. He is reportedly seeking upwards of $30 million annually on his next deal and that's a tough pill to swallow considering his age. It will take a fair amount of compromise from either his camp or a team to make every facet of his new deal work, but it's possible he finds himself on a title contender next season for what he believes his worth.
The next question begging to be asked...where does that dollar valuation come from?
Strengths + Weaknesses
Lowry's value to the team he signs with in free agency quite literally begins with the strength he packs into his compact 200 pound frame. Even in his prime, he did not rely on overwhelming athletic pop to conquer his defenders. He has become an expert at leveraging that advantage against lack of size he brings onto the court. When he makes up his mind that he wants to create look for himself at the basket, there often isn't much opponents can do once he puts his sturdy body into their chests at full speed.
He welcomes contact and even flourishes when presented the opportunity to make contact with those who dare to stand in his way when he's rumbling into the paint. It seems as though he ends up sprawling to the ground and taking hard falls more often than just about anyone else in the league due to his daredevil tactics, but it certainly pays off in the form of offensive production. He took 107 shots at the rim last season per Cleaning the Glass and converted 64% there, which comes out to a very impressive 80th percentile finish for guards in that area. He has not finished worse than 59% in that range since 15-16, which is a testament to his consistency and how well he has worked to keep his body capable of taking those hits into his 30s.
His "sacrificial lamb" mentality extends to the defensive end of the floor as well. For years, he has been known as one of the very best charge takers in basketball. Last season, he finished with 20 charges drawn, just two behind the league leader Blake Griffin. He is not afraid to step in and take hits from fellow PGs all the way up to the most physically imposing adversaries in the NBA. There is not much he can do to deter players at the rim, so he has found another way to punish the ones who develop tunnel vision and don't look to pass the ball off when attacking. Additionally, he was able to draw 39 total offensive fouls last season, which includes possessions when he had the ball while shooting or dribbling.
His defensive impact doesn't stop with offensive fouls, either. Throughout his career, he has been known as a gritty defender who gets up into ball-handlers and doesn't take plays off when trying to get a stop. He's never broken into all-defensive territory, but he has nonetheless been one of the better guard defenders out there. These defensive stats don't tell the whole story, but he has never finished with a negative Defensive Win Share count during his career and has only end up with a negative Defensive Box Plus Minus rating in two seasons, one of which being the recently completed 20-21 season. At this point in his career, he can't be counted on to single handedly shore up point of attack defense, but in the right situations where he's not at risk of being overwhelmed by crazy talented guards, he can still be very effective.
We can't overlook his ability to crash the boards and finish defensive possessions with a rebound, either. He has secured an average of 3.6 defensive rebounds per game for his career. This past season, he finished at 4.6 per contest. Not bad for an undersized guard. Granted, many of them are uncontested, but the fact that he is so willing to put his body on the line (again) for an area of the floor he is not even expected to contribute in at a high level has been a huge benefit to the two franchises he has suited up for during his 14 year career.
If a contender is looking for a player who isn't afraid to let it fly (no Simmons vibes allowed), then they will probably take a long look at Lowry. He has hoisted at least seven threes per game since 2015-2016 and shows no signs of slowing down there. He isn't some aimless gunner, either. He has spent many of the last several season flirting with 40% accuracy and should be expected to finish near that mark again next season. Defenses simply can't go under screens with him in fear of a long range assault. Even late contests from another player don't do much to deter his shot.
So what about the passing? Can't evaluate a lead guard without diving into the passing aspect, right? Well here's the thing...Lowry doesn't grade out as an elite passer. He has always been geared more towards putting the ball in the basket. His assist averages over the past few seasons have been solid, topping out at 8.7 assists in 18-19, before dropping slightly to 7.5 and 7.3 the past two years. Assist averages can be misleading when trying to nail down just how effective a player is at setting up teammates. On Cleaning the Glass, he has only finished in the 61st and 64th percentiles for Assist percentage in 19-20 and 20-21, respectively. His size limits his upside there, as he struggles to see over the defense like passing savants like Luka and LeBron do. He's no CP3 or Trae Young, but he should be fine next to at least one other secondary creator that can periodically take that load off of him and allow him to turn into a heat seeking missile targeting buckets.
Now where does he struggle? Obviously, his lack of size leaves him at risk of being exploited in switching scenarios. It doesn't even take a true big man to give him problems, bigger wings can have their way with him inside of ten feet away from the basket. Anything beyond guarding smaller twos is asking for trouble when formulating a defensive gameplan. His short stature also works against him when operating against aggressive coverages like hard hedges and traps. He can get swallowed up in those situations. It will help any team recruiting him to have someone at the other guard position that can handle and shoot decently well to free up space for Lowry. It also wouldn't hurt to have a plus defender that can absorb bigger scoring threats when they come around.
His aggressive nature can also get him into trouble sometimes with fouls and turnovers. He averaged 2.7 turnovers per game last season and 3.1 the season before. He only ranked in the 20th percentile for defensive fouls committed per team play. Teams will most likely live wit those warts aware of what he brings to the table regarding competitiveness and hard nosed play. Any team looking for a tough veteran with declining but yet still apparent skills will be very satisfied with what he brings to the table each night.
Lowry's expiring deal was a one year $31 million extension signed back in 2019. It was a sort of reward for his contributions during their championship playoff run. Two years ago, he was a slightly more effective basketball as he was two years younger, so his market value should be slightly lower this time around.
Two of his closest comps from recent years seem to be Kemba Walker and Mike Conley. Conley actually just completed a mammoth five year max deal worth $152 million that was originally offered by Memphis in 2016. Fun fact, it came armed with an Early Termination Option for last season that he did not exercise, one of the last contracts to have that option attached. It was immediately judged as an overpay, although he remained pretty valuable as a guard for Memphis and had some great moments in Utah over the last two years as well. Even with his struggles adapting to the equal opportunity offense of Utah, he came around late last season into this season, culminating in a mammoth two game run against his old team in the playoffs (23.5ppg, 11.5asts in games 2 and 3. He will be 34 by the time next season starts, comparable to Lowry.
Kemba signed a four year, $140.7 million deal with the Hornets as a free agent back in 2019 that includes a player option after year four. That was the same year Lowry signed his deal, but was executed as a sign and trade in order to get him to the Celtics, who were looking to make another big splash in the market. Believe it or not, he is already preparing to begin the third season of his deal, which brings him within one year of being able to opt out and hit the market unrestricted in the Summer of 2022. Kemba is a couple years younger than Lowry, but suffered a pretty big drop off due to injuries and other circumstances the past two seasons with the Celtics. This should serve as a cautionary tale for whoever decides to throw a contract offer Kyles way.
Lowry is reportedly looking for a deal similar to his last one, but that might be a it ambitious considering his age and increasing injury risk. He also hasn't aged quite as well as Chris Paul, who is still arguably worthy of a maximum contract. A two year deal in the $20 - $25 million range should be competitive with the market and might be more appropriate and what Conley looks to be seeking for his next contract. Since the teams he will probably be looking at have limited cap resources to acquire him, any little discount they can squeeze out of him will go a long way.
Possible Landing Spots
The Sixers have been rumored to be pursuing Lowry since the Trade Deadline back in March. While a deal did not go through at that point in time, it's possible that they could be working on another way to get the Villanova alumni to the City of Brother Love. Philadelphia has no way of opening up cap space to sign him outside of gutting the roster, which isn't viable considering how close they are to extension. Their primary asset will be the sign and trade method, which will hard cap the the team at the apron amount, which is $6 million or so above the luxury tax. It will be make retooling the team around Embiid more challenging, but well worth it for a savvy point guard like Lowry who will provide spacing and mentorship for some of the younger players on the roster. In return, they will either have to send back a massive package centered around budding guard Maxey, or send back Simmons who they themselves are trying to move as we speak. Either way, the Sixers have a clear pathway towards the guy they covet...as long as they can stomach the risky, rich deal they will have to absorb in return.
Miami were also rumored to be looking at bringing in Lowry around the Trade Deadline. It didn't work out, but all signs point to the organization making another pass at him this Summer. He could fit right in at the position the Heat most desperately need to upgrade with Dragic dropping off and Kendrick Nunn hitting Restricted Free Agency. Franchise pillar Jimmy Butler will most likely enjoy the company of another hard-nosed competitor who will bring the defensive intensity the Heat Culture admires and the ability to create his own shot inside and out. His passing limitations will be offset by the wizardry offered by Butler and Bam, so Kyle will be freed up to generate clean looks, as mentioned in the "strengths/weaknesses" section. Miami can open up the necessary cap space to sign him outright, but must be weary of the luxury tax, which becomes even more of a factor if they bring back Duncan Robinson.
The Mavericks are in dire need of reinforcement to surround Luka, as the superstar continues to assert his dominance and crave a rewarding playoff experience similar to his success with the Slovenian national team. Their first order of business will come down to what they want to do with with free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. Dallas could open up the space needed to get Lowry as well if they renounce their rights to THJ and Josh Richardson declines his player option, which is still TBD at this time of this writing. Even if they do however, how will he co-exist with Luka? Lowry has experience sharing the court with other ball-dominant forces such as DeRozan and Kawhi, so it shouldn't be too much of an adjustment for him. It's possible he could usher in a Phoenix type run with his toughness, smarts and shot making abilities, which is where the majority of his appeal comes from. At this point, the Mavs don't have the luxury of being picky about age or dollars. Luka will most likely re-sign for the max very soon, but with that stud under contract, it's never too early to start making win-now moves.