With Lowry, Ujiri reaching free agency, Raptors' 'We The North' era might be over
Duo that led storybook run to NBA title could seek greener pastures in off-season
It took an extended trip south to possibly kill the Toronto Raptors' storybook 'We The North' era.
The 2021 Raptors missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013 — the year before the team launched its now-iconic slogan and president Masai Ujiri proclaimed "F— Brooklyn."
The seven years in between contain all the elements of classic storytelling.
The plucky underdog finally finds success, but can't get past a King in Cleveland. Eventually, the team parts with its beloved homegrown star in an all-in bid for glory. But there's a conflict: no one appears happy with the move. Yet it works, and the team triumphs, despite the odds, to a championship.
Afterwards, the new star makes like the old and leaves, and the team slowly falls from its perch. A pandemic forces a move to Florida, and the team finally meets a battle it can't scrap its way through.
Now, the team's two protagonists — Ujiri and star guard Kyle Lowry — are free agents. Should they leave, it would close the book on an era of Raptors basketball. If they stay, another chapter may yet be written.
The Raptors, who played the entire 2020-21 season located in Tampa, Fla., finished with a 27-45 record, good for 12th in the Eastern Conference.
The reasons for failure are multiple, as some combination of the relocation and ensuing 2-8 start, a COVID-19 outbreak just as things seemed to be looking up and general under-performance culminated in disaster.
To rebound from a season like that, a team needs a leader like Ujiri. It's for that reason the executive may be more impactful than any available player in the off-season, according to ESPN NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski.
Ujiri's work atop the Raptors is basically unimpeachable. He once dealt Greivis Vasquez, a point guard who'd go on to play 26 more NBA games, for picks that became Norman Powell and OG Anunoby. He drafted Pascal Siakam 27th overall, where hits to that degree are rare. The evolution of Fred VanVleet from undrafted free agent to NBA Finals hero is well-documented.
It's rare to find an executive who can build a young talent base like Ujiri, but also knows when the right time to strike is, as he showed with the deal of DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard.
In 2013, New York Knicks owner James Dolan reportedly vetoed a trade with the Raptors out of fear of Ujiri — a swap that would've made Lowry a Knick.
Ujiri has previously been linked to openings in New York and Washington, but those have since been filled. Barring a major surprise, it's unlikely a top basketball job opens up that is more appealing than Toronto, where negotiations were set to begin as soon as the season ended, owner Larry Tanenbaum told The Toronto Sun.
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However, Ujiri could be eyeing more than basketball. His Giants of Africa program was influential in the NBA's recently launched Basketball Africa League. He once travelled with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in an attempt to win Canada a seat on the United Nations Security Council. He has a relationship with former U.S. president Barack Obama.
Considering Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment's financial might, a blank cheque should be placed in front of Ujiri—leaving him with the decision.
Either way, it'll be crucial for the organization to have a chief decision-maker set in stone before Lowry reaches free agency.
Options with Lowry
Lowry was nearly traded at the deadline, but Ujiri deemed no offer worthy of the point guard. The 36-year-old only played nine of 27 games down the stretch with Toronto unable to make a last-ditch push for the playoffs.
Head coach Nick Nurse recently said that he still considers Lowry part of the team's core moving forward, alongside Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby.
The free-agent class is thin and short of superstars, unless Leonard opts out of his deal, after the likes of Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo re-signed with their current teams.
That means there's no obvious route for Toronto to improve in free agency. Bringing back Lowry, who has institutional knowledge and appears mostly unaffected by age, might be the best, and simplest, choice.
The guard will have other suitors, including his hometown Philadelphia and Miami, where good friend Jimmy Butler plays. He won't come cheaply either, following another strong season.
It's possible Lowry, who recently sold his Toronto home, wants to finish out his career on a contender like the 76ers or Heat. The Raptors, after missing the playoffs, don't qualify.
Should Lowry leave, the Raptors may be able to execute a sign-and-trade to receive assets back in return — though likely less than what was offered at the deadline. Otherwise, VanVleet would assume top ball-handling duties, with 2020 first-round pick Malachi Flynn backing him up.
Toronto possesses the seventh-best lottery odds in the upcoming draft, where it could add another impact player.
The Raptors also must re-sign Gary Trent Jr., who was acquired in the Norman Powell trade and is headed for restricted free agency, meaning Toronto has the right to match any offers by other teams.
Of course, it's still possible the Raptors return to Toronto next season with Ujiri and Lowry in tow. That Ujiri supplements the core more effectively, and that after a cursed season in Tampa, the team is rejuvenated by being back home.
But the story already had its happy ending. It wouldn't be all that surprising to see its heroes walk off into the sunset.