Photo credit: Bill Streicher/USA TODAY
All eyes were on the Toronto Raptors in the month leading up to the 2021 NBA Trade Deadline, with star guard Kyle Lowry garnering interest from a handful of contenders around the league. While debate raged between fans on whether the Greatest Raptor of All-Time should be traded or not, Masai Ujiri and co. were hard at work looking to maximize a potential return for the 35-year-old.
Names were tossed around, rumours were fuelled by NBA insiders and ESPN.com’s trade machine worked overtime as the anticipation built around the potential of a franchise-altering deal. As the clock struck 3 PM EST on March 25th, Lowry remained a Raptor and weeks-worth of hype was silenced as Toronto could not agree on a deal.
As the NBA Conference Finals kick off, including a few unlikely contestants in Phoenix and Atlanta, scrutiny over the failure of some teams to secure Kyle Lowry to help with a deep playoff run has grown amongst media and fans. Let’s break down the top suitors for Lowry at the deadline, the disappointing ends to their respective seasons and how K-Low could’ve changed their fortunes.
Los Angeles Lakers
After a dominant display in the Orlando bubble that resulted in a championship, followed by a strong off-season with big free-agent acquisitions to deepen the roster, the Lakers were poised to repeat as champs this year.
Following a season mired by injury and inconsistency, Los Angeles entered the playoffs as the seventh seed in the West, setting up a duel with Chris Paul’s Suns. Despite the average season, many still backed LeBron James to get to the Finals.
Any chance of repeating as champions went out the window when Anthony Davis picked up an injury midway through the series, forcing him to miss one game and seriously limiting his production and influence on both ends of the floor. Phoenix’s poise and consistency proved to be too much for James to take on alone, and the Lakers bowed out of the playoffs in the first round.
L.A. was one of the leaders in the pursuit for the services of Lowry at the deadline, reportedly engaged in talks with Toronto for weeks prior to March 25th. The Athletic reported that a deal for Lowry would’ve included Dennis Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to match salaries, as well as a first-round pick. Negotiations broke down over the Raptors’ preferred return, which included young guard Talen Horton-Tucker, who the Lakers refused to give up.
It was a questionable call for Rob Pelinka at the time, but it’s now pretty clear that he was better off giving in to Toronto’s demands. At 36 years old, in his 18th season, LeBron James was not able to carry a team on his back like he once did, and clearly needed help with L.A.’s window closing quickly. THT only featured for 48 minutes in four appearances against the Suns, scoring 26 points. Lowry would’ve started on this team, and could have helped LeBron carry the load, even with an injured Davis.
Pelinka and his staff probably realized how much of a mistake they made when Kyle scored a season-high 37 points in a visit to Staples Center on May 2nd.
Coming off a surprise run to the 2020 Finals, Miami was eager to feed off that momentum to put together another deep run this year. With Jimmy Butler putting together an All-NBA caliber season, the Heat were regarded as a darkhorse for the post-season. Many around the league, including Miami’s front office, felt that the team was one piece away from contending for Eastern Conference supremacy.
Lowry was identified as the missing piece to put Miami over the top, and negotiations between the two teams began relatively early on. Toronto’s asking price in return for Lowry began with either Tyler Herro or Duncan Robinson, two promising young wings. For the deal to work on a financial level, the Heat would’ve had to give up Goran Dragic, and possibly even Kelly Olynyk. In terms of draft compensation, Miami was only able to offer first-round picks for the 2025 and 2027 drafts, hardly attractive to Toronto. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported that Miami was Lowry’s preferred destination if he were to be dealt, but the deal broke down before the deadline.
The Heat traded for Victor Oladipo in a last-minute deal to bolster their backcourt after Lowry was deemed unattainable. Oladipo suffered a season-ending knee injury after only four games with Miami, essentially rendering the acquisition useless. Herro could not replicate his breakout performance from the bubble, putting up putrid shooting numbers, going 31.6 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from three in the 2021 playoffs. Robinson was a bit more efficient with his shot, but averaged only 10.3 points-per-game in four playoff games, lower than his regular-season scoring figure. Neither moved the needle like they were expected to, while Lowry would surely have provided more of an offensive punch, along with the rest of his solid all-around game.
I can’t really blame the Heat too much for not parting ways with this sizeable package for a 35 year-old Lowry, as their window is not necessarily closing any time soon. While their star and leader Jimmy Butler is 31 years old, the rest of Miami’s core is young and is yet to reach its ceiling. Mortgaging the future for a solidified veteran would likely not have made them favourites over the likes of Philadelphia or Brooklyn.
The 2021 NBA Playoffs saw the death of The Process, with the Sixers bowing out of the second round to the Atlanta Hawks after finishing with the first seed in the Eastern Conference. While Joel Embiid performed relatively well on a torn meniscus, much of the blame fell on the shoulders of Ben Simmons.
Simmons’ glaring weakness – his lack of willingness to shoot from practically anywhere on the floor – rendered him virtually useless on offence, especially in crunch time. Paired with the all-time worst free-throw percentage in NBA Playoffs history (34.2 percent), the 24 year-old became the laughing stock of league and saw his value plummet over the span of a week.
Philadelphia had two shots at significantly altering their roster — and probably their fortunes as well — when they tried to swing a couple of major deals during the season. With James Harden’s looming exit from Houston, Philly was at the forefront of the sweepstakes for the superstar guard, reportedly offering Simmons in a package deal. The Rockets ultimately dealt Harden to Brooklyn, ending any hope of reuniting Harden and Daryl Morey
The Sixers’ second shot at adding a big piece came closer to the deadline, when they pursued Kyle Lowry’s services. The match seemed ideal; Lowry would be returning to play in his hometown, adding a ball-handler and playmaker to a contender. According to The Athletic, Toronto’s asking price in return for the veteran point-guard was Matisse Thybulle, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green and two first-round picks.
If true, this was the steepest demand made by Toronto in return for Lowry. Philadelphia values Thybulle and Maxey highly, and was understandably reluctant to part ways with either of them, let alone both. Add in two first-round draft picks and it’s clear why Morey and co. chose to walk away from the deal.
But could Lowry have shouldered the load that Ben Simmons failed to carry? I think so. While Simmons was being benched down the stretch because he was an offensive liability, Philly depended heavily on Embiid to take on playmaking duties in the half-court. While the superstar center is vaunted for his all-around game, he struggled with the added responsibility, turning the ball over 33 times in the Atlanta series, the most he’s ever accumulated in a series in his post-season career.
Funny enough, Lowry might still end up being traded to the 76ers, as rumours swirl about Toronto being interested in acquiring Simmons, who is expected to be dealt this off-season.