Kyle Lowry has only been a full-time starter for one-and-a-half seasons, but in that time, he established himself as an above-average three-point shooter, a fierce defender and — for a brief stretch last year — a borderline All-Star. He fell off a bit before leaving Houston’s lineup with a serious bacterial infection, but he clearly emerged as a valuable player — at worst, a worthy starter above-average among NBA point guards. Lowry also happens to be working under what very well may be the best non-rookie contract in the league, one that will pay him $5.75 million next season and just $6.1 million (partially guaranteed!) in 2014-15.
Yet despite all of that, the Rockets agreed on Thursday to trade Lowry to the Raptors for a pick that is guaranteed to be in the lottery whenever Toronto sends it, under the complicated terms of the deal. Houston also acquired Gary Forbes, but he’s not the reason for this trade. The Rockets already let Goran Dragic march to Phoenix on a four-year, $34 million deal, and though they’re on the verge of signing New York’s Jeremy Lin to a back-loaded offer sheet, the Knicks — having missed out on Steve Nash — seem extremely likely to match and retain him. That would leave Shaun Livingston, recently acquired from the Bucks, as Houston’s top point guard, though the Rockets also possess the rights to Earl Boykins and Courtney Fortson.
For a team that was lauded for their apparent anti-tanking stance at the trade deadline, the Rockets don’t seem like they care all that much about winning in 2012-13. The Raptors do, and by acquiring Lowry to supplant Jose Calderon as the team’s starter, they have made themselves a major threat to the bottom couple of spots in the Eastern Conference playoff race. None of the eight playoff holdovers seems in danger of a major fall-off, though that obviously changes if the Magic deal Dwight Howard and/or the Pacers let Roy Hibbert go to Portland without signing an adequate replacement. The Nets, meanwhile, have made themselves a clear playoff contender. The Wizards should be in the hunt after acquiring Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor on the heels of the Nene deal, and the Bucks filled a major hole at center by nabbing Samuel Dalembert from (guess who?) Houston.
And now we have the Raptors, fresh off vaulting from league-worst to league-average in points allowed per possession on defense after just one season beneath defensive whiz Dwane Casey. Lowry’s defense took a step back last season, but when healthy and engaged, he’s in the conversation for the league’s best point guard defender. Jonas Valanciunas, last year’s No. 5 pick, will be around this season to beef up a skinny big man rotation. The Raptors are stuck overpaying Landry Fields (assuming the Knicks don’t match Toronto’s three-year, $20 million offer sheet), but don’t be shocked if he begins the season as the team’s starting small forward. That’s a position at which his lack of elite speed shouldn’t be quite as damaging as it would be at shooting guard.
This Toronto team is going to defend. It won’t do it at a top-five level until one of the bigs emerges as a real difference-maker, but it’ll work hard, scheme well and make life difficult for opponents every night. The Raptors’ offense was a disaster last season, falling all the way to 29th in points per possession. But it actually scored at an average rate when Andrea Bargnani was on the floor, and at the start the year (before a calf injury), Bargnani was more active defensively and on the glass for Casey than he had been for Jay Triano. The Raptors don’t have to amnesty Jose Calderon to acquire both Fields and Lowry, and Calderon will serve as perhaps the league’s best backup point guard — and a tasty trade chip on an expiring contract.
Not using amnesty on Calderon is big, since the Raptors would still have it to potentially use on Amir Johnson or Linas Kleiza next summer. Slicing either player off the Raptors’ cap sheet would get Toronto very close to max-level cap room, especially if the cap level increases a notch as expected. Even if the franchise decide to keep both, the Raptors could still come in a hair under the cap, even factoring in relatively pricey cap holds for DeMar DeRozan and James Johnson, both of whom will enter restricted free agency a year from now. Those charges take Toronto close enough to the cap that it would be easy for it go over and pursue a strategy using the full mid-level exception.
In other words: The Raptors are super-flexible, even after adding Lowry’s salary — more flexible than they would have been paying double for Nash. They’ll regret the Fields contract, and they’ll miss that lottery pick, even if it has some protections in both directions. (The protections are complex, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. For instance: The Rockets get the pick next year if it falls between No. 4 and No. 14, but the Raptors keep it otherwise. In 2014, the Rockets get the pick if it falls between No. 3 and No. 14).
Where the pick falls is obviously crucial. Long-term studies have shown that the average return on the No. 9 pick, for instance, is a player with the career path of T.J. Ford or Rodney Rogers. The odds of selecting a star increase dramatically as a pick inches closer to No. 1.
As for the Rockets, they’re clearly after a star at all costs. One suspects they did their diligence in taking the league’s temperature and discovered that the first-round pick they just received from the Raptors is a more valuable trade asset than Lowry — a player who admittedly clashed with coaches in Memphis and Houston. Lowry is a known commodity; a first-round pick has the allure of the unknown. Still: Lowry is so valuable under this contract that I wonder if the league is wrong, or perhaps if Houston is misreading the league.
Houston adds another pick here, which puts it at plus-one in future first-rounders: It has a pick coming from Dallas (via the Lakers) and another going to Atlanta (via Brooklyn). The Rockets also have a pile of first- and second-year forwards, plus Kevin Martin’s expiring contract, an intriguing rookie guard in Jeremy Lamb and a ton of present and future cap space. Even if they do get Omer Asik from Chicago for $8 million per year, Houston could spend this entire season right at the minimum payroll floor of about $49 million — with enough space to swallow a contract linked to Orlando’s Glen Davis or Jason Richardson as the Rockets chase Dwight Howard. Signing Lin away from New York would obviously change that. And next summer, they could have as little as $31 million in committed money for 2013-14, more than enough cap space for two mammoth deals (one max, one near-max).
This is the plan in Houston: a star or bust, plus some height and defense (Asik), since that is another necessity for every championship-caliber team without LeBron James. It’s no coincidence Dallas vaulted to the title the year that Tyson Chandler was hanging around. It’s a plan, and one that will result in some unpleasantness. But, then again, it might work.
This much is clear: Houston is going all-in , for better or worse. They are tired of being a borderline playoff team, and this Lowry deal proves it.