However, achieving ultimate success in the form of an NBA championship has healed all wounds between the two. And with the NBA putting the wheels in motion to restart the 2020 season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the two men undoubtedly have their sights set on another successful playoff run.
Toronto Raptors Rely on Veteran Leadership of Kyle Lowry
The Blockbuster Trade
DeRozan and Lowry were best friends as the two Toronto Raptors were instrumental in transforming Toronto from a lottery team into a perennial regular season powerhouse. Both were eager to take that next step in the playoffs together.
Unlike Raptors’ superstars before him such as Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, and Tracy McGrady, DeRozan – who the Raptors drafted with the ninth overall pick in 2009 – demonstrated admirable loyalty to Toronto. The former USC standout opted to re-sign with the franchise during free agency in the summer of 2016 without any drama and consideration for other NBA teams.
With loyalty being a key part of his character, the Raptors’ point guard from North Philadelphia was obviously taken back by the way Ujiri shipped DeRozan off to the San Antonio Spurs. The blockbuster trade was completed without any notice and was initially viewed by DeRozan and Lowry as a betrayal from the Raptors president.
The Bigger Picture
From Ujiri’s point of view, the big picture goal was always to win an NBA championship. And after being swept by the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers for the second consecutive season in the spring of 2018, he believed the window of opportunity to bring an NBA title to Toronto was closing.
Changes had to be made. At the end of the 2018 season, Ujiri fired Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and hired Nick Nurse. Then, of course, there was the blockbuster trade that shook the basketball world.
Kyle Lowry, Masai Ujiri Keep Things Professional
Despite their strained relationship, Lowry and Ujiri kept things professional during the 2018-19 season. It didn’t take long to see the trade was a favorable one for Toronto because, with Leonard now in the mix, the Raptors had a lockdown defender and superstar with proven playoff success to lead them to the next level. While Leonard became the go-to guy, Lowry was counted on heavily for providing leadership, energy, and grit during the Raptors’ championship run.
Before the Raptors hosted the Golden State Warriors in game one of the NBA championship, Ujiri spoke about Lowry’s character and his dedication to winning.
“There’s something about that guy that I just believe in. It’s incredible. We have been through so much. He’s a winner. There’s no other way to put it. He’s a winner,” Ujiri said. “Every day he comes, he comes to win.”
Ujiri also spoke candidly about how they were able to put their differences behind them and focus on the bigger picture.
“We have had our ups and downs, but I think this year there was a really good moment where we sat down and we really talked about what we wanted to accomplish, and it’s a tough conversation but these are conversations that you have to have,” Ujiri said.
“I did understand how Kyle felt when obviously we made the trade and it was tough. DeMar is his best friend. I do understand that completely. That’s the toughest part of the business that we all talk about. But in terms of Kyle, I’ve seen him grow, I’ve seen him grow as a person, as a leader on our team, and he can only get better from here.”
Reaching the Pinnacle
A little more than two weeks after that press conference, Lowry and Ujiri celebrated Canada’s first NBA title after the Raptors defeated the Warriors in game six at Oracle Arena. After winning his first NBA title, Lowry took the time to speak candidly about the big trade from the previous summer that ultimately enabled the team to reach the pinnacle.
“When he made the trade as a friend of mine, my emotions were there, but I understood that I had to go to work, and I still played for the Toronto Raptors. My job was to go out there and to be the best basketball player I could be,” Lowry said.
Despite having a torn ligament in his thumb, Lowry played through the pain and was a big reason why the Raptors were able to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy when it was all said and done. Lowry also spoke about Leonard’s impact and what it meant to earn the recognition as an NBA champion.
“Kawhi is unbelievably good, he’s been showing that all year. Yeah, he’s an NBA Finals MVP again,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy. There’s a lot of guys that have this same journey and they haven’t been able to get to this point. I’m just so happy to be able to be a part of it and to say I’m an NBA champion. I don’t take it for granted at all. I know how hard it’s been, how hard it is to get here. It takes some luck also.”
Kawhi Leonard’s Departure
A drama-filled summer followed their championship run, though. Leonard ultimately chose to leave Toronto and sign with the Los Angeles Clippers to be closer to his family.
The Raptors were counted out as soon as Leonard left. However, despite losing their superstar, the reigning champs haven’t missed a beat in the 2019-20 regular season. Led by Lowry and a rising superstar in Pascal Siakam, the Raptors amassed a 46-18 record before the regular season was suspended in the second week of March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the Raptor’s results this season have surprised many basketball analysts and fans, Lowry summed up the team’s success best when asked at the All-star game in February.
“The difference is we don’t have Kawhi. The similarities are we’re the same exact team. We play hard. We go out there and we defend. We’ve got pros. We’re just trying to win every single game. That’s what we’ve always done,” he said.
The six-time NBA All-Star also spoke about what it meant to share the All-Star experience this year with Siakam and the Raptors’ coaching staff.
“Honestly, it means the world to me to have him here. I was so happy for him. It was so important for me to see him be here. I was so happy for our coaching staff and for Pascal to just be able to have the season he’s had and kind of build off of what he did last year, Most Improved and winning the championship. So it was very special.”
Ready to Repeat: Kyle Lowry is Key
The NBA has taken the first step in restarting the 2019-20 campaign by opening practice facilities for voluntary workouts. Perhaps sooner than later, the league will move towards crowning its next champion.
Of course, a number of things have to go right for the NBA to be able to successfully restart the regular season and conclude the post-season amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic. But assuming the league can pull it off, the Raptors will enter the playoffs as a legitimate title contender. As the veteran leader of the Raptors, the 34-year-old point guard from North Philadelphia will be a big part of the team’s quest to repeat.
The Raptors may or may not have what it takes to repeat as champions. However, surrounded with a talented and deep roster, and supported by a world-class coaching staff and front office, the Lowry-led Raptors seem poised for another deep playoff run.
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