Lowry, Raptors silencing skeptics during uncertain times
The preseason meeting was called by Masai Ujiri, the freshly minted general manager of the Toronto Raptors. Seated around the table were Raptors chairman Larry Tanenbaum, team president Tim Leiweke, Ujiri and his senior advisor Wayne Embry, a Hall of Famer. They were gathered for a kind of intervention on behalf of 27-year-old Kyle Lowry, an overachieving point guard who had developed a reputation for undermining his teams and himself.
"I said, 'Kyle, these are All-Star people, successful people, and we want to put you in that same position," recalled Ujiri. "I said, 'Some of the things you do doesn't show that you want to be in that position. We want to give you opportunity to change the culture here that we are going to grow -- we want to give you that opportunity."'
Their criticism was meant to be constructive. One by one, Ujiri and his colleagues told Lowry of the potential they saw in him, of the leadership their team needed from him, and of this opportunity to become the player that they and he believed he could become.
"It put a lot of things into perspective for me," said Lowry. "For him to have those guys in that room with me was big for me. All these guys telling you how important you are, it's humbling. It makes you just focus in on, you do not want to let these guys down because of what they are telling you."
Lowry spent the opening five weeks putting their advice into practice, but to no avail. Ujiri had already shipped Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks for three picks (including a first rounder in 2016) and three players; on Dec. 10, after he packaged Rudy Gay to Sacramento, the Raptors were a disappointing 7-13. It was time to investigate the value of the team and the potential for improvement. The next moveable piece was Lowry.
"I explained to him and his agent it could go either way," said Ujiri. "If we develop and play well and grow as a team, then I have to look at this one way; and if we totally collapse and we're not winning very often, then I have to figure out something. Kyle knew and his agent knew. He was really professional and he really pushed the team, so give him all credit. It wasn't something where we were doing stuff without him knowing; I spelled it out in every possible way I could."
But there was no market for Lowry, which spoke not only to the reputation he had earned as a destructive leader, but also to the urgency of his current mission. At 6-feet and 175 pounds there was a hint of Isiah Thomas to his game: He fought so hard to compete against the bigger opponents that he created enemies. In Lowry's case he was blind to the negative impact he made on his own teams, which led to his departure from the Grizzlies (who picked him No. 24 out of Villanova in 2006) and the Rockets, who were relieved to trade him to Toronto in 2012. The message of the Raptors leadership was for Lowry find a way to channel his competitiveness in a constructive way.
"Just be a pro at all times," said Lowry of their advice. "Be a pro, lead the team. When something goes bad you can't let anything put your head down; you got to make sure everyone knows and sees that you're ready to go and you're confident. Don't worry about what people say or what happened in the past. Just worry about right now, this year. Just worry about every single game and worry about winning."
The only team known to be interested in trading for Lowry last month was the Knicks, and even they weren't sure whether he would do more harm than good on their dysfunctional roster. As the negotiations with New York stalled, Lowry was making his best effort to put the good advice into effect.
"It made a huge, huge difference," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey of the meeting. "Just hearing it from them made a huge impression. If it doesn't, then the guy's brain dead. Kyle has responded to it. He's been great with it.
"Everybody grows up, everybody has an opportunity to change. Kyle has changed from that perception that's around the league to where he is right now. He's been a great teammate. I think the turning point was that meeting that Masai had with Wayne and Larry and Tim -- they just laid it out, here it is on the table, here is what we're looking for, there's no gray area. Coach is our coach. You're the player. There is no player-coach controversy. Whatever coach says ..."
While the Knicks vacillated -- the rumors of a trade having been widely reported -- the Raptors thrived. It makes sense now, even though it was unexpected at the time: The departure of Gay has created space for DeMar DeRozan to emerge as a potential All-Star. A starting role was created for second-year guard Terrence Ross, who responded to the increased responsibility by simplifying his game and seizing opportunities instead of forcing them.
The trade was no fleecing, because the Kings, winners in four of their last five games, have been happy with the talent upgrade they've received with Gay. But the instant improvement of the Raptors has been phenomenal all the same. They've gone 13-6 to rise to No. 4 in the East at 19-18 overall. Their defense ranks among the NBA's top three in the New Year, and all of their good news is revolving around the relentless attacking style of Lowry at both ends of the floor. So far this month he's 23 for 47 from three-point range (48.9 percent) while averaging career bests of 16.0 points and 7.4 assists for the season, with an assist-turnover ratio of 3.44 that ranks third among point guards.
"Pass, shoot, rebound, play defense, take charges -- he's a do-it-all point guard," said Ross. "If he was 6-4 or 6-5, he'd be a crazy, crazy force. It's crazy what he puts his body through. It's like man, you probably could play football. He's helping everybody get better."
If the Knicks had traded for Lowry, would he be having the same positive impact? Maybe not: Maybe the absence of structure and a single-minded point of view in New York would have aggravated the worst side of his competitive nature.
"He's done a good job of working with the young players -- he communicates with (Jonas) Valanciunas, he's been great," said Casey. "I haven't seen a lot of change as far as that edge. And I don't want to lose that edge. I want him to be that junkyard dog on the floor. But also communicate more. He's done everything we've asked him to do: communicate with the staff, teammates. So far so good."
That last statement carries the most weight: For these last five weeks amount to nothing more than a good first step for Lowry and his Raptors. Who knows whether it will lead to long-term success? In the meantime, this first step is better than any other direction they might have taken. "I think Kyle is really trying his best," said Ujiri. "He's always been in a situation where there is another point guard that is high-caliber behind him, pushing back at him. Now he's been given the team. You're a starting point guard. Run your team."
Ujiri was hired to bring success to a franchise that has won one divisional title and one playoff series in 18 seasons. The obvious route would have been to tear down and rebuild. Instead he has found promise in an experienced championship coach (as a Mavericks' lead assistant) in Casey, and in a talented young roster with upside whose oldest starter is Lowry, just now hitting his prime.
The biggest difference that Ujiri has made in his short time has been to unload the players that didn't fit while showing faith in those that do. Where others saw problems in Lowry, the Raptors saw hope. Lowry will be a free agent this summer, and if he is able to maintain and build upon Toronto's last month of good play, then he may have found himself a home.
"With me being older and having the summer I had - having a son, having a wife -- it's one of those things where you learn, you grow up, you mature," said Lowry. "You understand that things aren't always going to be perfect, but you have to fight through them.
"I worked my ass off to be in good shape," Lowry went on, "and to make sure to prove people wrong. I want to be better, but I think right now I'm damn good. I think I can hold my own against anybody."
Heat making moves for the future. By trading Joel Anthony to Boston, Miami saved more than $10 million in potential luxury taxes. The Heat -- who already have one of the NBA's most cost-effective payrolls -- continue to pursue payroll efficiency around their Big Three. LeBron James can become a free agent next summer, and the savings of a trade like this are meant to enable Miami to handle the expense of surrounding James with contending talent in future, in spite of the luxury tax.
Marc Gasol returns. Can he save the season of the .500 Grizzlies? The Suns figure to slide during the absence of Eric Bledsoe, but Memphis will be competing for that spot with rival underachievers Denver and Minnesota.
Rajon Rondo set to play. Rondo tweeted a reference to the 29,233,380 seconds of his absence since his knee injury one year ago. More relevant to his projected comeback Friday against the Lakers may be the 34 days until the trade deadline.
LaMarcus Aldridge wants an extension. He told the Portland Tribune's Kerry Eggers that he was interested in committing to the Trail Blazers for the long term. This is a player who was projected to be leaving ASAP. The Blazers, who had no idea they'd be contending so quickly, ought to pounce.
Ryan Anderson may miss season. His herniated disk may assure the Pelicans' return to the lottery, which will be terrific news for the 76ers -- the pick they received from New Orleans in the Noel trade for Jrue Holiday is top-three protected only.
Billy Hunter lawsuit weakened. The dismissal of most of the complaints against Derek Fisher and all of the complaints against Fisher's aide Jamie Wior leaves Hunter with a breach of contract suit against the union that he used to run. Ever since the resolution of the lockout, the union has been frozen by the scandal around Hunter and unable to move forward.
The 6-9 forward was averaging 7.9 points off the bench in his first year with the Rockets. Casspi, 25, is the first Israeli to play in the NBA.
1. Raised in suburban Tel Aviv, he fell in love with basketball in third grade. "I was following my older brother and my mother, who played back in the day in Israel. My brother used to take me to the basketball court by our house to play.
"My mother was a national team player, and I think that's where I got my height from -- she's about 6-1. I watched some of her games growing up. Every day she used to beat me one-on-one. Every day. She would play hard, the post moves, the hook shots -- everything. When I was 14 or 15 and I got taller, and I got my strength a little bit, I beat her. And then she didn't want to play me again. She said, `We're not playing anymore.'
He was 17 when he made his professional debut with Maccabi Tel Aviv. "My parents always put me in a group of players that forced me to get better. I never played in my age group. It's a little bit different than here; I always was the younger player in the team. When I turned pro, that was the first time I jumped in the water and played with a lot of ex-NBA players. It was Will Bynum, Anthony Parker, Marcus Fizer, Carlos Arroyo -- those are the guys that I looked up to when I was 17, and not a lot of 17 years old get that privilege."
2. He served in the Israeli Army. "Growing up in Israel, when you're 18 it's mandatory to serve three years. And one of the biggest debates in my career was whether to go play college. The dream was always to make it to the NBA, and if I go to play college, then I have to come back after college to do my service -- to do it from 22 years old to 25 and then postpone my NBA career. I figured I have to do it, and I did it when I was 18 to 21.
"I did my basic training in the summer, about a month and a half, when there was no basketball. After that I used to come to the base every day about 7:30 in the morning, and help wherever I needed to help, and then go to practices. And then I would come back after practices sometimes to do whatever I needed to do."
Casspi was already a star in Israel, and the country was supportive of his NBA dream. "On game days, they let me have a pass that day. But other than that, every day I would be there in the morning.
"I would do some computer stuff for the Army. They used to drive me around the country sometimes just to help the morale of the soldiers and play basketball with them, I would do some clinics and stuff like that. It was nothing too crazy. Obviously you're representing Israel, and when I did my service at the time it was an honor for me.
"About a year and a half into the Army service, I started doing some NBA workouts in the summer, and the Army really helped me with that. And then we'd fly over to the States and do some workouts. And then about two weeks before I got released, it was the NBA Draft 2009, and then I got drafted."
3. He was picked No. 23 in the first round by the Sacramento Kings. "It is a great culture of basketball in Israel. We're such a small country, and when Israeli players are going around the world, people really feel pride and want them to succeed."
Casspi was overwhelmed by his reception everywhere he traveled in the NBA; it was the Israeli version of Linsanity as experienced by his current Rockets teammate Jeremy Lin. "Me and him have talked about it a few times. I told him, 'Looking at you and what you've done has given hope to a lot of players around the world, and you did it from coming to the bottom all the way to the top.'
"It was unbelievable, the amount of support. Most of our games are televised back home at 4 in the morning, and I don't know how, but my parents are doing it every night -- they're waking up to see the games. Now obviously we have a great team and people are excited for the opportunity of us to play in the playoffs for the first time in my career and hopefully win the championship.
"It's a great honor to be the first (Israeli), and something that's always go to be with me the rest of my life. When I'm going on the court representing Israel, I'm always trying to be the best role model that I can be for young players back home, and also here. So it's an unbelievable feeling."
Quote of the week
"Nothing I can't manage." -- Greg Oden
The Heat center was diagnosing his knees on Wednesday, the day after he played his first NBA game since 2009. Oden finished his first possession with a dunk on his way to six points and two rebounds in eight minutes. "It always gets sore after a workout or something like that," Oden said. "It's nothing different."
Will Oden make the ultimate difference in a conference finals rematch against Roy Hibbert four months from now? Such is the happy ending that Miami is hoping for.
An NBA advance scout on his starting fives for the All-Star Game next month in New Orleans:
F: LeBron James
F: Paul George
G: Dwyane Wade
G: Kyrie Irving
F: LaMarcus Aldridge
F: Kevin Durant
"Overall the East is just so weak. I didn't want to put Andre Drummond on the team, but there is nobody else close to him in the East except for Carmelo. There are just not a lot of All-Star players there.
"I picked Kyrie because I'm not sold on John Wall. I'm not sold on Kyrie either, but watching John Wall, I don't see him changing the course of the game. Kyrie may be a little selfish and he'll do some stupid stuff, but in the end he's one of the top guys in fourth-quarter scoring, he tries to do things to help his team win, and I think he's go to be better as year goes on with Luol Deng playing with him. I don't see development or change in John Wall's game. He's a high-turnover guy and not as efficient shooting-wise.
"I left off Carmelo, but that doesn't mean I blame him for what's going on with the Knicks. I blame the Knicks for what's going on with the Knicks. Melo is the same player he was eight years ago, it's not like he's changed. As long as he's healthy, he is what he is. He isn't going to change either way.
"I went with Cousins because his team is more competitive and he's putting up great numbers -- steals, blocks, rebounds, scoring -- even though he's the focal point of the teams he's playing against. He's the guy they're trying to stop. If you were to take Aldridge off the Blazers, they'd still have a good team; but if you took Cousins off the Kings, they'd go he doesn't pl going from 14 wins to six, or something like that.
"Damian Lillard is great. I've seen him hit game-winning shots, the other players follow him, he doesn't get rattled, and he does a lot of good stuff. Curry is on there because when you think about the star part of All-Star, that's what he is. He's a star. He has huge deficiencies -- defensively he's not good -- but he's a star and he carries his team.
"I'm looking at the teams in the West, and every team has one or more players who belong. Look at Mike Conley -- no question he would be the starting guard if he played in the East. But then that's why most of the good teams are in the West."
The All-20 Day Team
Add up their playing time in the NBA regular season and playoffs, and these players have spent 20 or more days on the court in terms of their official NBA minutes. And the clock keeps ticking...
C: Dwight Howard ... 20 days, 2 hours, 9 minutes (28,929 minutes in total)
F: LeBron James ... 26 days, 4 hours, 12 minutes
F: Carmelo Anthony ... 20 days, 16 hours, 52 minutes
G: Dwyane Wade ... 21 days, 8 hours, 25 minutes
G: Tony Parker ... 25 days, 1 hour, 40 minutes
C: Chris Bosh ... 20 days, 14 hours, 14 minutes
C: Pau Gasol ... 24 days, 15 hours, 53 minutes
F: Dirk Nowitzki ... 32 days, 7 hours, 21 minutes
F: Tim Duncan ... 35 days, 4 hours
F: Shawn Marion ... 28 days, 16 hours, 58 minutes
G: Joe Johnson ... 25 days, 17 hours, 10 minutes
G: Jamal Crawford ... 20 days, 22 hours, 16 minutes