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Forward Thinking: Signing Kyle Lowry

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An understanding of what signing Kyle Lowry would look like, for better or worse.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Lowry does not play power forward, but in lieu of the Jimmy Butler acquisition, my forward-thinking pieces no longer need be limited to stretch fours. Before the draft night trade, exploring the free agent acquisition of a power forward may have been the most logical path, but the game has changed. Butler is here and with that, a new door (or “window”) has been opened. It is a time to get creative with roster construction paths through the weight Butler’s presence (reportedly) creates in attracting other “better” players.

One of those paths is Kyle Lowry.

Disclaimer: Exploring Lowry is a unilateral exercise in that it focuses on only one of the many paths the front office can pursue when the clock strikes midnight this evening. Discussing the possible addition of Lowry—or any free agents—is a largely speculative exercise by a minimally informed blogger.

Let’s start with the finances. A full max contract for Lowry, from the Wolves, starts at 35 percent of the salary cap with five percent raises year-over-year. That bakes out to (at most) 4-years and $149.3 million and looks like such:

Kyle Lowry Max Contract With Wolves

Year Full-Max Contract
Year Full-Max Contract
2017-18 $34,650,000
2018-19 $36,382,500
2019-20 $38,201,625
2020-21 $40,111,706
Total of 4-Year Deal $149,345,831

That’s a lot. And arguably not a positive value, relative to his expected production in the final two years when he will be 33 and 34-years-old.

FiveThirtyEight.com came out with NBA Player Projections yesterday, forecasting individual player production for 2017-18 and the years that follow. With specifically Lowry, the projection forecasts, the 31-year-old, to be 75 percent of the player he was last season. That productivity is projected to precipitously drop year-over-year. By the end of this theoretical contract (year 4, when Lowry is 34) the forecast sees Lowry as half the player in production that he was this past season.

While that sounds like a pretty dismal slope, this is an undeniable historical reality for aging players. Especially small point guards. However, FiveThirtyEight suggests a max contract would be a net positive asset. Only holding a net-negative value in year 4.

Kyle Lowry’s "Worth" per 538.com

Year Full-Max Contract Lowry's Worth per 538 Net Value
Year Full-Max Contract Lowry's Worth per 538 Net Value
2017-18 $34,650,000 $45,600,000 $10,950,000
2018-19 $36,382,500 $40,600,000 $4,217,500
2019-20 $38,201,625 $38,300,000 $98,375
2020-21 $40,111,706 $31,200,000 -$8,911,706
Total 4-Year Deal $149,345,831 $155,700,000 $6,354,169

But that is only one projection. There is reason to be even more skeptical about those final two years than their model is projecting. A key reason for skepticism, unrelated to productivity projections, is the squeeze it places on the Wolves financial forecast.

Beginning in 2018, Andrew Wiggins is likely to sign a maximum rookie extension that starts at $25.50 million (25 percent of the salary cap, based on $102 million salary cap projection) and raises to $27.54 million by 2019-20 when Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns will be up for new deals.

At that point in time, the salary cap is projected to be $107.1 million. This will put Towns in place to earn maximum contract starting at $26.78 million (25 percent of the salary cap, assuming no Rose Rule) and Jimmy Butler will also be eligible to sign an even larger max (due to his experience), starting at $32.13 million (30 percent of the cap, assuming not super-max eligible).

Assuming Lowry, Wiggins, Towns, and Butler are all making their max in 2019-20, that is $124.65 million guaranteed to four players. A number that on its own is above the salary cap of $107.1 million and just shy of the Luxury Tax threshold ($130.2 million). Throw in Gorgui Dieng ($16.23 million)—the only other Minnesota player under contract in 2019-20—and the Wolves are over the tax up to $140.88 million.

Each player’s salary would only grow the following season (Lowry’s final year), furthering limiting the team through an even higher luxury tax payment.

Wolves Salary Cap Structure Final Two Years of Lowry

Player 2019-20 2020-2021
Player 2019-20 2020-2021
Kyle Lowry $38,201,000 $40,112,000
Jimmy Butler $32,130,000 $34,700,000
Andrew Wiggins $27,540,000 $29,743,000
Karl-Anthony Towns $26,780,000 $28,922,000
Gorgui Dieng $16,229,000 $17,288,000
Sum of Starters Salaries $140,880,000 $150,765,000
Salary Cap Line $107,100,000 $112,455,000
Luxury Tax Line $130,200,000 $136,710,000

This is all to show that if the Wolves do, in fact, sign Kyle Lowry to a max contract in the coming days, the starting lineup of Lowry, Wiggins, Butler, Dieng, and Towns is unlikely to last the four-year duration of Lowry’s contract.

But this shouldn’t preclude the Lowry option as a whole.

While, in nature, signing Lowry would be a “get everyone in and figure it out later” proposition, there are still some positives to be rendered. Lowry’s deal would be more manageable the first two years—given the lower salaries of Wiggins, Butler, and Towns—even if Lowry’s deal were a max contract.

Wolves Salary Cap Structure First Two Years of Lowry

Player 2017-18 2018-19
Player 2017-18 2018-19
Kyle Lowry $34,650,000 $36,383,000
Jimmy Butler $18,697,000 $19,842,000
Andrew Wiggins $7,574,000 $25,500,000
Karl-Anthony Towns $6,217,000 $7,839,000
Gorgui Dieng $14,112,000 $15,171,000
Sum of Starters Salaries $81,250,000 $104,735,000
Salary Cap Line $99,000,000 $102,000,000
Luxury Tax Line $119,000,000 $124,000,000

With just the Butler acquisition, the Wolves window has already been moved forward. Signing Lowry is a mouth and nose squish up against the glass maneuver that likely creates a growing sentiment of something that feels like rushing. If the window is, in fact, destined for the bridge of our noses, let’s prepare ourselves...

Three Changes Signing Kyle Lowry Would Trigger

The Departure of Ricky Rubio

Acquiring Lowry at the max makes the move of Rubio almost certain. Currently, the Wolves have 11.05 million in cap space. Renounce Shabazz Muhammad and that number grows to $18.7 million. Trading Ricky Rubio and the $14.2 million he is due this season and you have a path to the $30 million realm.

This would be sad on many levels. (Many of you are probably mad at me for even typing this.)

A Very Slim Bench

With Muhammad and Rubio out, the Wolves would have a new starting lineup (Lowry-Wiggins-Butler-Dieng-Towns) but the bench would be suspect. Tyus Jones, Nemanja Bjelica, Cole Aldrich, and Justin Patton would round out the only other players currently under contract.

Aldrich and his $7.3 million could be moved in conjunction with Rubio to bring back another—likely uninspiring—player or two. (Hopefully, an individual who has shot a three-pointer in their career.)

The bench would likely be rounded out by players from the Summer League roster or other veterans who would sign for the veteran minimum—Mike Dunleavy’s name has been mentioned.

The most meaningful money to be spent would come from the Room Exception. That figure is (up to) $4.328 million year one and $4.54 million year two. The market would dictate what players would be willing to sign at that level. Last offseason, these players were signed using the Room Exception; Seth Curry, Zaza Pachulia, Nene, Dion Waiters, Dewayne Dedmon. A definite upgrade from the minimum as those five players combined to start 200 games last season.

The Wolves Being Very Good

Even with a comparatively inferior bench, the Wolves starting five would be elite in the larger context of the NBA. Last season, Lowry (10.1), Wiggins (4.2), Butler (13.8), Dieng (5.7), and Towns (12.7) combined for 46.5 total win shares, according to basketballreference.com. Which is to say nothing about fit, but certainly enticing.

Comparatively, of the eight teams won fifty-or-more games last season, only one eclipsed 46.5 win shares from their “starters” (defined as top-five minute receivers). That team, the Golden State Warriors.

Win Shares of Top “Starting Units” Around the League

Team Total Win Shares From "Starters" 2016-17 Total Wins 2016-17
Team Total Win Shares From "Starters" 2016-17 Total Wins 2016-17
Warriors 46.8 67
Cavaliers 37.5 51
Jazz 36.1 51
Spurs 35.7 61
Rockets 35.3 55
Raptors 34.2 51
Celtics 31.8 53
Clippers 28.7 51
Lowry + Wiggins +Butler + Dieng + Towns 46.5 ?

That is getting ahead of ourselves a bit as a weak bench amongst other things could plummet the Wolves. But glass half full, this is the reward for embracing the window and going for it. There is ample reason to be concerned about signing Lowry (especially at the max) but there is also reason for a great deal of optimism. If the Wolves say, “Hello” to Kyle Lowry, they can certainly say “Bye-Bye” to the 13-year playoff drought.