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  • After he joins Team USA, Kyle Lowry and the Raptors are ready to defend their title even without Kawhi Leonard. And the Toronto stalwart, who could become a free agent next summer, hopes to continue that fight long-term.
By Chris Mannix
August 05, 2019

LAS VEGAS — The text message hit Kyle Lowry’s phone on July 6, his basketball future changing with it. Kawhi Leonard was gone, leaving Toronto after one season for the Los Angeles Clippers.

The 2019 NBA champions were no more.

“He texted me, let me know,” Lowry said. “That was it. I said, ‘I’m happy for you.’”

In the weeks leading up to Leonard’s decision, Lowry and Leonard had maintained regular communication. Phone calls, text messages, FaceTime. But the subject wasn’t basketball. Never basketball.

“Not at all,” Lowry told SI.com. “I have never been a recruiter. It won’t ever happen.”

If it sounds cold, it isn’t. It’s Lowry. He’s been consistent. He told SI he wouldn’t try to sell Leonard on Toronto in December, when the revamped Raptors were just getting to know each other. He reiterated a similar position in June, on a post-Finals visit to the Sports Illustrated offices.

“I want him to stay,” Lowry said in June. “I’d love him to stay. But he’s my friend. And I always say this in this business, you don’t have that much choice in happiness sometimes. You have to make yourself happy. You have to be able to wake up every day and be happy with what your decision in life is, and that’s why I never recruit. I never say like, ‘Listen, yeah, I want you back. Come on back. Let’s continue to be teammates. But if you choose to do something different, I’ll support you.'”

Sitting courtside at the Mendenhall Center, his left thumb in a splint following mid-July surgery to repair damaged ligaments, Lowry was upbeat. He’s in Las Vegas with USA Basketball, a group he hopes to join in time to play in the FIBA World Cup later this month. He plans to meet with his doctors next week, when he hopes to get an updated timeline for his return.

As for Toronto, Lowry insists he is fine with Leonard’s decision.

“Free agency is free agency,” Lowry shrugged. “I love when NBA players get paid. I love the decisions guys are making for their happiness. At the end of the day, you have to be happy for them.

“[Leonard leaving] wasn’t a surprise. I’m always happy for guys, especially one that help me do something fantastic. He’s a friend of mine and a good guy. He made a decision to go home, I’m genuinely happy for him. He gets a chance to be around his family and friends, you have to respect the guy and be happy for him.”

Lowry's no fool: He knows the subtraction of an All-NBA talent like Leonard could be devastating. But he's not ready to concede anything, either.

“It is what it is,” Lowry said. “We’re still going to be able to run it back. We’re the champions and we’re trying to defend our title. I’m confident with our team.”

And being the first NBA champions to enter a season without the Finals MVP?

“I don’t know,” Lowry said. “First time you have ever seen it. Who knows? We are the champions. No matter what, that will never be taken away from us. Never, ever.”

Still, Toronto faces an uncertain future with several players—including Lowry—entering the final year of their contracts. Lowry says he has not spoken to Raptors president Masai Ujiri about the team, just to check in about his injury. When the two do talk basketball, Lowry says finding a way to continue his career in Toronto will be a priority.

“I want to be there,” Lowry tells SI. "I would love to do an extension, but we’ll see what happens … I would love to be there longterm. We’ll have the discussion when the time is right.”

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