On Monday, as the Toronto Raptors packed up for the off-season, Kyle Lowry confirmed that he will opt out of the final year of his deal and test the waters of free agency this summer.
The all-star expressed his love for Toronto and his close friend and teammate DeMar DeRozan and repeatedly said he hadn't thought much about his strategy as a free agent, but his top priority is winning.
"A ring. Nothing else. I just want a ring. I think I can do that anywhere I play. That's just how confident I am," Lowry said. "I've got to get better and I want to beat the best. Whatever it takes to beat the best, that's what I've got to do."
Lowry will enter free agency for the third time in his career. He said he wants to spend this summer improving his body, his leadership skills, explosiveness and efficiency. He also hopes to improve his mental game by watching a lot of game film.
Raptors Patrick Patterson, Serge Ibaka and P.J Tucker are also scheduled to enter free agency.
The morning after the Raptors were eliminated by the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second straight year, DeRozan thought about the progress his team has made.
"We're close. But when you're close, you still feel so far – kinda like being in traffic," DeRozan said. "You gotta go two blocks, but if there's traffic, it can take you an hour to get somewhere that's two minutes away."
It was a feeling expressed by several as the team spoke to the media. The Raptors had a 51-31 regular season and tied the Cavs for second place in the Eastern Conference. DeRozan and Lowry were all-stars again, and the team acquired two prime pieces at the trade deadline in Tucker and Ibaka.
But the LeBron James-led Cavs once again turned into a buzz saw come playoff time, mercilessly sweeping both the Indiana Pacers and the Raptors.
"You have to give them credit. We all know, we all saw what kind of team they have compared to our team. That does not mean we're far away," Ibaka said. "We're not that far away. For now, they are just playing [some] of the best basketball, everyone's playing a high level, so it's tough."
Lowry was having the best three-point shooting season of his career before a wrist injury sidelined him for two months. Then a sprained ankle knocked him out for the last two playoff games. So the Raptors have been left to agonize over what might have been if Lowry had stayed healthy and had more time to build chemistry with Tucker and Ibaka.
"If Kyle didn't get hurt, do we win yesterday? If he played Game 3, do we win maybe? Do we take it to Game 6 maybe?" Tucker wondered. "You don't know. You can go through so many different scenarios. Switching the lineups? It's a lot of things. It's tough. Hindsight is a mother."
"We don't have LeBron," Lowry said. "I'm going to work harder to beat the best. That's what I want to do, beat the best, whoever it is – the Warriors, the Cavs, whoever wins the championship this year. I want to do whatever it takes to beat them as a basketball player, to beat them."
The Raptors were asked what they need to actually best the NBA's best.
"I think, in my opinion, just more shooting," DeRozan said. "You look around the league, the great teams, the teams that are still playing, they have great shooting. You've seen it on display with Kyle Korver – having a guy like that you can turn to to get going. Guys that can stretch the floor, keep the floor spaced."
Raptors president Masai Ujiri will address the media on Tuesday. He will surely be asked about the players headed to free agency, the coaching staff and if the Raptors have what it takes to transform from one of the best teams in the East to one that can win it all.
"Getting over that hump is the hardest thing to do," said Toronto coach Dwane Casey, who experienced this as an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks before they went on to win a championship.
"I'm saying we're close – close enough to smell the roses."