TORONTO - As a young basketball fan in Philadelphia, Kyle Lowry watched his 76ers battle the Toronto Raptors in a thrilling seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal.
Now the Raptors are hoping the 26-year-old point guard can bring them back to heights they haven't seen in over a decade.
Lowry was introduced along with another new acquisition, swingman Landry Fields, at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday. Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo said they are "giving the keys" to Lowry with hopes that he can become the cornerstone of a young, emerging team.
"This is a great opportunity for myself, for this team to grow, and being given the keys I think I can drive this car to (becoming) a playoff team," Lowry said.
Lowry was acquired last week in a trade with the Houston Rockets that saw forward Gary Forbes and a protected future first-round draft choice go the other way.
"When I found out about the trade I actually went online and looked at the roster, looked at the YouTube clips of guys and I even got more excited seeing the opportunity and the talent that's on this team," Lowry said.
The Raptors haven't been to the playoffs since the 2007-08 season, and haven't progressed past the first round since that 2001 East semifinal against Philadelphia that Lowry called "one of the best series I've ever witnessed on TV, period."
The six-year veteran may get them back there if he continues to improve. Lowry averaged a career-best 14.3 points to go along with 6.6 assists over 47 games with the Rockets last season. He also showed toughness on defence and averaged 4.5 rebounds a game, putting him in the top 10 at his position.
"We've got a young, talented guard that is just coming into his prime," Colangelo said. "He's performed at a top-10 level in the point-guard category the last couple of years, and I feel that given the opportunity to take over a team ... and he has a chance to continue to grow in that position and continue to develop into an elite point guard."
Lowry said he and Fields will help the team's defensive makeover, something that head coach Dwane Casey started last season with promising results.
"I think the defence has gotten better instantly," Lowry said. "We've got a big fella (rookie centre Jonas Valanciunas) coming over I think that helps, but ... I really can't wait to step on the floor with this team and see what T-dot's all about."
Fields, meanwhile, came to Toronto as a restricted free agent. The Raptors signed him to an offer sheet believed to be worth around US$20 million over three years, and the Knicks declined to match.
"I was willing to go wherever," Fields said. "I just wanted to be part of a winning team and whether it was here or New York I just wanted to give it my all."
Fields saw his numbers decline in New York last season after a promising rookie campaign. Still, he averaged 4.5 rebounds a game and Colangelo believes he will flourish in a system that stresses ball distribution, rather than in New York where superstar Carmelo Anthony needs a lot of touches.
"His on-court production, what I'll call pre-Carmelo Anthony was a lot better than post-Carmelo Anthony," Colangelo said. "And that's not a shot at Carmelo by any means it's just the roster composition was different, the flow of the offence was different and the outlook, including a coaching change, was different."
Fields could play primarily at small forward, with James Johnson leaving via trade and with the Raptors already set at shooting guard with DeMar DeRozan. Wherever he plays, he will be counted on to provide offence and take some of the heat off DeRozan and high-scoring forward Andrea Bargnani.
"That was one of the main reasons why the Raptors were so enticing to me," Fields said. "Not only can I come in and defend, but the opportunity offensively was right there."
With the team rebuilding around Lowry, the future for point guard Jose Calderon is uncertain. Calderon is an excellent passer and makes few mistakes when he has the ball, but Lowry is a clear upgrade defensively at the position.
"We've got two starting-calibre point guards, and that's not easy to find that kind of a combination," Colangelo said. "Finding the chemistry around that is obviously something that takes some management.
"I know that Jose's a professional. Having said that he's not entirely thrilled with the situation but at the same time he's a pro and I think he'll show up and play."