There is always the feeling of sticker shock with every report of Fred VanVleet’s next contract.
The latest hint is that VanVleet will receive something similar to the four-year, $85-million contract that Malcolm Brodgon signed last offseason. That should really come as no surprise given that VanVleet is a 26-year-old coming off a career-year in scoring and assists, while leading the Toronto Raptors to the second-most wins in franchise history. That’s why VanVleet remains a prime free agent target even in the midst of COVID-19, as New York, Detroit, Phoenix and even Atlanta have all been linked to VanVleet in addition to the Raptors’ stated desire to re-sign him.
If VanVleet received the Brogdon deal, that would place him 15th in terms of point guard salaries. 11 out of the 14 players ahead of VanVleet have made all-star teams, while the rest (Mike Conley, Jamal Murray, Brogdon) are on the cusp. The guards immediately below VanVleet would be Terry Rozier, Ricky Rubio, Eric Bledsoe, Dennis Schroder and Dejounte Murray, all of which are talented players, but nowhere near all-star level. Given the scale of salaries to production, VanVleet making roughly $20 million is fair value.
Yet there is hesitation among some Raptors fans to fully invest. Much of the nitpicks are the same reasons why VanVleet went undrafted: He’s too short, he can’t finish around the rim, he doesn’t work in a two-point guard lineup, he can’t be a lead guard on his own team, and his production can be replaced by cheaper players.
Those fans are missing the forest for the trees.
VanVleet isn’t perfect. He does have limitations owing mostly to his lack of size, which hurts his efficiency and makes it harder for him to get a shot off. But it’s not like there’s anyone throwing a max contract at him and asking him to be perfect. The question should be if VanVleet will be an average starting calibre point guard over the life of his next deal, and the answer is obvious. VanVleet is deserving, and the Raptors should pay him what he deserves.
There needs to be an acknowledgement of how important VanVleet was to this past season. VanVleet was third in minutes, third in scoring, second in assists, and first in steals. In the playoffs, he was first in both scoring and assists, and made double the amount of threes of any other Raptor. VanVleet also took on the most difficult point guard assignments every night, and led the league in deflections at 4.2 per game. That’s not bad for a player who is supposedly too small to effectively play his position.
Early in the year, when Lowry suffered an ankle injury in New Orleans, VanVleet carried the load with averages of 21.2 points, 7.5 assists, and 2.4 steals while leading the Raptors to a 9-2 record with losses coming only to the Clippers and Mavericks on the road. When the season restarted inside the Disney bubble, VanVleet hardly missed a beat as he poured in a career-high 36 points against the Miami Heat, before dominating the decimated Nets and outplaying Kemba Walker in the second round.
Keep in mind that this was VanVleet’s first season as a starter. He was thrust into that role when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left, and he elevated his game accordingly. VanVleet bumped his scoring from 11 to 17.6 points, while maintaining the same efficiency. He led the Raptors in drives per game (14.3), five more than Lowry (9.6), and was the primary initiator on the floor. His presence allowed Lowry to play more off the ball as a shooting guard, and VanVleet also shared great chemistry with Pascal Siakam in the two-man game. He also showed an improved ability to get open without the ball while extending his range to stretch well beyond the arc.
Defensively, VanVleet remains elite for his position. If the Raptors’ defense were a body, Lowry was the brain, Siakam and OG Anunoby were the long limbs, Marc Gasol was the muscle, and VanVleet would be the hands. He ranked fourth in steals, and consistently guarded star point guards. In the Celtics series, VanVleet put the clamps to Walker, and held the four-time All-Star to 26 points on 8-of-26 shooting in direct head-to-head matchups across the seven-game series. This is hardly an outlier, either, as VanVleet had a similar effect on Stephen Curry, Terence Ross, Eric Bledsoe, and J.J. Redick in last year’s championship run. In a league flush with talented point guards, having an elite defender on the perimeter is a must.
In the bigger picture, VanVleet is clearly a piece for the future. He is the obvious successor to Lowry, who is signed for just one more season. VanVleet was Lowry’s understudy for years, became his peer in the backcourt during last year’s playoffs, and the parallels in their careers are hard to deny. Beyond VanVleet, there isn’t much depth at point guard, as rookie Terence Davis’s skillset is currently more geared towards finishing than creating, and Pat McCaw is already overextended as a reserve. A four-year deal for VanVleet would carry him through his twenties, and establish him as a core piece.
VanVleet also embodies the culture that the Raptors have strived to build. He is self-made, a player who famously went from being undrafted to becoming a champion in three short years. VanVleet had to beat four other prospects in training camp back in 2017, just to become the fourth-string point guard. He went to the G-League, won the championship, captained one of the league’s best bench units in 2018, and won a Finals MVP vote in 2019. His trajectory is just as storied as Siakam’s, even though it is rarely told. VanVleet plays the game the right way, shows improvement every season, and emerged as one of the leaders on the team this season. VanVleet was one of the Raptors’ most outspoken players on societal issues inside the bubble, and is widely credited as a veteran leader despite only being in his fourth season.
As with any other case in free agency, there are also long-term considerations to be made. Raptors president Masai Ujiri has repeatedly stated his intent on being a free agency player in 2021, when Giannis Antetokounmpo could be available. In order to create enough cap flexibility to sign a maximum free agent, there is a limit to how much the Raptors will spend to retain VanVleet. Anything above $20 million per year will likely prompt additional salary-shedding deals, although there is significant uncertainty over the NBA’s finances given the massive loss in revenue associated with COVID-19.
But there’s also something to be said about having assets on the books. VanVleet on a four-year deal at roughly $20 million per year is an attractive asset, and he can be moved if necessary. The same thinking should go into the Raptors’ free agency cases with Gasol and Serge Ibaka. The Raptors are not dealing from a surplus of talent, and should be looking to retain their players so long as their contracts are reasonable. Antetokounmpo is more of a pipe dream than a reality, and the Raptors would still need a supporting cast if he were to come. There is of course a walkaway number for VanVleet, but this is not a case where the Raptors should be nickel-and-diming their negotiations. VanVleet was underpaid in his first four seasons, and has earned every penny of what will likely be the biggest contract of his career. He is a core piece for the future, and VanVleet should not be taken for granted in free agency.
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