Raptors’ VanVleet: ‘We knew we had a good chance’ to defend title

Fred VanVleet gets up close and personal with the Larry O'Brien trophy. (Alex D'Addese/Sportsnet)

Aside from getting back to doing the job he loves, there’s another reason why Fred VanVleet is eager to resume the NBA season: he wants a chance to defend the Toronto Raptors‘ NBA title.

Sitting second in the Eastern Conference with a 48-18 record, the excitement was building for the Raptors as they inched closer towards the playoffs before the NBA abruptly paused its 2019-20 season on March 12 due to the novel coronavirus.

“It’s part of the reason that everybody wants to get back, at least from our camp,” VanVleet told Rachel Nichols on ESPN’s The Jump on Wednesday.

“We knew we had a good chance, as good a chance as anybody, from obviously what we did last year, and then to come back after losing Kawhi and Danny to have the team that we had this year. We were just basically trying to get through the regular season to kind of see where we’re at for playoffs.”

With reports surfacing each day about what a return to play for the NBA could look like, it seems promising that there could be some sort of basketball being played this summer.

“I think we were really excited to go into [the] post-season and now I think we’re starting to get back excited to kind of say, ‘Hey we still have the same group, our chances are good, everybody’s well-rested,’” VanVleet said. “So whatever basketball looks like when we get back, I think we’ll have a good chance.”

But getting everything aligned to bring basketball back is easier said than done. The NBA is reportedly working to develop its own multi-phase medical/safety protocols, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, with an early projection of resuming play in late July or early August. But a lot of details remain unclear at this point.

Despite the challenges, VanVleet said, for the most part, everyone wants to be back playing.

“I think a lot of guys want to get back out there,” he said. “I do think that there is some serious concern, just regarding health and logistics and how everything will look, and guys being away from their families. I think those are all real things, but at the end of the day this is what we do and this is who we are.”

Although the league is facing a number of challenges, VanVleet said he’s confident there will be some option for returning to play the end of this season. The Raptors point guard said he’s trusting that the NBA’s leadership will make the best decisions for the league, and that players will come to terms with whatever decision is made.

While keeping players safe from COVID-19 remains the top priority, players getting injured after being sidelined at home for months is also a real possibility. As an upcoming free agent, VanVleet said he’s well aware of that risk.

“We’ve seen what happened with Kevin and Klay going down in the Finals last year,” VanVleet told Nichols. “Those guys missed the whole year this year. So, somebody coming back for this and then we miss them for next year, that would be terrible.”

“You don’t want to think about things like that, but you also have to be mindful of every risk that you’re taking when you go out there.”

That said, VanVleet said he hasn’t thought too much about his own free agency — at this point he’s just ready to be on the court with his team.

“I’m just kind of itching to get back out there and hopefully would assume that the league would do what they need to do to make sure guys like myself are taken care of.”

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