Bet on yourself.
That’s the mantra Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet has spent his entire basketball career adhering to and, as he’s about to enter unrestricted free agency for the first time, it’s one that he’ll hope serious suitors are willing to recognize the results of and, subsequently, reward.
"I'm trying to get paid, man,” VanVleet said when asked about the topic on The Old Man & the Three, a podcast hosted by New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick and Tommy Alter. “I'm not shy about that. I don't have to tell people that I value winning. Just look at my story, do your research. I've never been on a losing team in my entire life. That's what I'm about. And that's just what it is. I won a championship and now it's time to cash out.”
VanVleet has absolutely earned his payday. He went from being undrafted in 2016 (he turned down multiple teams interested in taking him in the second round), to being picked up by Toronto and helping Raptors 905 to its first and only title in 2017, to being a key part of the Raptors’ bench mob during the 2017-18 season (in which he finished as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate), to being a starter on a championship team in 2019.
Following his initial signing with the Raptors, VanVleet entered his first free agency period in 2018 with restricted status, meaning that Toronto could match anything another team offered and was ultimately able to find common ground for a two-year, $18-million deal that satiated both sides.
Now, VanVleet is in control of his own destiny, exactly where he likes to be. And as one of this off-season’s marquee free agents, he’ll potentially have more choices than ever.
“I’m gonna look at all the offers on the table,” VanVleet said on the podcast. “I know what I feel like I’m worth, and I’ll see if their minds are in the same place as me and if not, then we’ll take the best deal that’s on the table.”
And while money understandably appears to be the driving factor in VanVleet’s decision-making process, it’s not the only one.
Playing alongside Kyle Lowry certainly has its boons and has proven VanVleet to be a lethal off-ball player and secondary creator, but the opportunity to take on a more substantial function in the offence (and therefore the next logical step in development as a potential lead guard) has consequently been difficult to come by.
“I'm 26, I'm only four years in but I feel like I'm on the verge of blossoming even more with more of a lead role and just taking more responsibility in my game, so all of those things factor into [my decision]," VanVleet said. "But at the end of the day, it's not purely numbers but the numbers do play a big part and I just wanna feel my value reciprocated from the other end.”
This sort of role isn’t necessarily unattainable in Toronto, since Lowry is 34 and will be 35 next March, but it’s also not something the Raptors can offer right away. The other six teams with significant cap space this off-season (Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Phoenix Suns), on the other hand, do have the means to offer more money and, in some cases, a larger role.
But that doesn’t mean a VanVleet departure from Toronto is inevitable. In fact, the most recent reports from the teams expected to target VanVleet have suggested that they’re going in alternative directions — at least, right now, pre-free agency.
According to reports, the Hawks have interest in Jrue Holiday, the Suns are looking at Chris Paul, the Pistons have floated that they may prefer to act as a dumping ground for unwanted salaries in order to garner draft picks, and the Knicks are uncertain about compromising cap room for all but a few players.
That leaves the Heat, who, like the Raptors, have their own lofty goals for 2021 free agency that will prevent them from signing a player like VanVleet, and the Hornets.
Everything is fluid when it comes to sports, but at the moment the market appears to be narrowing, and that can only be good news for the Raptors. On top of that, the fact that the cap and luxury tax are now set to increase by between three and 10 per cent following the 2020-21 season does give Toronto a tad more flexibility to work with going forward.
“I’m a businessman at heart,” VanVleet said, “but I do value certain things when it comes to actually picking between franchises that are offering the same number, so that part’s gonna be easy.”
Whatever decision VanVleet ends up making this off-season, he’ll at least be able to rest easy knowing that he’s the one who made it. Betting on himself has paid off to this point, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue.
“I'm not gonna play hard to get,” VanVleet said. “I'm not gonna try to outsmart myself and try to stack teams against each other, but we'll see what the numbers look like when they come in. We'll try to make the best decision, but I'm a pretty simple guy. It's not that difficult for me."