Fred VanVleet is a player interlinked with the philosophies that define the Toronto Raptors: Grittiness, toughness, a lunch-pail and hardhat mentality and the determination to bet on yourself. His presence has defined much of what the Raptors pride themselves on.
More than a holdover from the We The North era, VanVleet has made the Raptors in large part his team — from his developmental years in the G-League, to becoming a key sixth man during the 2019 NBA championship run, to then finally finding his spot in the starting lineup alongside Kyle Lowry. Despite inconsistencies in his play, VanVleet has been a steady presence in Toronto.
Fast forward to 2022-23 and an underperforming Raptors team. This squad should be, on paper, better than what it is now. That’s lead to a conundrum of sorts, with the franchise having to decide which direction it should go: tear it apart or stick with this core. The decision on VanVleet will show which path they choose in many ways.
VanVleet, 28, is likely to become a free agent this summer by declining his $22.8-million player option for next season. Though rumours were floated around (and promptly denied) about the all-star guard and front office discussing an extension last offseason, talk of him staying in Toronto has died down as the NBA trade deadline looms on Feb. 9.
After firing his agent last week, reports circulated linking the guard with Klutch Sports ahead of his impending free agency, likely furthering the narrative that he’s set to test the waters — which would be a not-so-surprising move for a player whose mantra is to bet on himself.
Though VanVleet has turned it up in his last nine games — averaging 26.6 points, 7.9 assists and 2.9 steals + blocks per game — his story this season has been one of inconsistency. During this stretch, he has been knocking down threes at a 41.0 per cent clip. He also locked down his first triple-double of the year on Wednesday against the Utah Jazz with a 34/12/10 performance.
Despite the up-and-down season, the value VanVleet could bring to any team is clear: championship pedigree, leadership, and — when looking at the more tangible factors of his game — a microwave scorer with the ability to be a floor general.
If the Raptors choose to keep the Rockford, Ill. native and sign him to an extension, they retain a player synonymous with this era of Toronto basketball. He’s a player who, even on off-shooting nights, can help guide the team with his playmaking and nose-to-the-grindstone defensive hustle.
However, if the team decides to move on from VanVleet, there will be no shortage of suitors lining up for his services. Whether he’s the last piece for a contending team or a veteran presence for a squad on the rise, he’s a player that can fit in any scheme and make an impact.
In the first part of this series leading up to the trade deadline, we’ll look over some potential landing spots for VanVleet, and the pros and cons of dealing him to each prospective team on this list.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
In an effort to potentially reunite the 2019 Raptors championship squad, recent reports from The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor linked VanVleet (as well as Kyle Lowry) to the Clippers, with the Los Angeles squad hoping to make an upgrade to its in-flux backcourt.
Moreover, owner Steve Ballmer has the deepest pockets in the league with seemingly no intention of slowing down until he gets that ring. Considering how much the franchise has spent on wings Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, can you blame him?
VanVleet could be that final piece — a more gifted distributor and point-of-attack defender than either Reggie Jackson or John Wall. Working alongside George and former Raptors running mate Leonard, VanVleet could make the Clippers — who already hold opponents to the third-least points per game in the league — one of the most versatile two-way teams in the league.
Draft assets: For the Raptors, though, the return package might not be the most alluring option on the table with most of the Clippers’ future first-round picks already belonging to the Oklahoma City Thunder — a consequence of the deal to bring George to Los Angeles. They also don’t have young players that fit the rebuild or retool philosophy. However, they can deal their 2027 and 2029 first-rounders, which could be valuable when projecting a few years ahead, with both Leonard and George set to become free agents at that point with no concrete succession plan in place.
Possible player targets: Toronto would likely have to absorb some longer-term contracts from the Clippers so that the salaries would match. A combination of two of Nicolas Batum (two years, $10.8 million), Luke Kennard (two years, $14.4 million + a team option) or Robert Covington (two years, $12.3 million) would do the trick. If Masai Ujiri wants a younger piece in return, the 26-year-old Terrence Mann would likely have to be the piece on the table. On one hand, they’re taking on some older players whose salaries might restrict the Raptors during free agency this summer, but on the other, each of the names listed above are solid depth adds to a team without a semblance of depth.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The Lakers, as it currently stands, are out of a playoff or play-in spot. However, the standings out West are tight, with only three-and-a-half games (and a couple egregious missed foul calls) separating the Lakers from the sixth-seed Dallas Mavericks.
They were the first team to get the ball rolling this trade season, sending guard Kendrick Nunn and three second-round picks to the Washington Wizards for forward Rui Hachimura, potentially signalling their intentions to get more into the mix as the deadline draws near.
As mentioned earlier, VanVleet has been linked to Klutch Sports, an agency well-known for its ties with Lakers superstar LeBron James. This past off-season, four players affiliated with Klutch joined the Los Angeles outfit: Lonnie Walker IV, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Troy Brown Jr. and Scotty Pippen Jr.
As for VanVleet’s fit alongside James and Anthony Davis, he would likely slide into a starting role, supplanting Patrick Beverley as the lead guard. He would likely be given a more off-ball role, doing damage in the catch-and-shoot and complementing the ball-dominant James and Russell Westbrook.
Draft assets: Similar to the Clippers, though, the return package wouldn’t be good for the Raptors short-term with the Lakers sparse on young talent and not in control of any of their picks from now until 2027. The value would come in projection, as the Lakers could be a team in the gutter come 2027 if they go all-in now.
Possible player target: With the Lakers trading away Nunn, it makes it a bit harder to match salaries especially if they intend to keep Russell Westbrook and his $47 million salary (if they do send Russ, additional pieces would have to be included from the Raptors to make it work). A package that sends Beverley (one year, $13 million), Damian Jones (two years, $2.2 million), Troy Brown Jr. (one year, $1.8 million), and a combination of the Lakers’ available picks (2027 unprotected first, 2023 second, and 2025 second) could make it work.
On Monday night, Luka Doncic had his fourth 50-plus point game this season — pure dominance. But in each of those games, the Mavericks won by single-digit margins, with Doncic essentially dragging his team to a win each time. His usage rate of 38.4 per cent this season ranks fifth all-time and his career rate of 35.5 (according to statmuse) is first.
Despite blowing out even Iron Chef Bobby Flay himself in the unwritten “let him cook metric,” Doncic needs help if the Mavericks truly intend to contend this season. After losing Jalen Brunson this off-season, the workload heaped onto the Slovenian superstar’s shoulders has only increased.
Spencer Dinwiddie, his current backcourt running mate, has done a solid job, averaging 17.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists. However, the rest of the names on the depth chart are more suited to a game of Guess Who? than an NBA game. Theo Pinson and McKinley Wright IV, anyone? According to Cleaning the Glass, the Mavericks have an 11.8 on/off point differential when Doncic is on the court, ranking in the 96th percentile in the league.
VanVleet would fix that problem and more, shifting him back into an off-ball role alongside Doncic and working as a better point-of-attack defender than anyone else on the Mavericks’ depth chart. He’d get significantly more open looks and slot right into the five-wide scheme Dallas loves to run. When Doncic is off the floor, VanVleet and Dinwiddie can easily split the ball-handling load.
Draft assets: In return, the Mavericks do still possess most of their future picks, with control over their selections from 2024-2029, so an assortment of one or two of those picks would sweeten the pot for Toronto.
Possible player target: To match salaries, the Raptors could ask for promising young guards Josh Green (two years, $3.0 million) or Jaden Hardy (three years, $1.0 million). Still, they would also have to absorb the salary from a combination of two of the following players: Canadian Dwight Powell (one year, $11.0 million), Reggie Bullock (two years, $10.0 million), or Davis Bertans (three years, $16.0 million … yikes).
One of these teams is not like the others. The Magic aren’t contenders by any stretch of the imagination. Currently 20-31 and sitting 13th in the Eastern Conference, they have no intention of making a playoff push this season. So why would they look at VanVleet as a potential target?
The Magic have the fourth-youngest roster in the NBA, with an average age of 23.5. But more importantly, they’re shaping up to be one of the most promising young cores in the league. Paolo Banchero looks like a strong first-overall pick, Franz Wagner has taken massive strides this year and Bol Bol has been the surprise of the season.
What the Magic don’t have right now is a veteran, with the oldest guy on the team being 31-year-old former Raptors wing Terrence Ross. Despite incremental improvements from former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, he likely isn’t the long-term solution at the point for Orlando either. The hope was that 2021 fifth-overall pick Jalen Suggs would take that role, however, another year plagued by injury and inconsistency might force a change in plan from Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman – a former member of the Raptors’ front office.
VanVleet could be the piece the Magic need to lead this team to success in years to come. With him facilitating for Banchero and Wagner, instilling a championship pedigree into the locker room, this could be a core ready to take the next step in the next few years.
Draft assets: The Magic have a bevy of picks at their disposal, possessing nine first-round picks and 12 second-round picks between now and 2029. The cost for VanVleet could likely weigh upon how many picks the Raptors want in return, however, one first next year and a pick swap somewhere down the line could likely seal the deal.
Possible player targets: This could also be one of the more intriguing returns for the Raptors in terms of players coming back, with a package that could consist of a combination of Gary Harris (two years, $13 million), Mo Bamba (two years, $10 million), and Ross (one year, $11 million), all of which could be solid depth additions for a Raptors squad starving for just that.