Fred VanVleet has spoken, and anyone surprised at what he said simply hasn’t paid attention.
The Toronto Raptors guard’s appearance on the JJ Redick podcast, where he voiced ambitions for free agency, predictably went ricocheting around the Internet but only because we’ve reached a stage in athletes speaking honestly – compared with bland nothingness.
For those that missed it:
“I’ve never said it publicly, but I’m not shy about that, I’m trying to get paid man,” he said after Redick asked him how important it was to him to use this free agency window to secure his first big contract. “I value winning. I’ve won a championship (but) now it’s time to cash out. It’s not purely numbers but at the end of the day I just want to feel my value reciprocated on the other side.”
Rest assured, Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster didn’t miss it. Not that they sit around Twitter, poring over their mentions, but they’re kept abreast of Raptors news and this would qualify as something that would reach their ears.
What they heard is the question, and what they’re going to do about it is another.
The word around the NBA is the Raptors maintain a quiet confidence they can get something done with their 26-year-old homegrown star: the relationship is good, the lines of communications remain open, they have history. As well, in theory, they can match or exceed any deal given VanVleet is their own free agent.
But part of that confidence too is an assessment of what the market might be for their undrafted success story.
Assessing what is available league-wide – sifting through the rumours and noise, in other words — and then making attractive offers that fit with their own budget has been an Ujiri/Webster trademark.
When Kyle Lowry was last a free agent in the summer of 2017, the rumour mill had him going to Miami, San Antonio or Minnesota.
Ujiri never flinched.
The Raptors let the game of musical chairs play out, confident of their position, and got their franchise point guard on a fair-for-both sides $90-million deal where Toronto went a little higher on a yearly basis, but kept the term to three years, which was important to them.
Expect a similarly careful process to play out with VanVleet.
The question is what kind of deal he’ll be able to command.
One Eastern Conference executive I spoke with said he wouldn’t be completely surprised if a team put something close to a max contract — $117.3 million over four years — on the table.
The market for point guards is thin and VanVleet – a potential all-star with some all-defence teams in his future — is the best available, and just entering his prime.
He is one season removed from helping the Toronto Raptors win a title and followed that up with a career year – his first a starter – averaging 17.6 points and 6.6 assists while shooting 39 per cent from three on nearly seven attempts a game.
Defensively, he led the NBA in deflections and was fourth in steals.
According to RAPTOR — FiveThirtyEight.com’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) measure – VanVleet’s 6.7 wins added was 18th among all guards and seventh among guards in their first four years of their career. Other catch-all advanced measures also make a strong case for VanVleet.
But if the bidding gets too high, it’s hard to imagine the Raptors going there, however. It would throw any future flexibility they have out of whack and would effectively commit themselves to a long-term core of Pascal Siakam – already on a max deal — VanVleet and likely OG Anunoby (eligible for a rookie extension now or he becomes and restricted free agent next summer) with little room to maneuver after that.
There are worse problems to have, but its peak likely falls short of being a championship contender.
The other view of VanVleet is similar to the one that kept him from being drafted in the first place: he’s undersized, he struggles to create his own shot at times and he finishes poorly at the rim.
And while he’s proven capable and effective leading lineups on his own, it can be different when you become the focus of team’s gameplans over an extended period.
“How much of his success this year was playing alongside Kyle?” mused one executive who isn’t in the market for a point guard. “Kyle makes everyone better.”
The poker game Ujiri and VanVleet’s representation will be playing is which of those interpretations will win out.
The Raptors’ gamble is that short of wild-card offer, they will be able to sign VanVleet at a number and term that honours both his past and future contributions, but fits in with their big-picture plans.
Depending on what they decide to do with Anunoby and whether Norm Powell picks up his player option, among other variables — the Raptors could probably afford to offer VanVleet something in the range of four years and $80 million and still find a way to be a player in the 2021 free-agency bingo.
Would that be enough?
There are teams with salary-cap space teams that could use a point guard and someone with VanVleet’s proven track record of being a locker room tone-setter.
Phoenix, New York and Detroit all come to mind.
The Knicks have the room and the need – they’ve started a different point guard on opening night for the past 10 seasons.
But what direction does newly installed president Leon Rose want to go to bring New York back to relevance?
Does throwing, say, $100 million at VanVleet move the needle for a 21-win team that missed the playoffs for the seventh straight year? Would using that cap space to trade for the likes of Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul make sense?
It’s the Knicks, anything is possible, but league sources indicate that Rose – previously one of the most powerful agents in basketball – is acutely aware that his first big move needs to be the right one and paying top dollar for a point guard with one year as a starter on his resume comes with its own set of risks.
The Detroit knows exactly what VanVleet brings – Pistons head coach Dwane Casey had VanVleet in Toronto for his first three seasons.
He would be a good fit as the leader of a talented young core, but league sources indicate that as much as the Pistons respect VanVleet and would love to have him, they have a ceiling that they won’t exceed, likely about $20 million a year.
The Atlanta Hawks have money but have an undersized, ball-dominant point guard in Trae Young. They have bigger needs than VanVleet, regardless of what he can bring to a team.
The Suns were thought to be a threat to scoop VanVleet when he was a free agent in 2018 and could create enough cap space to offer a deal starting at $19 million annually, but the Raptors could like match that.
So how likely is it VanVleet’s desire to get his “bag” means leaving Toronto?
It should be pointed out, that even as VanVleet was expressing his desire to get paid, in his next breath he was realistic about what that might mean.
“I’m a businessman at heart … but I do value certain things when picking between franchises that are offering the same number,” he said. “That part will be easy … we know what teams are what.”
And VanVleet knows what the Raptors are about more than anyone, and they know what he’s about too.