Toronto Raptors face tough decision with Fred VanVleet’s future

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 13: Fred VanVleet
PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 13: Fred VanVleet /

Sometimes organizations have to make tough calls on players who have breakout performances, and that could be the case with the Toronto Raptors and Fred VanVleet.

Backcourts don’t get more stacked than the Toronto Raptors with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Delon Wright, Norman Powell, C.J. Miles and Fred VanVleet.

It’s hard to stand out among those names when initially undrafted but VanVleet found a way to flourish within the Raptors’ garden of guards.

Small guards need one of two things to success; fearlessness or foresight. VanVleet has the former. At an unremarkable height of 6 foot, he has carved out a path to prominence among NBA giants.

Posting career-high numbers throughout individual games and the season, “Steady Freddy” ascended to another level.

The 23-year-old started as the third-string point guard on this squad and never stopped evolving. With 7.9 points, 2.7 assists and a steal on 40 percent three-point shooting on the season, he is closing in on understudy numbers.

Since Jan. 1, VanVleet has cashed in 12.1 points per game while shooting 51.5 percent from the floor, 49.2 percent from 3-point range and 67.6 percent true shooting in 20.6 minutes of play. He’s also maintaining a 131 offensive rating.

Steady Freddy plays like he’s magnetized to the rim.

Just like a starting lineup, the bench needs an initiator, the crank to the machine that makes the cogs move. VanVleet’s left hand is made of gold and he isn’t afraid to flash it, with 43 percent of all his shots coming from around the rim ranking him as the 90th percentile in frequency. Dwane Casey has fully committed to a dual point guard bench backcourt, which is really an inversion of roles.

Playing alongside Wright, the nominal shooting guard but practical point guard gives VanVleet the impetus to attack as freely as the shooting guard on the offensive end.

Wright warps the defence on drives to leave VanVleet open the perimeter to cash in threes with ludicrous efficiency. And without anyone else looking to be the ball-dominant scorer off the bench, VanVleet found himself in a scorers dreamscape which is leading to an exceeding year.

Toronto Raptors
Toronto Raptors /

A career year coupled with a contract season means a payday, but it’s unclear whether the Toronto Raptors will be able to make the payment. VanVleet is making $1.3 million this year and that will change drastically in July.  In 2016. VanVleet’s impact and numbers would demand a $12-14 million contract; teams were just throwing money at players.

This offseason is proving to be a bear market as most teams are down to the mid-level exception but there are still some with wiggle room.

There are 12 teams with $10 million or more in cap space and a handful of them could really use a backup point. Orlando, Phoenix, Dallas and Sacramento (if the George Hill trade ever goes through) are the most likely teams and they aren’t the most careful franchises with funds.

Vanvleet is a restricted free agent with early bird rights, so the Raptors will have a chance to match any offer that comes his way, although it’s not that simple.  Early Bird rights only allow the exception of signing a free agent to 175 percent of his previous salary or 104.5 percent of the league-average salary, whichever is greater, while over the salary cap.

Last year’s average salary was a little over $8 million. Unless there’s an unforeseen influx in spending this year the average salary will hover around the same mark.

As the roster is currently constructed, the Raptors are over the cap and just under the luxury tax. The absolute most they can offer VanVleet during the off-season, without making serious roster changes is the mid-level exception (MLE). A healthy sum of money at a little over $8 million, but if a larger deal comes around the Raptors have to acquiesce the loss of VanVleet.

Masai Ujiri spent years with the Raptors to build it into a reputable organization that takes care of its players, but money talks.

Loyalty is a lie that teams and players peddle during the season to help fans sleep at night, but it doesn’t exist in the NBA. Stars get traded without prior knowledge and role players ascribe to the C.R.E.A.M. mantra.

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The only players in the NBA who take less than they’re worth are those whose value exceeds what the maximum contract in the league is and those who chase rings.

VanVleet is neither and before this season he was nobody; he doesn’t owe anyone anything. If the money is right he can and should take it.

And if Toronto really sense that VanVleet’s value is at an all-time high, trading him is a viable option. The Illinois native is shooting at an elite level from deep and he’s a reliable scorer off the bench.

He may not be a Lou Williams type, but he’s a true spark. VanVleet isn’t the typical backup point guard he’s very much unlike the Kirk Hinrich‘s of the world, he has the energy to his play.

Losing a player for nothing is a GM’s living nightmare especially when they’re young.  VanVleet’s best years are assuredly ahead of him, but moving him only makes sense if there’s a worthwhile player on the market. The Raptors are true contenders this year and with LeBron James leading a paper tiger, the path to the finals is clearer than ever.

Steady Freddy is almost too intricate to trade for nothing but possibly too good to re-sign. A wing or a big that can shoot is the only thing that makes sense for the Raptors to target, but the mark hasn’t materialized (Marco Belinelli isn’t enough for Fred VanVleet). And a trade for picks is possible but foolish for a team in the second seed and aspiring for a seat in the finals.

It’s taken him two years to cobble this together, but VanVleet’s dream season is a reality.  His play is astonishing and he’s only trending upwards.  Undrafted, undersized and underutilized; the deck was stacked against VanVleet when starting his career but now he holds all the cards.

Next: Raptors dominate the Celtics

Steady Freddy is getting paid this off-season as long as he keeps producing at this level. It’s up to the Toronto Raptors to determine who doles out the dollars.