The Raptors are in their "so what are we?" stage with Fred VanVleet

Feb 6 2023, 6:42 pm

The Toronto Raptors’ front office is learning a valuable life lesson right now: eventually, you’re going to have to sit down to have that conversation you don’t want to have.

With the NBA deadline just three days away, the Raptors are closing in on 365 days when they made their last trade: the February 10, 2022, deal that brought Thad Young to Toronto.

Even after a 4-3 record on their recent West Coast road trip, there are still plenty of question marks around both the short- and l0ng-term future of the franchise, and which players exactly will be on the move ahead of Thursday’s deadline.

Like they’re known to do, Toronto has preached patience during a tough season, where they find themselves on the outside of the postseason picture looking in.

But eventually, they’ll have to make some calls to figure out exactly what the right move to turn the ship around is.

Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes seem like they’re sticking around Toronto ā€” and why wouldn’t they be? Siakam is in the midst of a career year and is the team’s most effective offensive player, while Barnes is set to be the face of the franchise for many years to come.

Gary Trent Jr. and O.G. Anunoby remain in frequent trade rumours.

At age 24 and 25 respectively, both Trent and Anunoby are just entering their expected NBA primes, and serve as extremely valuable assets to either the Raptors or another NBA team.

Out of the Raptors’ regular group of starters, that leaves Fred VanVleet as perhaps the biggest question mark ahead of this week’s deadline, with plenty of suitors reportedly interested in his services.

And the Raptors may be forced to ask the team’s de facto captain the question no one ever wants to be asked: “So, what are we?”

Since signing with the team as an undrafted free agent out of Wichita State in 2016, VanVleet has had about as incredible a career in Toronto as he could’ve ever expected.

A key bench piece of the 2019 NBA championship roster, VanVleet took over a starting role in 2019-20 and has only continued to see his stock rise from there, signing the league’s biggest contract ever for an undrafted player when he committed to Toronto for a four-year deal worth $80 million back in 2020.

In his first season without Kyle Lowry as a teammate last year, VanVleet made the NBA All-Star game in 2022.

He’s found his way into many categories on the franchise’s all-time leaderboards: eighth in points, fourth in assists, and seventh in steals. Should he stick around in Toronto, he’ll continue racking up the accolades and finding his way climbing up the leaderboards.

But if it wereĀ allĀ positives for VanVleet, well, Toronto wouldn’t find itself in its current predicament.

2o22-23 has proven to be a largely up-and-down season for VanVleet, who has dealt with both recurring injuries and shooting slumps to that have taken his effectiveness on the court down just a tad for extended stretches.

Known for his ability to shoot from distance, VanVleet’s three-point percentage was .331 on January 1, well below the league average of .360.

Since the New Year, VanVleet has shot .364 from beyond the arc, which is still slightly below his career mark of .376, but back above league average and a step in the right direction.

He’s still capable of taking over games on any given night, evidenced by eight games where he’s picked up over 30 points (and 17 where he’s registered over 25). But there have been some real, err, stinkers, too, including eight single-digit scoring performances scattered throughout the season.

It’s an uncomfortable conversation for a reason, made even more uncomfortable by the fact Toronto ā€” and VanVleet ā€” are at a crossroads for their future fit together.

Toronto and VanVleet could find themselves parting ways either this week or this offseason… or they could simply block out the possibility of his departure by keeping him past this week’s deadline, and re-upping him on a new long-term deal should he opt out of the final year of his contract as expected this offseason.

He’s stated his desire in the past to play out his whole career in Toronto, but now is as good a time as any to consider if that’s actually how it will pan out.

VanVleet could join a roster for the rest of the season, go on a hopeful playoff run, and emerge this summer as one of the league’s top free agents.

There was a rumoured four-year deal worth $114 million that VanVleet could’ve signed this summer in Toronto, which he acknowledged but disputed was a “formal offer,” as both team and player chose to play out the season before re-negotiating a deal.

Recent reports suggest VanVleet is aiming for a four-year deal worth around $130 million, which would take him to age 33 by the end of the contract.

While some Raptors fans balked at this price ā€” if it’s not Toronto paying it, it’ll likely be someone else. For all his warts, VanVleet has a pedigree few other guards in the league can lay claim to.

And though he’s turning 29 later this month, there’s a reason why NBA teams are willing to bet on point guards the average fan may have deemed as worth moving on from.

Steph Curry just won his fourth NBA title with the Golden State Warriors at age 34. Heck, Kyle Lowry was 33 when he was Toronto’s starting point guard on the 2019 championship roster. And even if he’s not a traditional point guard (or traditional at, well, anything) LeBron James was 35 when he was listed at the #1 spot on the 2020 champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Sure, that’s two surefire Hall of Famers and one potential one VanVleet is being compared to. But just because he’s had a few rough moments this year, doesn’t mean he’ll suddenly see his game fall off a cliff as he enters his 30s.

It’s not like there’s a plug-and-play option for Toronto to simply let VanVleet go without finding a suitable replacement.

Internally, there’s no clear choice to take over the reins as the team’s starting point guard if VanVleet should leave via either trade or free agency, as neither Malachi Flynn nor Dalano Banton appears to have the trust of the Raptors’ coaching staff for extended stretches.

Trying to find a VanVleet replacement through free agency is likely a losing battle too: and one the Raptors have pretty much never been able to accomplish in their history.

That leaves the hitting big in this year’s draft (or finding a great trade) as Toronto’s best option to replace VanVleet.

Only four point guards in team history have ever started 200 games for the team: Lowry, Jose Calderon, Alvin Williams, and Damon Stoudamire.

Stoudamire was drafted by Toronto, Calderon was signed out of Europe, and both Lowry and Williams were acquired via trade.

There’s no clear answer on how to proceed moving forward, but at the very least, Toronto and VanVleet are no doubt having talks about whether it’s time to stick together or cut ties with one another.

Adam LaskarisAdam Laskaris

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