Why VanVleet's decision is preventing Raptors from making any big moves

May 24 2023, 8:56 pm

Where do the Toronto Raptors go from here?

As much as it’s up to the team’s front office of President Masai Ujiri and General Manager Bobby Webster about the direction the team heads this offseason, Toronto’s summer will largely be dictated by one Fred VanVleet.

In an era of NBA player empowerment, the star point guard’s decision to enter free agency and leave the Raptors — or stick around either on a new multi-year contract or his current deal with Toronto — is the catalyst that sets Toronto’s offseason in motion.

Since Toronto was ousted in the play-in tournament by the Chicago Bulls back in April, there’s been a few major news stories about the team’s outlook for next season, but they’ve largely been centred around a replacement for recently fired head coach Nick Nurse.

Nobody really knows what this team will look like come October, but it’s nearly impossible to structure out the team direction without figuring out what the deal is with VanVleet.

And until some clarity on VanVleet’s future comes to the forefront, nearly all other discussions about big moves for the team’s future can’t really be held in good faith.

Where do things stand between the Raptors and VanVleet?

According to a report earlier this month from Heavy.com’s Steve Bulpett, Ujiri was “really frustrated” with  VanVleet’s lack of discussion about his future in Toronto.

With one year left on his current contract with a player option, VanVleet has until June 15 (per Sportsnet’s Blake Murphy) to decide if he’ll pick up his $20 million cap hit next season or look for a bigger contract in Toronto or elsewhere.

It’s been widely reported that VanVleet is set to decline that option, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s planning to leave the Raptors, as he could re-sign for up to a new four-year deal this summer.

“I think the relationship’s in a good place… we built something special here. I think just my whole NBA life is here,” VanVleet told reporters at his end-of-season media availability last month. “That holds some value in some way.”

He’s spent his entire professional career with the Raptors organization after signing with the team in 2016 out of Wichita State.

But like many Raptors, VanVleet likely isn’t too happy the team hasn’t had much playoff success over the last three years, last winning a postseason round back in 2020.

“I don’t want to necessarily go through another season like this. I think that we can certainly be better than we were,” VanVleet added.

What does Toronto look like next year with  — or without — VanVleet?

VanVleet averaged 19.3 points, 7.2 assists, and 4.1 rebounds in 69 games this season, shooting 39.3% from the field and 34.2% from three-point range. Coming off his first all-star appearance in 2022, VanVleet had several inconsistent shooting stretches over the course of the season but still had the ability to put up big-game performances, putting up 25 points or more on 23 different occasions last year.

The Raptors were pretty dreadful to watch for much of the 2022-23 season, finishing with a 41-41 record where they largely felt like they never really reached that supposed next gear.

But imagine how listless they’d look without an experienced point guard?

Sure, maybe they put Pascal Siakam or Scottie Barnes in charge of their offence for the time being, but there’s no natural point guard in Toronto’s pipeline, as neither Dalano Banton nor Malachi Flynn has garnered much success at the NBA level over the last two and three seasons respectively.

Perhaps they find a VanVleet replacement at 13th overall at this year’s draft, but it’s hard to imagine a mid-first-round rookie immediately taking over a starting point guard job on a team with playoff aspirations.

The Raptors have never really been a front office that likes to bottom out and tank, but they’d be putting a lot on a new face should VanVleet walk this summer. If Toronto wasn’t a playoff team with a recent All-Star running their offence, it’s hard to imagine they’d be any better without him.

But if VanVleet does leave the Raptors, perhaps Toronto could begin the more serious discussions around what to do with the rest of their roster, and if they’ll keep or trade key players like Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, and Gary Trent Jr., all of whom have been the subject of frequent trade rumours.

Then there’s Jakob Poeltl, Toronto’s prized trade deadline acquisition, who could also enter free agency this summer and might be more inclined to leave should an old pal in VanVleet not be around for him next season.

There are plenty of directions Toronto could head this summer in what’s an inflection point for their front office. For now, though, it’s a waiting game, with VanVleet holding all the chips.

Adam LaskarisAdam Laskaris

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