VanVleet's Raptors future could be decided after Celtics playoff series

Aug 29 2020, 12:16 am

For everything Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet already has accomplished, it feels like there’s still another gear left to come. He’s an NBA champion, but he did so as a backup playing under 25 minutes a night.

He’s frequently in discussion as one of the league’s better guards, but he’s yet to crack an All-Star roster. And perhaps most importantly for the Raptors, he’s a near-irreplaceable asset in his first season as a full-time starter, but still yet to sign a contract extension past this year. 

VanVleet’s mantra of “bet on yourself” has worked out admirably throughout his four-year pro career, with his two-year deal signed in 2018 priming him for a “big-boy” deal that should pay him handsomely as an unrestricted free agent.

Whether it’s four games, seven, or anywhere in between, whether Toronto wins or loses — VanVleet and the Raptors will be getting a crash course very quickly as to what their future could look like in their upcoming series against the Boston Celtics.

What does a VanVleet deal even look like?

There’s no room for nickel-and-diming such an important piece of the roster.

If Toronto’s front office chooses they want VanVleet to stay and the feeling is mutual, it’s a deep enough roster that it shouldn’t be much of a problem to find a way to fit him in if other pieces need to be moved out to do so.

Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol’s contracts coming off the books create an interesting challenge for Bobby Webster and Masai Ujiri, but coming strictly from an age and expected future production standpoint, VanVleet has to be the Raptors’ top priority.

VanVleet himself has said prior to this season that “in a perfect world,” he’d like to remain a Raptor. 

From a basketball standpoint, Toronto is likely everything VanVleet could’ve asked for when he signed as an undrafted free agent out of Wichita State in 2016.

He’s been a great piece of a fantastic project, but The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported earlier this week that VanVleet could have an opportunity to really truly become “the guy” somewhere else, with Phoenix, New York, and Detroit all being top potential destinations to shift back to his traditional point guard role.

Wherever he ends up, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that Indiana guard Malcolm Brogdon’s four-year, $85 million deal from last season serves as a likely comparable.

The Boston task

We’ve seen VanVleet step up when it counts against Milwaukee, going 14-for-17 from three-point range in the final three games of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

We’ve seen him tear down Golden State on their home court, putting up 22 points in a Game 6 Finals victory to clinch last year’s championship. There’s no debating VanVleet’s talent and abilities at this point.

But we’ve never seen him in a high-pressure playoff situation without Kyle Lowry available before, a possibility with the Raptors point guard leaving Game 4 against Brooklyn on Sunday with a left ankle sprain. It’s still unclear whether he suits up to start the series, and if he’s out, that leaves VanVleet as the team’s defacto primary ball handler on the offence.

Can Lowry get his health close to 100% before the end of this series? It’s possible, maybe even likely if there are no setbacks. But regardless of how he recovers or whether he’s even able to play, Lowry and the Raptors will undoubtedly need VanVleet to shoulder a larger workload than usual, especially in the early games.

Whether you look at base box score or the more advanced stats between the two this regular season, Lowry’s role on the team remains more prominent:

2019-20 VanVleet Lowry
Points/game 17.6 19.4
Assists/game 6.6 7.5
Box Plus-Minus (BPM) 2.7 3.2
Value over Replacement Player (VORP) 2.3 2.8
Player Efficiency Rating (PER) 16.3 17.7

This creates an interesting dilemma for the Raptors’ front office, as Lowry has just one season left on his deal at age 34. Do the Raptors try to sign VanVleet long-term in the offseason, and let Lowry walk a year from now, hoping that the former’s rise will be acceptable enough as a Lowry replacement? Or do they look to retain the backcourt duo into Lowry’s mid-to-late 30s, hoping he’s able to keep contributing despite time no longer being on his side? 

One playoff series is a very small sample size to judge how you’ll want to move forward in a contract negotiation.

On the flip side, you’ll never get a better testing ground than right now with a banged-up Lowry to check out what the Raptors could look like in the future with VanVleet driving the bus against a tough Celtics roster.

With Boston coming off a sweep of a Philadelphia 76ers team that was missing All-Star point guard Ben Simmons, the parallels are there that this is a Celtics team that can pounce on one key piece missing.

Every scout around the league will be zeroed in on VanVleet’s performance against the Celtics, for better or for worse. For a player who’s always primed himself on stepping up to the challenge, there will be no better time to once again prove his worth.

Adam LaskarisAdam Laskaris

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