If you’ve been disappointed in the performance of Greivis Vasquez since the Toronto Raptors acquired him on December 8, you’re not alone; nobody is more critical of his play so far in Toronto than the man himself.
Acquired in the Rudy Gay deal from the Sacramento Kings, Vasquez was expected to vastly improve the back-up point guard position and, perhaps, take over the reigns as starter when Kyle Lowry was inevitably dealt. The team’s success has changed the inevitability of the latter, but the former hasn’t come to fruition either. Vasquez is struggling since coming to Toronto, and there’s no arguing that fact.
It’s obvious from watching that Vasquez hasn’t quite found his role yet with the team. He’s the back-up point guard, sure, but he’s also used to getting heavy run over the past three years and is now a limited reserve. He’s also playing with mostly new teammates and, at times, sharing the floor with another point guard in Kyle Lowry. None of these are excuses, they are simply realities of suiting up for a new team.
If you haven’t been watching or don’t trust your eyes, consider the following comparison. The “Pre-Trade” row shows Vasquez’ production in his two-plus seasons before joining the Raptors and the “Post-Trade” row shows is production through 28 games in Toronto:
This is no slouch that expectations got unreasonably high for, this is the man who led the NBA in total assists last season. There is a lot of offensive talent there, he just hasn’t been able to put it on display yet.
While he wouldn’t make the excuse when he spoke to Raptors Republic before the team’s current road trip, it’s not difficult to imagine that jumping from team to team would take its toll. He spent a year in Memphis, two in New Orleans, 18 games in Sacramento and now here he is. Maybe he’s an expert at working his way into new situations by now, but it’s also possible that the constant demands of learning new systems and new teammates has left him less time to focus on his own game.
With the trade to Toronto, even more obstacles manifested. Due to visa issues, Vasquez was apart from his young children at Christmas. This is also the first time he’s really struggled for a prolonged period, and one can only imagine the anxiety that would come with playing in a new city, with new teammates, and struggling, It’s a difficult job at the best of times; amid tumult, it’s surely exhausting.
Vasquez is a restricted free agent following the season. The Raptors can qualify him with a $3.2 million offer to retain his rights, giving them the ability to match any offer Vasquez signs. With so much up in the air surrounding Lowry’s future and the direction of the team in general, it’s hard to get a feel for where Vasquez might fit long-term. Here’s Vasquez discussing the matter.
On his role
“I feel like eventually, not right now because it’s not important but being a starting point guard is my goal eventually…I want to show that I’m healthy and more than that I want to show that I’ve got my rhythm back and I’ve got my stuff back.”
On the city of Toronto
“You know what, I’ll tell you this man: If I get to choose where I can go, I don’t want to leave.”
On the future in general and how the team winning is good for everyone
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen. It’s gonna be a big summer for a lot of people. I’m not really worried. I think when you win, winning cures everything and when you’re winning every team is watching. Right now, I think we’re one of the most fun teams to watch in the NBA.”
To make matters worse, Vasquez entered the season coming off surgery on both ankles that kept him out of international competition for Venezuela and pretty much rendered him unable to train in the summer.
“The whole year has been rough for me, to be honest,” Vasquez said. “I’m not playing the way I really want to play but it’s not really about me, it’s about the team.
“I was out the whole summer. I’m the type of player, I have to do work continuously, on a consistent basis. I can’t just stop. I’m not the most athletic guy. Like (Russell) Westbrook will be out for six months and come back and be dunking on people.”
There are positive signs, however, that Vasquez could be finding his groove with the Raptors. His health has something to do with that.
“I had a rough time with my surgery but actually right now is the healthiest I feel,” Vasquez said. “I was dunking today in practice!”
Of late, he appears to have found a knack for hitting momentum-swinging threes, and as such his performance may, on the surface, feel better than it would otherwise. Big threes in a comeback stand out in the memory, and the availability heuristic makes it easy to think of Treyvis (he laughed at the nickname) as a clutch shooter. In reality, he’s a 32.2 percent career 3-point shooter and is hitting just 30.3 percent of those attempts with Toronto.
But he has been looking more involved, if not more efficient. In the past 10 games, he’s averaging 8.8 points, three rebounds and 5.1 assists compared to 5.9, 1.9 and 3.1 in the 18 games before that. His field goal percentage has jumped from 32.8 percent to 39 percent and, while he still doesn’t hit many, a greater proportion of his shots have been threes, which are still relatively more valuable than his twos.
Most importantly, the team is playing well. Vasquez was quick to remind me that while we were discussing him, his approach is a team-first one. Believe it or not from the boxscore stats, Vasquez hasn’t hindered that success at all. While the team’s offense slides from 107 points per 100 possessions (PPC) to 104.3 when Vasquez enters the game, the team’s defense has surprisingly improved from 103.8 PPC to 93.4
That’s surely overstating Vasquez’ defensive impact – he’s below-average defensively, at best – but the important part is that the team is winning, handedly, when he’s out there. His Net Rating of 10.9 is tops on the team, and while it’s only been 546 minutes, it’s tough to look at the totality of his play and say “this guy is a negative.” Sacramento played better without him, in part due to the lights-out play of Isaiah Thomas, but in both seasons with New Orleans the team was better at both ends with Vasquez on the floor.
The wrinkle that is most enticing given the team’s sudden lack of wing depth is that Vasquez and Kyle Lowry are flashing appreciable chemistry. When the Raptors run both point guards out (195 minutes in 22 games), the team is outscoring opponents by 11.7 PPC.
The impact is two-fold: Lowry’s defensive ability allows Vasquez to hide on the lesser of the opposing guards, and Vasquez’ playmaking frees up Lowry to play more off the ball, where he’s proving deadly. The Raptors assist on two-thirds of their made field goals when the pair is on the floor, a ridiculous rate. Lowry ranks third in the NBA in points per possession off of hand-offs, 13th in spot-up situations and 51st off of screens; playing him off the ball has been just as deadly as him handling the ball (he ranks 45th as a pick-and-roll ball-handler).
“Honestly, it’s easier to play with two point guards, especially when you’ve got two guys who are very unselfish, worried about winning,” said Lowry. “For me, it makes my job a lot easier because he can handle the ball. He makes great plays, he makes great decisions and I can get more open shots and that’s always a plus for our team.”
Lowry also enjoys getting to play off-ball, especially when DeMar DeRozan – who claims Lowry is “running all my plays” – is off the floor.
“It’s fun. You get a little tired, but it’s fun. I like it,” Lowry said.
This isn’t new for Vasquez. He split time with Thomas in Sacramento and spent a good chunk of his first year in New Orleans sharing the floor with Jarrett Jack. It also isn’t new for Lowry, who is familiar splitting time with Jose Calderon, Goran Dragic and Mike Conley.
“Agree,” said Vasquez when I made this point.
“The distribution of the ball, the management of the ball is just so much better and it’s hard to guard. As of right now, it’s working. The biggest thing is our chemistry. It’s spontaneous. It’s natural.”
Specifically, Vasquez identifies the pick-and-roll – his specialty – as the area where the Raptors are most able to make hay with the smaller look. He’s quick to credit Lowry, however, as the core reason teams can’t seem to score against the two-point guard lineup (two-PG looks are notoriously ineffective on defense).
“He’s playing at a high level right now, “said Vasquez. “We’ve all got to take advantage of that because you can play another point at the two or the three. Having a guy like Kyle is really important for us and he’s always going to help me.
“And we’re playing great defense, too, as a team. Kyle is the leader of the pack defensively, taking charges and all that, so he’s really covering for all of us.”
Of course, those whose support Vasquez has lost early in his tenure, and it seems there are plenty in the fanbase, will point to the fact that everybody is playing well right now, especially with Lowry. They’re not wrong, which is why we highlighted Vasquez’ moderate statistical improvements earlier. But the Venezuelan isn’t content with moderate improvement.
“Now I feel very healthy,” he said. “I expect myself to really pick it up the second half of the season and do a lot better. I think I can do so much better.
“I promise it’s going to be a different Greivis, for the better.”