Sixth Man of the Year: The Case for Fred VanVleet

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: No, no one on the Toronto Raptors is the favourite (or probably even a close second) to win the Sixth Man of the Year award. That title belongs to Lou Williams at the moment, who recently put an exclamation mark on his case by closing out the Raptors last Sunday.

And yes, if someone on the Raptors were to be considered for the Sixth Man award, that someone should probably be the entire bench unit, because they work in mellifluous tandem, a systemic symphony of youthful talent and hard-nosed effort. Each cog is as important as the next, and at any given time one of them can go off. Together, they simply overwhelm.

That said, the question often is raised anyway as to which bench player should be considered for the award, since Sixth Man has never been given to a full second unit.

So in reply, I’ll say this: Great play in subtlety is an art, and no player on the Raptors encapsulates that more than Fred VanVleet. His true value is that he fulfills his role so exceptionally well, with such a stoic certainty, that his impact blends harmoniously with whoever he shares the floor with, resulting in performances that are efficient over flashy, muted over gaudy.

Why is this important? Because it’s precisely what the Raptors need at the controls of their bench group.

VanVleet is the head of the snake, but the body is so imposing that by the time opponents recognize his venom, it’s already too late.

More often than not, Toronto’s bench will enter games and immediately zap opponents thanks to their unrelenting ball movement in a tour de force display of the culture shift that comes in no small part thanks to VanVleet. Despite playing more than double the minutes he did in his rookie year, the point guard’s usage rate is actually lower this season than last (19.1 per cent compared to 20.6), and his assist percentage (22.3 per cent compared to 17.5 in 2016–17) has skyrocketed. Whenever VanVleet catches the ball, he’s already looking for the next best pass.

Even when VanVleet drives, he’s working within the scheme rather than looking for his own numbers. He takes the second-most amount of drives on the team at 8.6 per game, and yet he passes out of them 46.9 per cent of the time, a number that easily eclipses every other Raptor. He’s the engine that gets the car started, and it’s typically someone else slamming on the gas.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that VanVleet never scores. If he can’t find an open teammate or an opponent gives him a sliver of daylight, he’ll attack the rim with gusto, finishing in a myriad of ways (which recently includes kissing the ball high off the glass) and keeping opponents guessing with his wavy, wound-up handle that could fire the rock into an assist at any given moment. This season VanVleet is shooting 58.6 per cent when he’s within three feet of the rim, an enormous improvement from last season’s 42.9 per cent.

On the defensive side of things, VanVleet has been a constant all season long, never afraid to get up into opponents’ grills or take guys one-on-one. He exerts a cold, unabating pressure that, if guys aren’t careful, will result in a turnover on their part (think Chris Paul in the last matchup with Houston). VanVleet’s basketball IQ is through the roof, and he simply always knows where to be, when to trap, when to help, when to switch or stay. It’s all of this that’s resulted in a defensive real plus-minus rating of 1.34, eighth-best in the entire NBA and three spots higher than Kyle Lowry.

The bench unit that VanVleet runs is by far the best bench unit the league, and not only that, it’s actually the sixth-best overall lineup by net rating (21.3) for lineups that have played at least 20 games together.

Again, each piece of the bench is undeniably salient, but it’s the calm omnipresence of VanVleet that has pushed the whole to such a level. Of players who have played at least 60 games and average at least 20 minutes, VanVleet himself has a staggering league-leading net rating of 13.6. He also records 14.7 win shares per 48 minutes (a mark better than Lou Williams).

If that’s not enough to be convincing of his personal impact, Toronto’s best lineup (and third-best in the league by net rating of those that have played 20 games) is Dwane Casey’s closing group that features the starters and VanVleet. They have a net rating of 24.8, and an offensive rating that’s higher than the Golden State Warriors’ closing group, which features four All-Stars.

It’s a luxury for Casey to be able to slip a bench guy into his closing lineup and have it work without a hitch, let alone have that lineup improve. But VanVleet is a player tailor-made for crunch time and big moments—he rarely turns the ball over, he will always make the hustle play, his demeanour is never rattled, and as one play is unfolding, he’s already set up in the next spot, two steps ahead.

It’s for these reasons that VanVleet has earned the trust of his teammates, and so when opportunities do arise for him to make an important shot, they have no problem with him doing so. Unless he’s absurdly hot, he’ll never close games like a Lou Williams, but that’s also not who VanVleet is—he’s not a gunner, and thankfully so, because that’s not what Toronto needs.

No, what Toronto needs is exactly what VanVleet provides. He’s the perfect cog amongst perfect cogs. He’s the quiet, unassuming game-changer. He’s the man behind the curtain.

He’s great within subtlety.

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