The Toronto Raptors’ most important free agent is staying at home.
Fred VanVleet has agreed to re-sign with the Raptors on a two-year, $18-million deal, according to a report from Shams Charania.
This is, honestly, a really great deal for both sides. The idea of a two-year bridge contract to get VanVleet to unrestricted free agency in a better market in 2020 was something that seemed especially possible once the Phoenix Suns, ostensibly his likeliest suitor, used their cap space on Trevor Ariza. It’s perhaps a bit surprising that the Raptors went to the full maximum they could offer VanVleet given that they won’t be getting an inexpensive third and fourth year on the contract, and this maintains a ton of cap flexibility for 2020 an 2021, and the Raptors will have full Bird rights on VanVleet when he re-enters the market at age 26 in 2020. This also prevents VanVleet from exploring the restricted free agent market further, where a team could have offered the full four-year non-taxpayer mid-level exception or, in a few unlikely cases, still managed to back-load an Arenas Provision offer for VanVleet that would have been hard for Toronto to match without eroding significant 2020 or 2021 cap space.
VanVleet is also worth the $9 million (technically, I believe his two-year maximum is $18.5 million if the Raptors are using his Early Bird rights to sign him; using the non-taxpayer mid-level exception would hard-cap them). It seems like a big number for a backup point guard on a team deep with expensive backcourt pieces, but it’s an entirely reasonable price for what VanVleet brings to the table.
He’s still just 24, and while the bulk of his value rests in intangibles, it takes all of a few plays watching him to understand how he helps drive Toronto’s success. Foremost, VanVleet is a hyper-intelligent player on both ends of the floor, with his defensive anticipation and toughness helping make up for a relative lack of size and his composure and savvy on offense helping settle what’s often a very inexperienced group around him. He also possesses deep range on his 3-point shot, which has allowed him to seamlessly play with Kyle Lowry or Delon Wright, working both on and off the ball. He drilled 41.4 percent of more than three 3-point attempts per-game last year and ranked in the 84th percentile as a spot-up shooter, per Synergy Sports, and if he can improve his finishing around the rim – he shot just 56.5 percent there, which was in the 14th percentile for point guards, per Cleaning the Glass – his upside can shift even higher. He gets to the restricted area very well for someone without high-end burst, as his savvy in the pick-and-roll has helped him find a great balance with any of the team’s centers, something not all of their guards can boast. He ranked in the 92nd percentile, per Synergy, in points per-possession with assists included, which is remarkable for a sophomore.
All told, he was among the league’s very best bench players last year and established himself as one of the league’s top back-up point guard. That he finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting was not simply a product of Toronto’s Bench Mob – VanVleet drove that performance a great deal and also helped drive the performance of others when he played alongside them, ranking first on the team and fourth in the entire NBA in net rating. His counting stats were fairly modest because he played just 20 minutes per-game, and 8.3 points and 3.2 assists undersell his value to the team. To wit, he graded out well by just about any advanced metric, and because he’s coming back into the exact same role, barring other major changes, it’s fairly straightforward to project him to succeed once again next year. Player Impact Plus Minus, for example, is the most robust metric on VanVleet and had his three-year worth with the Raptors at nearly $42 million, with the 40th-best 2018-19 predictive PIPM in the league. Even pricing in some grains of salt or some 3-point regression (I’m not sure that’s necessary), VanVleet projects to be quite solid from here, and maybe even better than that.
Metrics aside, this is a continued bet on a player the Raptors identified as their type of guy back before the 2016 draft. He’s become a locker room leader and a carrier of the team’s culture, his hard-working, bet-on-yourself mentality defining the ethos of the entire young core along with Norman Powell. There is genuine value in making your players feel valued and showing them that sort of light at the end of the grind, and showing VanVleet respect with a sizable offer right out of the gate is a prudent move. In rewarding his ascension from undrafted free agent on a small, $50,000 training camp guarantee to a full-fledged piece of the core, the Raptors are once again displaying that they’ll reward their own, even if financial complications come with a deal.
And there are some financial complications, to be sure. VanVleet’s $8.24-million first-year salary pushes the Raptors well into the tax, with a current estimate of $23.6 million in tax payments if they filled out the roster with minimum contracts from here. This could signal that the Raptors believe they can find a home for Powell or one of the team’s other high-priced players in a bit of a salary dump, and they have plenty of offseason to figure that out, though they’ve killed some of their leverage here by getting the VanVleet deal done early. That’s likely worthwhile – VanVleet was always going to be a major priority, and the league would have known the Raptors need to shed salary to re-sign him, anyway. There’s also not a great sense of urgency, as the Raptors could theoretically lessen their tax bill in-season, too. There’s work still to be done this offseason, and it seems unlikely VanVleet returning is the start of the full 11-man rotation coming back in tact.
For now, they’ve got their guy, and they’ve got him out of the gate in free agency. This is a big day for the Raptors and, obviously, a huge one for VanVleet. Objective analysis aside, it’s great to see a player and person like VanVleet be rewarded for the bet on himself and all of the hard work to get to this point. He’s been among the easiest Raptors to root for since arriving, and now he’ll remain a big part of the remainder of this competitive window Masai Ujiri and company have built through what appears to be a potential 2020 pivot.