This is the second entry in an ongoing series looking to predict how players and strategies of the Toronto Raptors will fare in the playoffs. The first entry, about Pascal Siakam, can be found here.
The opening to Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities was intended to describe the highs and lows of London and Paris, but it could equally apply to Fred VanVleet’s 2018-19 playoff run.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”
Truly, VanVleet had nothing before him for a time. After a 14-point outing in game one of the playoffs, VanVleet didn’t again score in double digits for 38 long days. He cratered against the Philadelphia 76ers when he scored one solitary point across games two, three, and four of the series combined. It was rough. He was attempting shots like this.
(VanVleet was blocked more by James Ennis III in those three games than he scored total points. He averaged 2.0 points per game against the Sixers.)
The nadir didn’t last. Midway through the series against the Milwaukee Bucks, VanVleet turned into the human embodiment of Apollo, blazing away against his opponents in a fury of wisdom, Light, and hope. Over the last nine games of the playoffs, after he turned it around, VanVleet averaged 14.7 points per game while shooting 52.7 percent from deep. Those numbers, in and of themselves, aren’t difficult to fathom. Indeed, he’s averaging 18.0 points per game this year. But it was the way he got his points that was so breathtaking. Suddenly, VanVleet had everything before him.
The 2018-19 playoffs was, for VanVleet, the best of times and the worst of times. That makes projecting VanVleet’s upcoming playoff performance difficult. He surely will not have such variance between games as he had last year. Furthermore, his game this year has grown since the 2018-19 playoffs. His assist rate has skyrocketed while his turnovers have remained low. His usage has gone up, but his efficiency has remained high. In short, he has grown into a much stronger lead ball-handler this year.
I’ve already taken a deep dive into how VanVleet’s game this year is different from years past. I wrote this then, and much of it helps explain why VanVleet struggled so much against the gigantic Sixers in the playoffs:
“VanVleet is still a relatively low-level finisher. He has never shot better than 42 percent on drives in his career. Length bothers him quite a bit. If he didn’t have those flaws on the offensive end, he would be a max player, and we would be talking about VanVleet in the same breath as prime Deron Williams.”
As an update, those issues remain the same. VanVleet takes a ton of shots at the rim, but he only converts approximately half of them, which is poor for attempts around the rim, where shots are supposed to be easiest. Those same problems that persist now were much of the reason why VanVleet struggled for much of the playoffs last year.
Of course, when VanVleet struggled against the Sixers and Bucks, he was still given a relatively long leash by Nick Nurse. He offered a variety of other positives beyond scoring, not the least of which was his defensive brilliance. This year, VanVleet offers even more of those secondary skills.
He is far more than just a spot-up shooter, so if his shot goes wayward, he can still contribute positively to Toronto’s on-court product. VanVleet remains an elite defender. He is a much better passer this year, particularly to rollers out of ball-screen actions. He deepened his range to several feet behind the arc, particularly on the wings, so he provides even more spacing to teammates. (The reason he deepened his range, by the way, was specifically because of his struggles against Philadelphia in the playoffs.)
“We’ve tried to get them in better places so we don’t get those blocked,” said Nick Nurse in advance of his a home game against the 76ers on January 22. “We’ve tried to work on some mechanics. We’ve tried to lengthen range, a combination of five or six things to try to free them up because we need those. We need Fred’s 3s.”
VanVleet scored 22 points with eight assists against the Sixers in that home win. He scored 14 points with eight assists in seven total games against the Sixers in the playoffs. This year, in three games against the Sixers, one of which was shortened when he left because of injury, he has shot 17-of-33 from deep. Clearly, things are different.
Some of those plays that went VanVleet’s way this year against the Sixers looked quite different in last year’s playoff series. This assist to Serge Ibaka comes out of a similar pick-and-roll with an empty strong side as the above clip which saw Ennis blocking VanVleet. This time, VanVleet makes a quicker decision, and Toronto benefits. That Joel Embiid is not defending the action matters, of course, but the point remains the same that VanVleet’s initiation ability has improved.
(As long as we’re comparing plays from VanVleet this year to those from his playoff run, watch a pull-up triple against the Sixers this year that closely resembles the pull-up three clipped above against the Warriors in the NBA Finals.)
Nurse has said explicitly, though vaguely, that he has used his regular season matchups against the Sixers to prepare certain things for an eventual playoff matchup. The team, as well as VanVleet himself, is doing all it can to ensure that the struggles from 2018-19 are dead and buried.
“We did get a couple really good buckets out of a couple of things that we thought might work tonight,” said Nurse after the team’s win on January 22. “We had a couple of the same things that were wide open, and we blew the layup or whatever. There were a couple of ideas we had going in there that did prove to be pretty good.”
In other words, the team is making sure that VanVleet won’t average two points a game for an entire series; he has made sure of that himself. If the lowest low of his career performance, the worst of times, won’t be repeated, then that leaves VanVleet in good shape. If defenses can no longer make his weaknesses the loudest part of his game, then VanVleet is poised to have a strong playoff performance, no matter the opponent.
Of course, his weaknesses do remain. He is still a coin-toss finisher against length, particularly against help when it’s coming from outside of his sight lines. He is still a poor isolation scorer. His ability to score from the mid-range, where defenses frequently coax him, is unreliable. Those things remain true, despite VanVleet’s breakout performance this year.
But it seems as though VanVleet can no longer be turned into a total negative as a result of his weaknesses. He has scored in single digits only four times this year, and one of those was because he played only 12 minutes due to injury. He was held to single-digit scoring 25 times in last year’s regular season and 15 times in the playoff run. The occasional low floor of VanVleet’s game, that too often defined his performance, no longer seems to exist. Now, a poor game from VanVleet is far more likely to include perhaps a poor shooting night, but enough other positives to keep him on the floor as one of Toronto’s most important players.
It seems that nothing can render VanVleet unplayable. Hopefully, he can no longer slump as low as he did during last year’s playoffs. It’s likely, however, that his highs will remain as high as they did against Milwaukee and Golden State. Higher, even. The same improvements that have raised his floor also raise his ceiling. Games in which he shoots seven-of-nine from deep, for example, no longer seem extraordinary at all. He has made them par for the course. And now he adds double-digit assists in those games, too.
So expect to see VanVleet explode from time to time in the playoffs, as has become the occasional norm for him. Expect to once again relive the age of wisdom, the epoch of belief. But perhaps the winter of despair has been eschewed from his game. It’s likely then that VanVleet’s upcoming playoffs will be the best of times with no corresponding worst of times to sully his performance.