The Privilege of Overpaying Fred VanVleet

Whatever the price, Fred VanVleet makes the Raptors balance sheet shine.

10 mins read

The decision around Fred VanVleet is simple: you have to re-sign him because he’s an appreciating asset to the organization. That’s about it. Debating to pay him $15M, $20M or a thousand donkeys is more or less irrelevant. The consideration/fantasy that fans have in their minds is that paying VanVleet what he’ll command on the market may be in conflict with attempting to sign Giannis Antetokounmpo next summer. Unless of course Giannis finds the Danforth appealing enough to forego enough cash to buy the Danforth.

It goes without saying that the Raptors have to be intelligent in how they manage the cap. Given management’s record on this matter it’s fair to trust them to do the right thing when it comes to the numbers. After all, the Raptors don’t have Bryan Colangelo in the house signing players at the whim of whatever wine-infused wet dream Maurizio Gherardini had the night before. Thank God for that. Yes, the way you achieve flexibility in this market is to manage the cap – a very deep dive on that here (paywall).

Another powerful way of achieving that flexibility is to accumulate assets that can be used in transactions which provide financial flexibility when you need it, with only broadly considering how it might impact hypothetical cap scenarios. It’s better if those assets are tied to long term deals, not worse. I am not saying anything profound here and this falls in the realm of common sense more than insight, but trying to plan for what might happen next summer today is difficult and dangerous.

For example, imagine not paying VanVleet enough and losing out on Giannis? That is the worst scenario. Even if the Raptors have to overpay VanVleet to match whatever the Knicks or some other fledgling team throws at him, it’s worth it because his value as an asset exceeds a financial restriction in a hypothetical scenario. Allow me a very brief digression.

The best generals are those who arrive at the results of planning without being tied to plans. That saying is credited to Winston Churchill. The more modern incarnation of similar sentiments takes the form, plans are worthless, but planning is essential. Historians have debated who gets credit for that quote and they toggle between various presidents and generals and others who murdered and plundered in the name of “good”, whatever that meant in the context of that time and place. Conceptually, a similar approach is needed here: the Raptors just can’t be making irreversible bets that are set in stone, and overpaying VanVleet is not one.

Peeking at history the Raptors have rarely been financially constricted in the market because they were saddled with immovable contracts. They were constricted because they had a crappy team and nobody cared to come and play for them. They had hopes of catching Blue Marlins but ended up with some crusty Atlantic Cod. Even then, if they were able to move Hedo Turkoglu, Andrea Bargnani and Jermaine O’Neal without giving up much to placate, I’m confident we’ll be able to move anything. No contract is immovable.

The Raptors have to time the OG Anunoby extension right and see whether they want to extend Norman Powell (entering last year). To me the latter is the one you could move as – don’t kill me for this – in waiting there is a guy with potential in Terence Davis. I’ve loved Powell since the day he got drafted him but you can see where his ceiling is and if you’re in a pinch to give up something somewhere to make room for a max player, I imagine it’s a fairly easy decision here. This is a GM that traded DeMar DeRozan, so someone like Norman Powell doesn’t stand a chance. Masai Ujiri is ruthless. He’ll sacrifice the sacred deer which is in sharp contrast to Colangelo holding onto Bargnani as if any day now he’d reveal himself to be Larry Bird reincarnated.

The Raptors will also have a 35-year old Kyle Lowry coming off the books next season so that’s an additional $30M saved in cap space (could re-sign him to a lower number) to make room for Giannis if that is a real thing.

Going back to Fred, this man has some flaws in his game. I’ve been watching a ton of tape the last few days and his passing does deservedly get a lot of flak. But other than his height there’s nothing in his game that is set in stone enough that he can’t adapt. Yeah, he gets tunnel vision at times and doesn’t consider enough options on the court. Is that something that’s an unshakeable problem? I don’t think so. It’s more coaching than embedded in his DNA. He bombs away from further out more than we’d like to but he did hit his threes at a 39% clip this playoffs. Against Boston he was 32% and struggled, but that can easily be classified as a to-do item to work on rather than a fundamental flaw in his game.

There’s a lot of merit to the argument that the Raptors can’t afford to have VanVleet as their primary playmaker because his game is so off-guardish and that he’s more suited to the two. That previous statement is embedded in a mindset of positions when the league is trending towards positionless basketball. It’s more relevant to speak of having enough playmaking on the team complemented by a floor general.

I have high hopes for Pascal Siakam’s playmaking to improve, and VanVleet’s playmaking, though not great, is good enough to be part of an array of playmakers on a team. The key here is Siakam because nothing creates opportunities on the floor than a player who commands double teams. Part of the reason why VanVleet’s lack of playmaking against the Celtics was noticeable was because Siakam wasn’t attracing a secondary defender. If he’s able to do that the need for the “point guard” to create out of thin air decreases. It almost completely vanishes if you have Giannis on your team as well, as at that point having three-point shooting on the floor is far more important than having a tiny guard who can drive and kick. So, in summary, someone with a general’s mentality trumps having a traditional playmaker.

You might wonder if there is historical precedent of getting to the Finals without a true point guard. There is: Derek Fisher and the Lakers, Mario Chalmers and the Heat, Rajan Rondo and the Celtics, Chauncey Billups and the Pistons, Ron Harper and the Bulls. Yes, some of these teams have all-time greats on them but that was in an era where this seemingly mattered more.

I suppose my main point is this: don’t over-index of Fred VanVleet’s lack of playmaking ability for three main reasons:

  • His leadership on and off the floor is more important (the latter arguably more than the former)
  • His playmaking can be improved through coaching
  • His playmaking is less important than the team’s overall capacity for playmaking

And if you have to overpay him, do it. The Raptors won’t be getting a player as good as him with the money they’d save, so they’ll be in a worse spot without him regardless of whether Giannis ever materializes. His value on the market will only appreciate and help in any major transaction the club is trying to execute.

The tangible problems of losing him far exceed the hypothetical problems of signing him.

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