A contract year that isn't quite a contract year. A team that has regressed in many ways. The divided wants of a team of individuals. The utter lack of harmony. The Toronto Raptors.
One of the great predictors of year-to-year success in the NBA is continuity in a roster. Both in who stays, and the minutes they play. The Raptors -- after their surprising march to the 5th seed last season -- made a bet on continuity, internal growth, and a version of Otto Porter Jr. that had use of all ten toes. The internal growth came in some places, and continues too, but the Raptors growth has been more of a double-down. Scottie Barnes' playmaking improved by some measure, and so too did Pascal Siakam's (along with a number of things). O.G. Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. have both diversified their driving games. All of these skills allows for different shots, yes, but they were supposed to allow for more playmaking opportunities - and those that shooters most often reward.
The team grew in ways that needs to be accompanied by shooting. This season, though? They are the 5th worst team in the NBA from 4-14 feet. The 3rd worst team from 14-feet to the 3-point line. And finally, horrifically, the 2nd worst team in the NBA when it comes to shooting threes.
It's deeply unfortunate that Fred VanVleet can't be mentioned among his peers in the "look how they've improved" paragraph. It's even more unfortunate that the Raptors expected to be able to toss VanVleet into most of their lineups and know that his shooting is what would validate a lot of the playmaking that is coming from their larger creators.
The first question I asked on media day? To Fred VanVleet, about how much of a weapon his catch and shoot three will be this year.
"Yeah, I think again, more of what we've been doing. We've found success, we gotta zero in on what that means for everybody. There's certain things that we do well, there's certain things that we try that we don't do so well. I'm not one of those guys that needs to play with the ball, or needs to play without the ball. Like, I'm just a basketball player, and I can make it work." VanVleet said to me, before busting out a huge smile and saying the following: "The funny part is, this thing has grown like I'm the one dominating the ball the whole game. I don't even feel like I have the ball that much. So, maybe I'm the crazy one. But, definitely keep creating catch and shoots, that's the easiest shot on the basketball court for me. And we'll see how many of those we can create. But, we definitely got the weapons and the personnel to do that. So, we keep growing. We gotta work, we gotta get to work, and it's not gonna be pretty. So, you guys can write whatever you want, but I think we start the work with the goal in mind to build a championship caliber team."
It's painfully ironic that this is the first year in VanVleet's career where the pull-up and catch and shoot threes have gone in at basically the same percentage on large volume. As VanVleet rose to prominence he was the ultimate complimentary player. And now, he is the author of his own success just as often, if not more. There's less abstract explanations for why this has been the case for VanVleet. Myself and Louis Zatzman explore them here.