Fred VanVleet is having the best offensive season of his life. (No, seriously.)

Let's write the book on VanVleet's season.

In the late 19th century, two men raced to discover as many fossils as possible, and to put them together in recreation of as many dinosaurs as they could. O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope despised one another, and they went to great lengths in their competition, including destroying fossils and putting bones together in ways that never actually happened. For example: the Brontosaurus -- it never existed, but Marsh smushed the bones together and claimed it was a new dinosaur species in order to have two dinosaurs to his tally rather than one. The way we put individual items together to tell a larger story matters. (Much like pointillism!)

There's another, similar story: The parable of the blind men and the elephant. There's a group of blind men who each feels a different part of an elephant, and then they describe their findings to one another to recreate the animal. One thinks it is a snake, another a wall, another a tree trunk. So on and so forth. There are many points to the story, but one of them is that limited descriptors are not the same as an overall classification.

Which brings us to Fred VanVleet. I've written a huge amount about him this season -- well, every season, really. But this season, there are a large number of limited descriptors one could apply to his performance.

  • He adapted his role, scaling down his offensive output to let others run the show.
  • (His role has since changed, and changed again, and his pick and rolls with Jakob Poeltl are now the offensive engine of the team.)
    • By his own admission, VanVleet was particularly poor during an important stretch of the year when Toronto was losing games it needed to win: "Being the leader of the team, you know, that whatever the team is doing is just gonna follow me," he said. "So I was not playing well, to my standard at a time where we needed to win and we were losing."
  • His 3-point slump continued from midway through the 2021-22 season to January of this year. Even though he's firmly out of it now, his 3-point percentage on the year is only 35.0, the lowest of his career.
  • Coinciding with the return of his jumper in January, he's been playing like a star for most of 2023.
  • His point of attack defense was shoddy through much of the season, right up until March. It has now turned around in a big way, but not enough to change his overall impact for the season on the defensive end to a positive.
  • He has been, largely in compensation for his shooting woes, a driving wizard for stretches. (He has been one of the best and most efficient drivers in the NBA in March, shooting 55.6 percent while attacking the hoop.)
  • In many ways because of the drop off in his jumper, he has been at his most effective with the ball in his hands. That has created roster-construction issues because the same has been true for all of Toronto's leaders.
  • Broadly, he is not selfish. In fact, he's been somewhere between very good and excellent as a playmaker. And since the acquisition of Poeltl, he's been excellent full stop, with the 16th-best assist rate in the league.

That's a whole lot of body parts to an elephant. But we must be cautious not to build a Brontosaurus out of these components. What image do all these disparate dots create?

Well, if you go by advanced stats, this has probably been the best season of VanVleet's career. For methodology, I'm using the best five single-number metrics as ranked by NBA staffers and media members in Bryan Kalbrosky's excellent piece from 2021:

If you limit it to the offensive end, his improvements have been even larger. When I asked Nick Nurse to try to explain this being VanVleet's best offensive season in the eyes of the catch-all metrics, he pointed first to VanVleet's good run of health over the last stretch. When I asked VanVleet the same question, he talked about being bad to start the season. So not a lot of unique insight from either of those sources.

Advanced metrics have a host of problems (especially the ones that are measuring something as disparate and undefinable as 'value,') and I'm not using these to say that he's definitely better this year than last. (Our investigation into that hasn't even begun hehe; this is a real behemoth of a piece.) These catch-all metrics aren't the end of the argument but the beginning of it. They are picking up something, though. Let's try to find what it is.

First, a few concessions. Although VanVleet's defense has picked up recently, it's probably clear that he was better last season than this. (And in prior seasons as well.) He remains fantastic as a help defender, shooting gaps with his heavy, meat-hook hands and surprising ballhandlers across the court when they turn their backs. He gets strips under the rim that function like blocks -- and are sometimes, to his chagrin, counted as them. He's a great defensive rebounder at the guard spot. He's sturdy in the post against switches. But you know what? He did all that stuff last year. His point-of-attack defense last year was mostly excellent (until the end of the season, when injury limited him dramatically), and is has been mostly problematic this season (until recently, when it's seemed like health has improved his performance dramatically). His defense has definitely dropped compared to last year, even if he's been solid (or better) for a few weeks now. So let's keep this argument to the offensive end.

It's also clear that he's been a lesser shooter this year than last. His 3-point percentage has dropped, of course, but he's also shot 26.3 percent from deep in the clutch, which is one of the worst marks in the league. The Raptors, of course, are in the midst of a much worse season than they were last year.

What, then, are the catch-all metrics seeing in VanVleet?

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