Fred VanVleet is now the most important player for these Toronto Raptors

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Like it or not, these Toronto Raptors are Fred VanVleet’s team.

VanVleet currently leads the Raptors in per game shot attempts, assists, raw plus-minus while ranking second in points and steals. The team’s offense collapses whenever he sits on the bench, managing an offensive rating of 101.8, lowest by far on the team. Also, 101.8 is a worse offensive rating than the league-worst Minnesota Timberwolves possess as a team.

His impact on the team’s offense goes far beyond the overall numbers; VanVleet is second on the team in touches and first in average time of possession, dribbles per touch, and seconds per touch. All that to say: he has the ball in his hands more than anyone else.

When VanVleet plays, he doesn’t alter Toronto’s shot profile to a wide extent. They take a comparable number of triples and layups, though there are a few more mid-range attempts. The Raptors make all their shots at a similar rate with VanVleet on or off the floor. But his biggest impact is in stability; the team commits 13.1 turnovers per 100 possessions when VanVleet plays and a whopping 19.2 per 100 with him off. His ability to limit his lineups’ turnovers is 99th percentile leaguewide. VanVleet himself commits only 1.9 turnovers per game, fewest in the league among players who score 15 or more points per game.

VanVleet represents solidity for the Raptors. Of course, Toronto’s Jan. 31 Orlando Magic game was an exception, but I was suspicious that VanVleet’s four turnovers in that game were the result of hard contact he took in the second quarter, and Nick Nurse confirmed that theory when I asked him: “I think it shook him up a little bit,” said Nurse. “I did ask him coming out of the game and he said yeah he was alright but we’ll see.”

VanVleet was woozy, and I’m speculating here, but it’s possible he enters the concussion protocol. If that happens, the Raptors would miss him in a variety of ways.

A few seasons ago VanVleet raised the team’s ceiling by popping off the bench to hit catch-and-shoot triples and play elite guard defense. Now he raises the floor, too. He slows the pace, but the Raptors still get equal-quality shots, even though they play much more often in the half-court with VanVleet at the helm. He is a textbook case of the eye test frequently being wrong. For all of the (incorrect) criticism lobbed at VanVleet for overdribbling, or for being a shooting guard rather than a point guard, he has only helped the team offensively by playing on the ball.

VanVleet’s leveled-up passing ability is a key reason why.

Before the Magic game, VanVleet was one of seven players in the league to have teammates attempting double digit 2-pointers and double digit 3-pointers off of his passes, per NBA Advanced Stats. The others on that list, by the way, are Luka Doncic, James Harden, Ben Simmons, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, and Russell Westbrook. That’s royal company that shouldn’t allow admittance to an undrafted, sub-six-foot guard. But VanVleet has made himself into Toronto’s premier star, at least so far this season. His passes are the blood that runs through the vein’s of Toronto’s offense.

This season, Toronto’s shooters are connecting on 40.3 percent of triples off of VanVleet passes. That’s the first time in his career that shooters are hitting at a higher rate from his passes than not. He has become a master at using a screen, snaking it to penetrate into the middle of the lane, drawing help defenders from awkward angles, and kicking to open shooters.

Even when defenses switch so that VanVleet doesn’t have easy attacking angles, he is so quick with such a tight handle that few bigs can stay in front of him. He will penetrate middle regardless. And when VanVleet has forced one defender to guard two shooters orbiting his drive, he’s able to manipulate with his eyes and create an even more open look.

The reason why VanVleet is drawing help defenders when he reaches the middle of the floor is because he has become a threat from the mid-range seemingly overnight. Last season, VanVleet shot 28.8 percent on pull-ups from 2-point range on only 1.4 attempts per game. That was a contributing factor to Toronto’s loss to the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, as the Celtics defanged him by switching their big onto VanVleet in the pick-and-roll and asking Toronto’s guard to fire open jumpers from the mid-range. He wasn’t able to hurt the Celtics for that choice.

This season, VanVleet is hitting on 45.5 percent on pull-up 2s, while attempting a beefier 2.8 per game. That’s not a game-breaking percentage, but it’s enough that defenders need to guard him. It’s enough to open seams when VanVleet reaches the middle of the floor, thus allowing his passing to become an even deadlier weapon. NBA players don’t need to be elite at every skill to be elite at some. But they do need to be passable across the floor, or else defenses will find ways to circumvent players’ strengths. VanVleet has circuitously unlocked his passing by becoming a better mid-range scorer.

On top of being phenomenal at creating 3-pointers for teammates, VanVleet has become a very good creator of 2-pointers, as well. He was good at passing out of pick-and-rolls for triples last season, if not as great as he has become. But he has never been above average at passing to his roller and creating shots at the rim. Until now.

Of course, VanVleet remains an elite defender (damnit). An All-NBA caliber defender. But he’s not alone on the defensive end. Statistically, Anunoby bears the weight of the defense on his shoulders more squarely than VanVleet, and Kyle Lowry is similarly effective. Toronto’s defense is held up by a few of fantastic defenders, and VanVleet is one of them. But the offense has become more of a one-man show; that’s where VanVleet’s impact can be seen most clearly.

The fact of the matter is that without VanVleet on the floor, the Raptors have not been able to muster an effective offense. Not even groups with Lowry and Siakam together have been successful with VanVleet on the bench, as those lineups have played 138 possessions together and scored at a 58th-percentile rate.

That’s middling, which is not enough when your two reigning All-Stars play together. And it doesn’t have to do entirely with VanVleet. Last year, Lowry-and-Siakam groups scored at a 97th-percentile rate without VanVleet. (It was still above 90th without either of Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol.) The point here is that Toronto’s two stars last season, in Lowry and Siakam, are no longer playing like stars this season. Other than in isolated moments, such as against the Magic, Lowry and Siakam aren’t able to lift the lineups around them, not in the same way VanVleet has done.

Flip the conditions, however, and Toronto’s numbers are stellar; the Raptors have scored at a 93rd-pecentile rate with VanVleet playing and Siakam and Lowry on the bench. VanVleet without either of the other offensive stars has been enough to cobble together a positive offense.

While that reflects well on VanVleet, it points to a larger issue for the Raptors. Before the Magic game improved his on-off net rating — and that underscores how small these sample sizes still are — the Raptors were better with Lowry off the floor. That has never happened before in Lowry’s history with the Raptors. Siakam has the second worst on-off net rating among rotation players, just behind Aron Baynes, at -4.9. There are signs that both could be coming around, and Siakam has scored 62 points in his last two games, while Lowry recorded 15 assists against the Magic. The sample size being so small means this trend may well not hold for the rest of the season, but they’ll need to put together more than a few star-level games for either to surpass VanVleet as Toronto’s best player this season.

While Toronto’s two reigning All-Stars and erstwhile leaders have not been able to lift lineups alone, VanVleet has picked up the slack. He has been transitioning into a more ball-dominant role for years, and this year — to my eye, as I can’t think of a publicly available statistic to prove or disprove this — is the first time that Toronto is most effective with him on the ball rather than off of it.

That’s an incredible glow up for VanVleet. For those keeping score at home, he has gone from Raptors 905 champion to Raptors bench sparkplug to locker room leader to on-court leader. A logical progression, if an unexpected one. Despite the team’s consistent inconsistency this season, the Raptors sit at 8-12, just one game out of playoff position. Without VanVleet’s incredible performance through 20 games, the Raptors could be in a worse position. He has surpassed Lowry and Siakam, at least through 20 games, in both quality and quantity of creation for his teammates. There’s plenty this Raptors season at which to be upset, but VanVleet is not one of those negatives. It may change going forward, but these Raptors are VanVleet’s team now.