How much money is too much for Fred VanVleet?

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With fan-favorite Fred VanVleet set to hit free agency, the Toronto Raptors will have to face a difficult decision about bringing him back.  Especially with other teams ready to throw big money his way.

In just over a year’s time, Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet has gone from ordinary role player to household name.  After being a hero in last year’s championship run, he improved his scoring output from 11 to almost 18 points per game this season.

Given his widespread popularity in Toronto, it’s no wonder why fans believe the Raptors should pay whatever price to bring him back when he hits free agency this offseason. That price, however, could be from $80-100 million over 4 years, and team president Masai Ujiri needs to ask himself if it’s a move worth making.

For starters, the Toronto Raptors’ number one priority is having cap space for when league MVP Giannis Antetokoumpo hits the market in the Summer of 2021.  With Pascal Siakam already making max money, paying Fred as well would make things more difficult in that regard.

For those of you reading this and thinking:  “This guy is crazy, VanVleet is a star, pay him whatever he wants!” Let’s take a step back for a second and assume he’ll in fact cost 20-22 million per season.  Then, let’s look at some of the players he would be making a higher salary than:

Players’ salary:                                                  Last season stats:

  • Domantas Sabonis: $17.2 million             18.5 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 54.0 fg%
  • Caris Levert: $16.1 million                           18.7 PPG, 4.4 APG. 42.5 fg%
  • Aaron Gordon: $18.1 million                       14.4 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 43.7 fg%
  • Bam Adebayo: $5 million                             15.9 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 55.7 fg%
  • Jusuf Nurkic: $12 million (8 games)          17.6 PPG, 10.3 RPG 49.5 fg%
  • Dennis Schroder: $15.5 million                  18.9 PPG, 4.0 APG, 46.9 fg%
  • Fred VanVleet: 22 million?                           17.6 PPG, 6.6 APG, 41.3 fg%

(stats courtesy of https://www.basketball-reference.com)

See the dilemma?  VanVleet is held in high regard by fans, but his stats actually aren’t good enough to justify a contract over $20 million per season.

In the Toronto Raptors’ case, they owe Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam $30 million each next year, adding Fred’s assumed $20-22 million, and the possibility of signing Montrez Harrell and the books will be all clogged up heading into next summer (not to mention bringing back Serge Ibaka).

You could argue that Lowry will be coming off the books when he hits free agency next year.  Keep in mind, however, so too does OG Anunoby, who will certainly cost in the $20-25 million range to retain, so the money will be reallocated there if Lowry takes a lesser deal to return.

Then, there’s VanVleet’s performance from this past postseason, and the team’s clear ceiling when having him as a focal point of the offense.  In the first round, he torched a Brooklyn team that resembled a pickup squad at the YMCA, but against the Boston Celtics; a good defensive team with size on the perimeter, he struggled.  His small size makes it difficult to create in the playoffs when teams can scheme and take away your first and second move as a player.

Fred’s heart, leadership, and defensive prowess can’t go unmentioned, and he did put up over 18 points a game in the series.  He shot just 35% from the field and 31% from three though, and frankly, missed a boatload of shots.  VanVleet is much better suited as a third or fourth option and secondary playmaker and paying your third or fourth-best player over $20 million a season is ludicrous. Not to mention his injury history: he’s played over 64 games just once in his career.

So what does all this mean? Well, the simple answer is that Fred VanVleet will be the highest-paid third option in the league next year if Toronto gives up the money to bring him back.

All you have to do to understand my reasoning is look at the San Antonio Spurs (the Toronto Raptors’ franchise model), or even the New England Patriots, and how they were able to win 5 and 6 championships respectively over the last 21 years.  The formula is quite simple:

  • Draft well and develop talent
  • When that talent becomes too expensive, let a dumb team overpay knowing that you can internally find 75% of the production at a fraction of the cost (See Terrence Davis).

After all, this is the NBA, and there are plenty of bad teams willing to overpay a player like VanVleet.  The New York Knicks, the league’s poster child for dumb roster moves, are an obvious suitor.  As are The Detroit Pistons; another basketball wasteland in their own right.

The Toronto Raptors will try to convince VanVleet to take less money, but it’s hard to imagine an undrafted player passing up a huge deal if it’s thrown his way, even with the loyalty he has to the organization.  It wouldn’t be a popular decision to let VanVleet walk, but popular isn’t always best.

As we all witnessed when Masai Ujiri shipped away the franchise’s most beloved player (DeMar Derozan) in cold blood and ended up with a title.  For what he’ll likely cost, it might be the right thing to do letting someone else write VanVleet the cheque.

Paying non-superstars superstar money is a good way to derail a franchise for years. Just ask the Milwaukee Bucks, who would probably be willing to trade Eric Bledsoe’s albatross contract for a left shoe if they could.

Next: 5 things we’ll remember the most from Marc Gasol

Ujiri has proven he’s too smart to let that happen.