Toronto Raptors 2019-20 Player Review: Fred VanVleet’s career year

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One of the biggest offseason questions facing the Toronto Raptors this fall is the free agency of Fred VanVleet. As an unrestricted free agent, VanVleet has the freedom to take his talents to a new team — or to stick with the only NBA team he’s ever played for (with a hefty raise).

Will VanVleet be back with the Raptors next year — and at what cost?

Perhaps we need a bit of a review of who and what Fred VanVleet is to help us understand what VanVleet’s market will be this summer. And, by sheer coincidence — it’s player review time!

Let’s cast our gaze back over the past 11 months and try and summarize VanVleet’s 2019-20 season, so that we might in turn predict his future.

The Numbers

VanVleet had a career year in 2019-20. He averaged 17.6 points per game, 3.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.9 steals in 35.7 minutes per game, all career highs. While he did hit a career best 84.8 percent from the free throw line, VanVleet’s field goal percentages (41.3% from the field, 39% from three) and true shooting percentage (.553) weren’t quite career highs, but still decent — especially when you consider the heavier load he was handling (career-high usage of 21.7%), and that his minutes mainly came against against starters, as opposed to his bench role of previous years.

He also notched a career high 36 points against Miami on August 7, and a playoff career high 30 against the Nets in Game 1 of their first round series.

Starting Surprise

Coming in to training camp, with last year’s starting two-guard Danny Green off to the Lakers, shooting guard seemed — at least to fans — like it was Norman Powell’s spot to lose. VanVleet, more generally used as a backup point guard in the past, seemed likely to continue that role, but Nick Nurse had other ideas.

Despite a hot preseason from Powell, VanVleet was the given the opportunity to start alongside Kyle Lowry in the (rather small!) backcourt, and as soon as opening night it seemed like the right choice — VanVleet scored 34 points on 18 shots as the Raptors defeated the New Orleans Pelicans in overtime. He started all 65 games (54 regular season, 11 postseason) in which he appeared, either alongside Lowry as the nominal two-guard or alongside Powell as the nominal point guard in games where Lowry was hurt.

So if you juxtapose the numbers above, against the role VanVleet stepped in to, well, I don’t think you can argue that VanVleet exceeded expectations this year. And considering his background — small guard from a small school, undrafted, spent most of first season in the D-League — VanVleet’s career to date has been a resounding success.

Defensive Specialist

Along with being the starting two guard and backup point guard, VanVleet was often tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best backcourt scorer, and he was generally successful at — if not locking them down — at least making their lives difficult. Let’s not forget that VanVleet was the “and-1” in Nick Nurse’s now-infamous “box-and-1” from last year’s NBA Finals (that VanVleet is sponsored by and wears And1 shoes is the icing on that particular cake), and he filled that role admirably throughout the season.

VanVleet’s biggest value on the defensive end may have been as a help defender, though. He excelled at “digging down” when opposing players went to work in the post or came across the lane, and at denying passing lanes, all of which led to a league-leading 4.2 deflections per game along with his 1.9 steals (tied for third-best in the league). And lest you think that VanVleet was gambling to get those steals, he rarely found himself out of position — he tied for sixth in the league contesting three-point shots, at 4.3 contests per game.

(Somehow, despite these numbers, VanVleet received only two second-place votes for the All-Defensive team. Commence eye-rolling!)

The “Needs Improvement” Category

VanVleet had a career year, but that doesn’t mean he’s a finished product by any means. There are at least two critical areas that VanVleet needs to work on.

First, as a primary ballhandler. The Raptors ran more pick-and-roll plays with VanVleet as the primary ball handler than any other player (5.8 possessions per game), but scored only .84 points per possession on 38% shooting. That scoring rate is 90th in the league amongst players who ran at least two PnRs per game; by comparison, Kyle Lowry ran 5.4 PnRs per game, and the Raptors scored 1.02 points (14th in the league) on 47% shooting on those plays.

Beyond the numbers, the eye-test shows numerous instances of VanVleet straight up missing his roll man on passes (and occasionally, even dribbling into him). I’m sure I yelled “hit Serge!” at my screen at least twice a game during VanVleet-Ibaka pick-and-roll actions.

In other words, the Raptors simply don’t generate high-quality looks when VanVleet’s running the show. So, the playmaking for others out of those situations has to get better.

The other thing that needs to improve, and this is the tougher of the two, is VanVleet’s finishing ability at the rim. VanVleet shot a downright-lousy 48.5% on 293 shots within five feet of the hoop, which is good for 264th out of 273 players who attempted at least two such shots per game. Not great, Bob!

Given VanVleet’s size and, ah, less-than-explosive athletic ability, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t shoot that well in amongst the tall trees. But the sheer number of attempts at that rate (he’s 20th amongst guards in attempts <5 feet, with 5.4 per game) is somewhat surprising. VanVleet has some crafty low dribbles and hesitation moves that get him to the hoop, but if he can’t finish there, then those are wasted possessions.

By comparison, VanVleet shot 44% on 3.9 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game. If you flipped those attempt numbers, and VanVleet shot 5.4 catch-and-shoot threes per game instead of 3.9, which is about two total extra points per game, by my math.

The Right Role

All of which is to say that I’m not sure the Raptors are putting VanVleet in the best position to succeed. While it’s true they can only work within the limitations their personnel, and when Kyle Lowry is out of the game, VanVleet is the best remaining lead guard (and, given Lowry’s off-the-ball shooting ability, it makes sense for VanVleet to take some plays on the ball even when he and Lowry share the court), I think there were more opportunities to use VanVleet more off-ball, as more of a traditional two-guard. He’ll never be Rip Hamilton or Reggie Miller running off screens, but when a player proves ineffective at running the pick-and-roll, and ineffective at scoring at the rim, but also shoots that well on catch-and-shoot opportunities (VanVleet’s 44% from downtown tied for 14th in the league amongst players with 2+ attempts per game, but his 3.9 attempts are tired for 48th), it seems to only make sense to try and get him as many of those positive opportunities as possible!

Getting a third point guard would help, as will Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby making strides as ballhandlers and playmakers. Getting an offensive fulcrum that draws massive attention — like, say Giannis Antetokounmpo — would certainly help as well!

Summing up 2019-20

VanVleet, along with just about everyone on the raptors, struggled to score against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, shooting just 34.8% from the floor, and only 44% from within five feet. That poor offensive output led to him posting a team-worst -6.6 +/- for the series.

So despite the overall excellent season VanVleet had, the series against Boston also brought VanVleet’s limitations into clear focus. He’s an excellent defender, an excellent shooter (especially off the catch), he’s an okay ball handler and playmaker, and a poor finisher at the rim.

VanVleet also offers up plenty of those “intangibles” we all love but can’t really quantify — he’s often a steadying presence on the floor when games threaten to get out of hand, he’s never shaky in clutch situations, he can be counted on to take and make big shots, he’s tough as nails, and he’ll gladly take the toughest defensive assignment. He’s a leader and although he’s only been in the league four years, it’s clear the younger players look up to him as a veteran mentor.

What’s Next for Fred VanVleet?

Which leads us to the 2020 offseason, and VanVleet’s free agency. What is all of the above worth to the Toronto Raptors? What might it be worth to other teams — teams that need a point guard, like the Knicks or Suns, or perhaps the Chicago Bulls, in VanVleet’s home state of Illinois? Maybe Dwane Casey makes a pitch to be reunited with his former player in Detroit?

Our salary cap master Daniel Hackett has the full breakdown here on what the Raptors can afford, and what other teams might offer VanVleet. If the Raptors want to maintain a max salary slot for the free agent class of 2021, they have about $18.5 million to spend this summer on VanVleet — and anyone else they intend to sign for longer than one year.

That’s tricky, because those other teams above might be willing to pay VanVleet $20 million annually — or more. (The Raptors can offer the security of an extra year, which may not even necessarily appeal to Mr. Bet-on-Yourself.) Consider that Malcolm Brogdon received a 4-year, $85 million contract from Indiana last summer, and that might be the market for VanVleet. (Note the numbers may need to be adjusted down across the board, thanks to COVID-19-related revenue losses.)

So I’m not sure where that leaves the Raptors with VanVleet. They very clearly want to keep him, and they should — I certainly want him back in a Raptors uniform — but if keeping him means reducing 2021 cap flexibility, then it may not be worth it.

If there’s anything to hang your hat on, it’s that Masai Ujiri remains (…for now?) in place as Raptors president, and if there’s anyone I trust to be creative with the salary cap, to sign the right players to the right contracts and to maintain future flexibility, it’s him.

Fred VanVleet had a great 2019-20 season. He’ll be rewarded with a new contract. And I have it at 80% that VanVleet remains a Raptor in 2020-21.