Raptors’ ability to assess Fred VanVleet at NBA trade deadline is crucial: Koreen

A little while back, Fred VanVleet made it clear he did not decline a four-year, $114 million contract extension from the Toronto Raptors this past offseason. It had been reported by TSN, and it was later reported by both ESPN and Marc Stein on Substack, but VanVleet said not only did he not reject the offer, but the parties mutually agreed to wait until a later date to talk turkey. There was no “formal offer,” VanVleet said.

The specifics of the offer/non-offer matter. It is the most the Raptors could offer him this past offseason and can continue to offer him before next offseason, the pact starting at 120 percent of his salary from this year. If he passed on the extension and ultimately opted for free agency, he would be eligible for a starting salary at 30 percent of the salary cap, a figure currently projected for more than $40 million. With his Bird rights, the Raptors can offer him any salary up to the maximum they want, as can any team with the requisite cap space.

On Tuesday, The Athletic‘s Shams Charania reported league sources told him the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic “have emerged as potential free agent suitors” for VanVleet. Orlando should have that space, while Phoenix currently will not, although that could be changed by the Suns, say, trading Deandre Ayton to a team with cap space and taking no salary back in return.

The Raptors extension would have had VanVleet starting beyond $25 million. Tyler Herro and Jordan Poole both signed rookie contract extensions beyond what the Raptors could offer VanVleet. From a pure monetary standpoint, turning down the deal made sense, as I laid out in August.

Again — that is if VanVleet turned it down. It’s not terribly important, except to the parties involved. I’ll just suggest, with no malice, that there is a lot of wiggle room between declining a formal offer and saying whether you would or would not be amenable to signing such an offer. Again, no big deal. As VanVleet pointed out, he can still sign any extension the Raptors offer him, right up to that precise deal, until he makes a decision on his $22.8 million player option for next season. (Remember that.)

Unfortunately, the Raptors have not met expectations, and VanVleet has had a massively disappointing season. Now, three-plus weeks away from the NBA trade deadline, the Raptors will be forced between a choice of the status quo, some positional shifting or selling off significant pieces. VanVleet’s trade value, due to his play over the last 11 months and the potential he could hit free agency in July, will not be high. Raptors president Masai Ujiri, in case you haven’t noticed, does not enjoy negotiating from a position of weakness, although he will do it when he has to (see: DeMarre Carroll to Atlanta, offseason 2017).

All of the above makes VanVleet the most complicated case of the four core players the Raptors could make available at the trade deadline. With in-demand players such as Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, you can set high bars. If they are met by suitors, then you can really think about it. What to do with Gary Trent Jr. is as much about economics as fit, and a best-offer-available approach — within reason — makes sense.

Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. (Dan Hamilton / USA Today)

VanVleet requires a bunch of untangling: how much he means to the Raptors, what his role is now, how that role might change in the near future, his year-long struggles and how real they are, and, perhaps most complex of all, what his market in free agency might be. If the Raptors decide not to trade him at the deadline, they better be ready to pay up this summer, despite his off year. If they aren’t, they should move him before the trade deadline. The sign-and-trade game, which allowed the Raptors to salvage a return of Precious Achiuwa and Goran Dragić for the departing Kyle Lowry two offseasons ago, is a difficult one to win repeatedly. It requires a level of cooperation from the player and his successor that you cannot possibly guarantee this far in advance.

As for VanVleet’s market: There are no All-Stars in their primes who are set to become unrestricted free agents this summer. James Harden and Khris Middleton might be available, as could/will high-end role players like Harrison Barnes, Dillon Brooks, Jakob Poeltl and Myles Turner. (We’ll leave Kyrie Irving in his own box, which is probably what he would want, anyway.) Likewise, the top target in restricted free agency will be the likes of Grant Williams and PJ Washington. All of that should make this an offseason more defined by trades than signings.

If VanVleet were having a good year, he would be in a desirable big fish, small pond situation. He isn’t. Most of the teams who could spend aggressively in free agency this summer, led by San Antonio, Houston, Indiana, Detroit, Orlando and Oklahoma City, are young teams that are very much prioritizing building through the draft and staying flexible. The best version of VanVleet would make some sense with the Magic or Rockets, but it’s not clear that guy is available. More performances like his 33-point outing against New York on Monday would help VanVleet’s case, obviously.

Going back to the end of last year’s All-Star break, VanVleet has played in 55 of the Raptors’ 75 games, including last year’s playoff series. Heading into Tuesday night’s game against Milwaukee, VanVleet was shooting 36.5 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from 3 in those. To the extent that the Raptors’ half-court defense has struggled because of a very fundamental inability to stop primary dribble penetration, VanVleet has been a significant reason, even though he continues to excel defensively in other ways. VanVleet has been battling a series of injuries — knee and hip last year, back and surely more this year — so assuming this is the new baseline for VanVleet is off the mark. That the Raptors’ failed to build the bench in a way that allowed for him to not be near the league lead in minutes per game, again, is damning from a roster construction perspective.

Still, the numbers are what the numbers are, and young teams might be queasy giving VanVleet a long-term contract to be a veteran to help shepherd those groups. When you’re in that stage of team-building, you only get one or two chances to make a splash like that one. You had better get it right.

So, what if VanVleet were to bet on himself again, if only in a different manner? VanVleet still has the player option for next season which he could exercise. Yes, the 2024 free agent class should be deeper than this year’s. Even if All-Stars and All-NBA candidates like Siakam and Domantas Sabonis sign extensions before then, Jaylen Brown, Anunoby and Dejounte Murray will all be on the market. This far out, it’s hard to know which teams will be able to attack the market then.

It is easy to say the Raptors could just let VanVleet walk in free agency if the price tag is too high, but we have already seen the compounding impact losing rotation players, even ones on the downside of their careers, has had on the Raptors’ depth. For VanVleet, the downside of opting in is obvious: His play does not rebound and he goes into the 2024 offseason a year older and with even less leverage.

Logic would still probably favor him opting out, securing a long-term deal and moving on from there. However, VanVleet knows his body about him, and he certainly knows the context of his team about him. Both are impacting his production of him. If he thinks he has been compromised on both counts, he could focus on getting fully healthy, and put himself in the best position to help the Raptors make another unlikely leap next season, which would help his market. Meanwhile, resting VanVleet liberally down the stretch, despite what those screaming “addition by subtraction” online might think, would help the Raptors lose some games down the stretch. Refresh those lottery standings, baby. (To be clear, the Raptors aren’t ready to do that yet, and likely won’t be until the other side of the All-Star break.)

For the Raptors, that might be a best-case scenario, should the season continue its wayward trajectory. For VanVleet, it’s a decent fallback option. Assuming that does n’t happen, the Raptors have more information than every other team — about VanVleet’s health, about his importance to this team and more. It’s not how you want to treat any human, particularly one who has done as much for the Raptors as VanVleet has, but Toronto has to put a price on that and act accordingly.

(Photo: Elsa / Getty Images)


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