Should the Toronto Raptors keep Fred VanVleet at any cost?

Toronto Raptors - Fred VanVleet (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Fred VanVleet (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

Bobby Marks recently noted that Fred VanVleet could earn $25-$30 million this offseason. If he receives that figure, should the Toronto Raptors match?

When negotiating in free agency, every front office must set a hard-line. There’s a point when you must cease negotiations and walk away from the table. There’s a number that’s just too high. For Fred VanVleet and the Toronto Raptors, what is that number? Or rather, what should it be?

VanVleet enters this offseason as an unrestricted free agent. He’s free to negotiate with 29 other teams and decide any destination he wishes. The Raptors don’t necessarily have first priority, and like Kawhi Leonard, if he wanted to return stateside, he could take a lesser contract offer from another team.

However, given the Raptors’ competitive status and the development VanVleet has done under the organization, most expect him to return under equal circumstances. But as one of the top players available in the 2020 free agent class, VanVleet may receive a monster offer elsewhere.

When discussing VanVleet and his upcoming free agency on ESPN’s “The Hoop Collective” podcast, Bobby Marks indicated that young point might be in for a massive payday:

"One team told me last week that they think he’s going to get between $25 million and $30 million per season."

Gulp. That’s a lot of money to pay Fred VanVleet. He’s been fantastic so far this season, particularly in Kyle Lowry‘s absence, but $25+ million is elite starter money.  $25 million — the low-end of Marks’ projection — ranks VanVleet as the 12th highest point guard in the NBA, behind Jrue Holiday and (significantly) ahead of Malcolm Brogdon.

Expected market

So, where could VanVleet get that type of money? There aren’t very many teams with projected cap space in 2020 and even fewer with space who also need a point guard. The only teams with at least $15 million that could be in the market for a point guard are the New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns.

But only looking at teams with money available misses the big picture. In today’s NBA, teams can open up space in the blink of an eye. Just this past offseason, the Miami Heat obtained Jimmy Butler without any space, the Charlotte Hornets signed Terry Rozier despite being over the cap, and the Minnesota Timberwolves pursued D’Angelo Russell before losing him to the Golden State Warriors. Cap space used to matter when finding free agents. Now, it’s about recruiting the player and working out the details later.

When the market opens from teams with cap space to anyone who might need a young, productive point guard, it’s easy to see how someone may fall in love with VanVleet. The Minnesota Timberwolves, Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, and countless others could make a move for VanVleet, either by clearing the space with another team via trade or completing a sign-and-trade with the Toronto Raptors.

What happens if he does get an offer of $25+ million?

So, what happens if VanVleet receives an offer for say four-years $106 million, averaging $26 million per season? That’s hovering around top-10 point guard money. Are the Raptors comfortable locking him on their books at that figure?

The deal is an overpay. VanVleet isn’t one of the top-15 point guards in the NBA, let alone one of the top-10. Malcolm Brogdon just received a significantly smaller contract (in restricted free agency) this offseason, despite being better than VanVleet at this point in time. And while yes, VanVleet has improved every season of his young career so far, he’ll be 26 this offseason. He’s essentially in his prime now, and future expectations of development should be tampered.

But an overpay might be better than the alternative — letting VanVleet walk. He’s been the team’s second-best player in Lowry’s absence, helping lead the Raptors to a 9-2 record against a tough schedule of opponents. Toronto spent years developing VanVleet into the player he is today. Do they really want him to spend his prime seasons with another team?

It’s an incredibly difficult decision but one that has been made countless times. Just this offseason, the Bucks elected to let Brogdon walk, deeming the four-year $85 million offer he received too steep. So far, the decision has mixed results.

On one hand, the Bucks are still destroying the NBA, posting the league’s best record and Net rating at this time. They’re the favorite to win the East and still have a great shot at an NBA Championship. On the other hand, Brogdon is living his best life with the Indiana Pacers. He’s averaging 19 points on amazing efficiency and single-handedly propping up an incredibly injured roster.  If the Bucks don’t win the championship, everyone (including Giannis Antetokounmpo) will rightly wonder if Brogdon would’ve been the difference.

Plans in 2021

Another complicating factor is the Toronto Raptors plans in 2021 free agency. It’s no secret the Raptors have been saving cap space for the summer of 2021, with their eyes set on the aforementioned Antetokounmpo.

Toronto only has two players on guaranteed contracts past the 2020 season — Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell. Even with OG Anunoby‘s $9.7 million cap-hold, they shouldn’t be in too much trouble of keeping a max slot available. If things really get tight, they can also ship off Powell without much hassle.

But every dollar they spend on VanVleet is one that they can’t spend elsewhere. If you’re paying $18-20 million, that’s fine. But $30 million in space goes a long way, particularly for a team that is hoping to have Antetokounmpo and Siakam. If they’re in the 2021 free agent market, any overpay hurts more than it otherwise would.

Letting Fred VanVleet walk would be a gut-punch to the organization. Paying him $25-30 million would handcuff the franchise for future seasons. It’s a good thing when players develop so incredibly well, they’re earning way more than you expected. That doesn’t make this decision any easier.

dark. Next. Should Raptors be buyers or sellers this trade deadline?

There is plenty of time still left in the season, and plenty of more factors that will impact this decision. But Masai Ujiri and company have a tough choice in front of them this summer. And it’s a choice that will impact the Raptors for years to come.