With the world on lockdown, the Toronto Raptors can start planning for the offseason. In doing so, their top priority should be locking up Fred VanVleet long-term.
The Toronto Raptors and the rest of the NBA face uncertain times right now. The NBA has discussed the possibility of resuming this season in one central location. But for the Raptors, a level of uncertainty will follow them into the offseason.
Several players are set to hit free agency. The Raptors may bring back one of Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka. Ibaka has expressed a desire to re-sign with the Raptors. However, the team will likely have to look elsewhere to find a backup centre.
Bobby Webster’s name is starting to come up more and more. Webster was rumored to be a candidate for the Chicago Bulls’ top job. The Bulls have reportedly hired Nuggets GM Arturas Karnisovas.
A lot has been written about VanVleet’s journey from an undrafted player to shutting down Steph Curry in the NBA Finals.
This season, VanVleet has averaged 17.6 points, 6.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. VanVleet is hitting almost 39 percent of his shots from three-point range (on seven attempts per game). VanVleet also started all 48 games he played this season.
There is no question VanVleet has become a key contributor to this Raptors’ squad. At 26 years old, VanVleet is just entering his prime. He is also the heir apparent to Kyle Lowry, arguably the greatest Raptor of all time.
VanVleet has proven that he can be a starter in this league. He is on record stating that he loves the City of Toronto. The Raptors now just need to decide how much money they are prepared to commit to VanVleet to keep him here.
Most teams are keeping their powder dry for the summer of 2021. But seven teams could have significant cap space in the offseason. That list includes the Hawks, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks, Suns, Pistons and Heat.
The first three don’t make any sense for VanVleet. The Hawks have a potential star in Trae Young. The Hornets committed big money to Terry Rozier last summer. They also found a keeper in Devonte’ Graham. Meanwhile, the Cavs selected ball-dominant guards in back-to-back drafts. It doesn’t make any sense for them to commit more resources to another point guard.
That leaves four teams who could look to pry VanVleet away from the Raptors.
The 2020 draft is guard-heavy. LaMelo Ball, Killian Hayes, Cole Anthony, and Tyrese Haliburton are all likely to be lottery picks. Plus, Theo Maledon, Kira Lewis Jr. and Nico Mannion all project to be taken in the first round. At least one or two of the remaining teams should end up with drafting a point guard, thereby eliminating at least some competition for the Raptors. But let’s review the case for each team anyway.
New York Knicks
The New York Knicks are in a constant state of disarray. The team hasn’t made the playoffs since the 2012-13 season. They have reached the post-season five times in the last 20 years. Also, the Knicks have only made it out of the first-round once during that time.
Despite this and the constant interference of James Dolan, the future looks bright for New York.
The Knicks just hired Leon Rose as the team’s new President of Basketball Operations. They have two strong young building blocks on their roster in RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson. The Knicks have all of their future first-round picks. Plus they own the Mavericks’ picks in 2021 and 2023 due to the Kristaps Porzingis trade.
In addition to all their assets, the Knicks project to have significant salary-cap flexibility moving forward. This past summer, the Knicks signed every available power forward, which wasn’t smart. But what was smart was making the second year of most contracts a team option or only partially guaranteed.
The Knicks only have about $44 million currently on the books for the 2021-22 season. They have the ability to add a piece this summer and still have enough room to go big game hunting in 2021.
With that being said, we have been here before. The Knicks missed out on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010. They missed out on Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Kawhi Leonard this past summer. It’s very possible history will repeat itself next summer.
If we have learned anything in this era of player empowerment, it is that star players value stability. It’s not just about the money. They want to sign with a well-run organization that is capable of building a championship contender. This is something the Knicks have not been for a very long time.
But just because the Knicks are unlikely to land Giannis Antetokounmpo next summer, that doesn’t mean every available player is going to turn down their money. A lot of players are drawn to the bright lights of New York City. They want to play in Madison Square Garden, the so-called Mecca of basketball.
At the top of the Knicks’ priority list should be a new starting point guard. LaMelo Ball has expressed a desire to play for the Knicks. But if he isn’t available come draft time, the Knicks could turn their focus to free agency.
The Knicks have three point guards under contract for next season in Elfrid Payton, Dennis Smith Jr., and Frank Ntilikina. Payton looks better suited as a backup. Smith and Ntilikina are still raw. None of them appear to be the long-term answer.
VanVleet would provide the Knicks with a steady hand to come in and lead this team. He is a true floor general. VanVleet controls the game very well and could help in the growth and development of the Knicks’ young players. Also, VanVleet is still young enough to fit the timeline of Barrett and Robinson. He provides the best of both worlds.
The Phoenix Suns are an intriguing option. Much like the Knicks, the Suns have been dysfunctional for several years. The team has been through five head coaches since 2013. The Suns haven’t made the playoffs since the 2009-10 season. Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN did a deep dive into the Robert Sarver era, including a very strange incident with a goat.
The Suns started the small ball revolution with Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion. The "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns was right up there with the Showtime Lakers in terms of entertainment value. But Nash has been gone for almost a decade and there hasn’t been much to celebrate since.
Now after years of collecting lottery picks, the Suns have one of the better young cores in the entire NBA.
Devin Booker is an absolute stud. This season, Booker has averaged 26.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game. Booker was named to the All-Star team for the first time. At just 23 years of age, Booker should have many more All-Star appearances in his future.
In addition to Booker, the Suns have Deandre Ayton, the 2018 no. 1 overall pick. The team features an interesting collection of wing players in Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges, and Cameron Johnson. Plus the Suns should add another high lottery pick in this year’s draft. The one thing Phoenix is missing is the long-term answer at point guard.
This past summer, the Suns signed Ricky Rubio to a three-year, $51 million contract. Rubio has been solid this season. He averaged 13.1 points, 8.9 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Shockingly, Rubio is also hitting 35 percent of his attempts from long distance. But Rubio will be 30 at the start of next season. He doesn’t quite fit the same timeline as the rest of the Suns’ players.
Before COVID-19, the salary cap was projected to increase to $115 million next season. The NBA will lose hundreds of millions of dollars if the rest of the season is canceled. It remains to be seen how much of an impact that will have on next year’s salary cap.
Assuming the figure doesn’t drop too much, the Suns will have $20 million-plus in cap space. That might not be enough to steal VanVleet away from the Raptors. But it should be enough to at least get a meeting.
The Suns tried to put the ball in Booker’s hands and turn him into James Harden. Booker has taken great strides as a ball-handler and facilitator. However, the offense has been much smoother this season with Booker taking a step back and allowing Rubio to initiate the offense.
VanVleet is not as flashy as Rubio. But he is a better shooter. Despite being smaller, VanVleet is just as good as Rubio on the defensive end. He is also four years younger and a much better fit long-term.
The Detroit Pistons need help just about everywhere. They traded Andre Drummond. The Pistons are finally out from under Reggie Jackson’s five-year, $80 million contract. They have only eight players under contract for next season and just need to acquire some talent.
Blake Griffin has two years and more than $75 million remaining on his deal. Given Griffin’s injury history, his contract will be untradeable, unless the Pistons attach another asset.
Luke Kennard is eligible for a rookie-scale contract extension. But the Pistons reportedly made Kennard available at the trade deadline. It doesn’t appear that management views him as part of the future.
Derrick Rose had a nice bounce-back season. Rose will be 32 at the start of next season. At this stage of his career, Rose is more of a role player. He is no longer the league MVP.
Christian Wood is a name to watch. Wood is an unrestricted free agent. He averaged 21.9 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in 12 games as a starter. Wood figures to be one of the most coveted names on the market this offseason. As a result, the Pistons may see him walk out the door.
VanVleet is an interesting fit with the Pistons for several reasons. The most obvious of which is the Pistons need a starting point guard. VanVleet may not have the same name recognition as Lonzo Ball or De’Aaron Fox, but he is one of the best young point guards in the NBA.
Another big reason is Dwane Casey, the Pistons’ head coach. Casey was VanVleet’s first coach in the NBA. Casey allowed VanVleet to go from the end of the bench to a consistent contributor.
The Raptors still run a lot of the same offensive sets that they did under Casey. As such, the transition for VanVleet shouldn’t be too difficult. He already knows most of the Pistons’ playbook. He could step in from day one and run the show. There wouldn’t be much of a learning curve.
However, in order for the Pistons to be a serious threat to the Raptors, they would have to significantly overpay VanVleet.
Kyle Lowry is near the end of his career. VanVleet knows he is the point guard of the future in Toronto. VanVleet isn’t going to leave one of the best teams in the NBA to go to a rebuilding Pistons squad unless they back up the brinks truck.
It probably takes a four-year $100 million to $110 million contract to get VanVleet to seriously consider the Pistons. With the Raptors trying to maintain financial flexibility for the summer of 2021, that might be too rich for the team to match.
The Miami Heat are the best team poised to have significant cap space this summer. They are a borderline contender. The Heat feature two All-Stars in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Plus they have Pat Riley and South Beach. The Heat are always a threat in free agency.
The Heat were rumored to be interested in adding Danilo Gallinari at the trade deadline. Gallinari will be a free agent this summer. He’s a good fit for Butler and Adebayo. But Gallinari is also 31 years old and has only played 70 or more games twice in his career. As such, the Heat may want to turn their attention elsewhere.
Several Heat players are set to be free agents this summer. That list includes Meyers Leonard, Jae Crowder, Derrick Jones Jr., and Goran Dragic. With Dragic’s contract set to expire, the Heat need to find a new point guard.
At times this season, the Heat have functioned without a traditional point guard. With Butler on the roster, there isn’t always a need for one. Butler is capable of handling the ball and initiating the offense.
The Heat also have undrafted rookie Kendrick Nunn. Nunn averaged 15.6 points, 2.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game this season. He was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month three times. But Nunn is more of a combo guard. He might be better suited to a sixth man type role.
A player like VanVleet could be an ideal fit for the Heat. VanVleet starts for the Raptors alongside Lowry. Either player is capable of directing the offense. Likewise, both are comfortable playing off the ball and spacing the floor. In Miami, VanVleet would add another multi-dimensional player. He is also a grinder and should fit right in with the toughminded Heat culture.
The Heat, much like the Raptors, Knicks and everyone else are waiting to see what happens with Giannis. They want to preserve cap space for 2021 in case he becomes a free agent.
Currently, the Heat have two guaranteed contracts for the 2021-22 season. They have team options for Andre Iguodala, Tyler Herro, and Chris Silva. Also, Adebayo, Nunn and Duncan Robinson will be restricted free agents. The Heat could sign VanVleet, maintain Adebayo’s cap hold, decline Iguodala’s option and still have enough space to add Giannis.
A starting five of VanVleet, Herro, Butler, Giannis, and Adebayo would be one of the best in the NBA. It also has the potential to be one of the top defensive units, with Herro being the one weak link.
The only reason it might not work is VanVleet might not be a big enough name for the Heat. Riley prefers to chase All-Stars. Before signing Butler, the Heat pursued Gordon Hayward. The team has been linked to Chris Paul. In addition to Giannis, the Heat are reportedly monitoring Bradley Beal’s availability.
No state income tax, warm weather and one of the best nightlives in the NBA means that Miami is always in the running when a big name becomes available. As such, the Heat may want to take a wait and see approach, rather than make a big financial commitment to VanVleet. However, if Riley does call, expect VanVleet to at least take a meeting with The Godfather.