The Uncertainty Principle is a physics term that basically means that we can never really be sure where an atom is. As soon as we observe it we change it’s position. If we’re not looking it’s likely to be somewhere else than it would be if we had looked.
It’s an odd paradox that has spurned some great speculative science fiction and feels like a very accurate representation of where Masai Ujiri has the Toronto Raptors right now. Toronto could add assets for a run. They could sell to build the next contender. They could keep the books totally clean and make a run at multiple free agents in the enticing 2021 class, or they could avoid the risk of a Knicks-esque whiff, and add salary and talent now.
Having multiple options is a great thing, but it also makes life a little more challenging than the Lakers’ “sell everything not bolted down to win now” or the Cavaliers’ “tear it down to the studs”. Basically, the Raptors, depending how you look at them, are in a different place.
While there are more obvious avatars for that dilemma on the roster, Fred VanVleet is an interesting case. There’s been some clambering to lock up VanVleet before he hits a depressed free agency market in which he will undoubtedly be one of the most intriguing names. At the same time, he’s still an under-sized guard who was largely invisible in the first two rounds of the playoffs before coming on like gangbusters down the stretch in the championship run.
With VanVleet due to hit the court again soon, perhaps this weekend, let’s take a closer look. How do we know where the FVV particle is? Key part of a championship contender, or the sort of piece that you can’t overpay?
To determine that, I’ll turn the floor over to two reasonable, and well-read round-ball fans — Pay Fred and Don’t Pay Fred.
Pay Fred: Alright, this argument is pretty simple. Fred VanVleet is really good at basketball at both ends of the court. He’s made some of the biggest shots in Raptors history. He was arguably the second biggest reason they beat Milwaukee last year, and he received a FREAKING FINALS MVP VOTE. Why are we even having this discussion?
Don’t Pay Fred: First of all, can I say how we’re not even a question in, and I already don’t like how my argument is being framed? I’m not “Don’t Pay Fred”, I’m: “Don’t Pay Fred at All Costs.”
Pay Fred: Splitting hairs like the coward you are.
Don’t Pay Fred: No. This is, like, the crux of my argument. It’s all about value. I’m not saying Fred VanVleet isn’t good at basketball. I acknowledge all the stuff he did to help Toronto win a title, I’m just saying he might only be a high-end complementary player.
Pay Fred: A complementary player??? He has a Finals MVP vote! He’s currently averaging 19 points a game!
Don’t Pay Fred: Yes, but he’s still an under-sized point guard, and as good as he was against the Bucks and the Warriors, are we really just going to forget that the length of the Magic and the Sixers all but erased him? He shot 36.3/25.0/30.0 percent against Orlando and 12.9/3.6/39.3 percent against Philly! He looked completely broken at points.
Pay Fred: Don’t you number-nerds like to bandy about something called “small sample size?”
Don’t Pay Fred: Yes, and they are, but he’s struggled before in the playoffs — he was horrible against Cleveland the year before too...
Pay Fred: ...when he was coming off an injury.
Don’t Pay Fred: Sure, but you can’t ignore the possibility that VanVleet is not a true lead guard, and if that’s the case then there’s definitely a number where the Raptors have to say: “Well done. You bet on yourself Fred, but we can’t, not at that number.”
Pay Fred: Well, d’uh.
Don’t Pat Fred: Don’t be patronizing. I’m trying to have a real conversation here. This is important. Or as important as a discussion of other people’s money can be in a sports context.
Pay Fred: OK, but this is how teams lose good players, by trying to nickel and dime them. Fred is worth what he gets on the open market, period. As we all know, next year the free agency market is going to be really slim. Fred could be the best point guard out there, hell, he could arguably be the best player full stop. So, he’s going to get paid, and if not by Toronto, then someone else.
Don’t Pay Fred: Yes, that’s true. But Fred might be more valuable to another team. Or, another team might inflate his value. It happens all the time. Look how many contracts look bad the moment they sign them.
Pay Fred: Sure, but VanVleet is a winner. He’s not a glorified Sixth Man like Terry Rozier who lands a $58 million deal based on nothing. Which, by the way, is the absolute floor for Fred’s contract.
Don’t Pay Fred: Ok, Rozier is interesting, because he’s not that far different from Freddy and—
Pay Fred: Do you even watch basketball?!?! How can you say that?
Don’t Pay Fred: Sigh. I know you’re going to call “numbers-nerd” on me, but let’s go to a table shall we.
Steady Freddy and Scary Terry
It’s not as big a gap as you’d think. Fred has the advantage in TS%, Win Shares per 48, assist percentage and the Box Plus-Minus, but Rozier is a better rebounder, turns the ball over less (even with a higher usage rate), and the all-in one stats, VORP and PER grade the two out pretty close to the same — especially if you discount Rozier’s first season when he was only 21 and barely played.
Pay Fred: You know your problem?
Don’t Pay Fred: I’m sure you’re about to tell me.
Pay Fred: You have a calculator for a heart. What about the effort and desire Fred puts forward? Hell, how about a number you didn’t show: 38.8 vs 36.5? Fred’s a far better floor spacer, and his defensive ratings are superior too.
Don’t Pay Fred: My point is that the gap between the two isn’t crazy, and pretty much everyone would agree that Rozier is waaaay overpaid at almost $20 million a year.
Pay Fred: Ok, you want to talk some numbers? Let’s do that. How about we compare Fred to someone who’s actually good: the Raptors’ very own Kyle Lowry.
The Heir Apparent?
Don’t Pay Fred: I’m not sure what you’re trying to show me here. By most methods it seems like Lowry was better than Fred in their first four years, except I guess VORP and WS/48. Box Plus Minus loves Kyle, and he rebounds better, gets more steals, assists on a higher percentage of field goals, and they shoot about the same.
Pay Fred: What I’m trying to say is that Fred looks a lot like Kyle did when he first started, and we’ve seen what Kyle’s become. You want to talk about a guy whose struggled against length in the post-season, and shot horribly? Kyle did. And he’s the greatest player in the history of the Raptors franchise and a five-time All-Star!
You’re worried Fred might not be able to play bigger than his height, how about the fact that he’s been matriculating the guy whose got a PhD in the subject!
Don’t Pay Fred: Fine, then pay him what the Raps did the first time they signed Kyle — four years and 48-milliom.
Pay Fred: You’re drunk, right? There’s no way VanVleet is signing that — he’s making $9 million now!
Don’t Pay Fred: So you’re saying we just back the truck up and pay a guy based on what we hope he’s going to become?
Pay Fred: THAT’S HOW FREE AGENCY WORKS!!!
Don’t Pay Fred: Well, I don’t think that’s how good teams work free agency. Besides, I think you’re comp with Kyle is off.
Pay Fred: How so, professor?
Don’t Pay Fred: Well, you compared him to their first four years, but VanVleet was a lot older than Kyle was when he broke in and had more refined skills from playing heavy minutes on two teams that made deep runs in the NCAA tournament. He was closer to a finished project than Kyle was.
If you compare their numbers based on age, it looks quite a bit different.
Pretender to the Throne?
Even you can see that the idea that VanVleet is on the Lowry track is just wrong. Fred is a good player; Lowry, at the same age, was already showing flashes that he could be a great player. Lowry beats VanVleet in basically every category except turnovers and maybe steals.
Pay Fred: Yeah, but you can’t just plop down these numbers and pretend that Lowry playing NBA basketball for two extra seasons didn’t help him improve.
Don’t Pay Fred: Sure, but you can’t pretend that a four-year senior coming into the NBA is the same as a kid like Kyle being tossed into the deep end.
Pay Fred: Alright genius, why don’t you tell me what you’d pay Fred?
Don’t Pay Fred: I basically already have, somewhere between Kyle’s $48 million for four years, and Rozier’s $58 million for three.
Pay Fred: (A) his agent would laugh in your face, and (B) you’re forgetting something important.
Don’t Pay Fred: Oh, and what’s that?
Pay Fred: Positional need — the Raptors don’t have anybody to back-fill if VanVleet goes away.
Don’t Pay Fred: What about Terence Davis? His rookie numbers compare very favourably to VanVleet’s and they were the same age.
Going for two with TD
Pay Fred: I’ll admit Davis is pretty good, I was surprised by how high his assist percentage was, but his turnover rate shows he’s not in the same league as VanVleet as an actual, you know, point guard.
Besides, we’re not just talking about a back-up here, sooner than we want to admit it—
Don’t Pay Fred: La la la, I can’t hear you!
Pay Fred: —Lowry is going to move on.
Don’t Pay Fred: Why do you have to hurt me that way?
Pay Fred: I’m sorry, but it’s true, and when it happens Toronto is going to need a starting point guard. That’s not Davis. Not anytime soon.
Don’t Pay Fred: Fine. I’ll concede that point, but it still doesn’t mean you should over-pay for a guy who might not be that guy either. Do you know who Basketball Reference lists as VanVleet’s closest active comparisons?
Pay Fred: Since you’re going to tell me, I’m sure they’re going to be stupid.
Don’t Pay Fred: Tomas Satoransky and Delon Wright.
Pay Fred: I knew it! I knew it! I knew you were going to work Delon Wright into the conversation!
Don’t Pay Fred: Statistically he’s just as good as VanVleet! In fact, by pretty much all the all-in-one metrics he’s better.
Let the Wright one in.
He’s also got a higher true shooting percentage, and he’s able to match up with so many different kinds of players.
Pay Fred: Arrrghhhh! I’m so tired of this shit. The Raptors tried Delon, and it didn’t work.
Don’t Pay Fred: What about the Miami series?
Pay Fred: It was two games! He can’t shoot!
Don’t Pay Fred: He’s shooting 38.5 percent from three this year.
Pay Fred: Sigh — on how many attempts?
Don’t Pay Fred: 1.7.
Pay Fred: Pardon, a little louder?
Don’t Pay Fred: 1.7 threes per game.
Pay Fred: He’s not a floor spacer. Delon Wright is a pretty damn interesting basketball player, but you can’t for a single moment imagine he can impact a high-stakes game the way VanVleet can.
Don’t Pay Fred: In Miami—
Pay Fred: SHUT UP ABOUT MIAMI!
Don’t Pay Fred: It just shows there’s more than one way to impact a game, and Wright makes just under $10 million a year. If you’re worried about shooting, spend the extra $10 million you’d save on a Danny Green-type, dude.
Or, trust that Masai and co. can continue to find gems. Let Davis get another year under Lowry, and then use the money to sign a true star, because VanVleet at $20+ million is going to stick in your throat pretty bad if he shoots 30 percent against Orlando again.
Pay Fred: So would letting him go, losing Lowry, and having nobody to take the pressure off Siakam, or, more importantly stretching defenses with the threat of the off-the-dribble-three — you know, arguably the most important shot in basketball right now?
Don’t Pay Fred: OK, OK, I see we’re not going to come to an agreement here. But is there any number you wouldn’t go to for Fred?
Pay Fred: Well, I’m not going to max him.
Don’t Pay Fred: At least we can agree on that much.