Amidst an NBA off-season full of roster turnover, front office leaks, botched trades, and ill-advised signings, the Toronto Raptors continued to do what they do best — take care of business discretely and effectively. As of Saturday afternoon, the Raptors and Fred VanVleet agreed to a 4-year, $85 million contract, the most lucrative ever inked by an undrafted player.
The deal is a testament to VanVleet’s “bet on yourself” mantra after joining the Raptors out of Wichita State as an undrafted free agent and grinding his way through the G League to become an essential starter on a contending team. It is also a testament to the Raptors’ culture of success, which enticed VanVleet to stay on a competitive Raptors squad rather than bolting for the bag in an unstable situation.
Pascal Siakam’s contract extension, which he signed last off-season, kicks in this year and puts him on the same time frame as VanVleet. OG Anunoby, meanwhile, is still on his rookie deal and becomes a restricted free agent after this year if he and the team don’t agree to an extension. That said, all signs point to the Raptors keeping OG as part of this core going forward.
Beyond those three players, change is underway for Toronto. Kyle Lowry’s contract is up after this coming season and he will turn 35 this year. Sentimentality, a trait that Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster leave out in their decision-making, would be the main reason to pay Lowry any real money next off-season. Aging bigs Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have departed for Los Angeles to the Lakers and Clippers, respectively. Norman Powell has a player option after the next season and could decline it to chase more money on a longer-term deal. In the short term, the Raptors have added Aron Baynes, DeAndre’ Bembry, and Alex Len to fill in the gaps in the short term. (We’ve got an update on most of those moves, plus the Len signing, here and here.)
Following an NBA title and a truly special championship defense, the splintering of this team, while inevitable, is still sad to see. Nonetheless, with the core of Anunoby, VanVleet, and Siakam helming the team going into the future, Raptors fans have reason for excitement. Keep in mind: OG is 23, while Fred and Pascal are both 26, they are young and their prime years line up almost perfectly.
What is most tantalizing about this core is its versatility. Anunoby, VanVleet, and Siakam are three players who can thrive in any basketball ecosystem. They have the skill sets that every team in the NBA so desperately craves, with all three players providing defense, shooting, and basketball IQ. They also have a track record of unselfish, team-oriented play — whatever they need to try and do to win, they’re ready to do. These three players allow this latest iteration of the Raptors to be truly chameleonic.
It starts with their defense. At the point of attack, VanVleet is one of the best guard defenders in the NBA, and one of the few who can credibly slow Steph Curry. His nose for the ball puts him third in the league in steals with 1.9 per game. While some players gamble and jump passing lanes for steals, VanVleet maintains sound defensive positioning and picks his man’s pocket for the bulk of his steals, only making calculated risks.
Siakam’s defense was up-and-down last season as he adjusted to life as the lead offensive option for the Raptors, but when he is locked in, he is a terror helping off the ball. He covers ground in a flash, and his length allows him to contest even when he is a step behind. His prowess on the defensive end has seen him get All-Defense votes in each of the last two seasons.
Of the three, OG Anunoby is the best defender (and the Raptors’ best defender). Versatile, long, powerful, and athletic, Anunoby is the guy that coach Nick Nurse can throw at an opposing offensive threat, tell him to make that opponent’s life hell, and then worry about the rest of the gameplan. He is a legitimate defensive game-wrecker.
They are all positionally flexible. Fred, though small, can battle both guard spots and has the Lowry-esque knack for defending bigger than his size. Siakam is athletic, fast, and long enough for most any matchup, and Anunoby is a rare 1-5 stopper, as he showed by battling Nikola Jokic when the Raptors played the Denver Nuggets last season and later stopping different combinations of the Celtics’ speedy guards in the playoffs. That versatility forms the basis for a dominant defense.
On the other end, the easiest way to be a malleable offensive player is with three-point shooting. This young Raptors triad supplies that in droves. Anunoby and VanVleet shoot 39 percent from deep, establishing them as true long-range snipers. Siakam, meanwhile, shot 36 percent, just a hair above league average. It’s worth noting, however, that Siakam’s shooting has improved year-to-year, and until he stops that trend, there is no reason to believe he won’t improve again. These three players are experienced off the ball, and their shooting allows them to be legitimate threats in that role.
Now, to the intangibles. This past season of basketball from the Raptors was one of the better arguments for the importance of the qualities that youth coaches preach — grit, resilience, unselfishness, basketball IQ, and a commitment to the team over the individual. This triumvirate (I’m hitting the thesaurus hard for trio) embodies all of those traits. They all will defer offensively when the situation calls for it — for example, each of the three took a turn being the leading scorer during the Raptors seven-game slog-fest against the Celtics.
Most encouragingly though, when Toronto’s offense dries up, their defense is unaffected. They root for one another. Siakam has called VanVleet his “favourite player” — and vice versa. VanVleet has gleefully poked fun at OG’s “I don’t shoot trying to miss” quote after his famous game-winning buzzer-beater in these last playoffs, displaying real camaraderie with his teammate. They are tough and committed to winning first, but they also enjoy playing and being with each other.
Obviously, versatility does not mean much if you aren’t also very good. Last season, this young trio logged 956 minutes together. In that time, they torched their opponents 10.1 point per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference. Being surrounded by heady veterans aided their success, but these three were a significant part of what made last season’s Raptors team so effective and downright terrifying to play against.
Siakam, Anunoby, and VanVleet are not a LeBron-Wade-Bosh big three in that their mere presence guarantees title contention. They are, however, a rock-solid foundation to build around and compete. No matter which direction the Raptors front office takes going forward, Toronto will win games with this troika (synonym heat check) and put themselves in position to go up a level too. And that’s because, as it happens, these three would perfectly compliment another superstar. Their collective knack for shapeshifting allows them to fit in with whatever style a future star demands.
Let’s gaze into 2021. Should Masai Ujiri actually pull it off and sign Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anunoby, Siakam, and VanVleet can play off-ball to open up driving lanes, get out and run with the Freak, and perhaps never allow an opponent to score a point. Even a player like Victor Oladipo, should he bounce back, would fit in ideally with this squad. If he returns to his 2017-18 form (admittedly a big if), Toronto would instantly be a contender. Perhaps another superstar will be made available via trade, as Kawhi Leonard was once upon a time. If Toronto has a chance to get one and keep this core intact, the basketball end will work by virtue of their core trio’s abilities.
If the Raptors strike out in 2021, however, retooling as a gritty, unselfish, defensive squad by adding more like-minded players will keep this team competitive and fun. And who knows, if Siakam can improve as he has so many times and turn into a superstar, maybe he can indeed provide what the Raptors need to contend. It’s still a possibility too.
With Anunoby, Siakam, and VanVleet going forward, the Raptors can play big or small. They can try to spread the floor and rain threes, or they can dig in on defense and try to score in transition. They provide basketball flexibility to go with the cap flexibility that Ujiri and Bobby Webster have so expertly created. Whatever the case, as Raptors fans feel nostalgia and melancholy for what was, we can also breathe easy: success remains very much in this team’s future.