Often times it can be a thrilling way to pass the time, imagining yourself in the shoes of Fred VanVleet, the undersized, undrafted point guard who bet on himself and made his way to the NBA. In that, he’s a source of inspiration. But if things go differently for him in college, or if he ends up with a different team instead of the Raptors, maybe VanVleet does not find himself on the precipice of the biggest payday in his life. And if not for a global pandemic happening at this very moment, maybe Fred’s special day wouldn’t suddenly be cast in such an uncertain light. Maybe his bet would be paying off in exactly the way he’d always hoped.
The Raptors would be in the throes of their first round series of the 2020 NBA playoffs now, with VanVleet helping to lead the charge, if not for the coronavirus putting everything on hold. As some predict, sports may be among the last things to return to normal — whatever that looks like — in the wake of this pandemic. It’s just hard to imagine how 20,000-plus people will be accommodated in arenas, how we’ll all be made to feel safe in such an environment, what kind of assurances will even be possible. It’s also hard to see sports as a priority given the other far more serious health-related concerns in the world right now. If nothing else, sports help us take our mind off such matters — but they are, as they’ve always been, something of a distraction.
VanVleet spoke with reporters on Wednesday afternoon (sadly, Raptors HQ was not invited onto the call) and, in typical fashion, made it clear he understands all the variables at play — in his own personal situation, that of the broader league’s, and, of course, in the world at large.
“Obviously, we’ll probably all take a hit at some point, and hopefully the hit is just kind of minimized to just this year, and so there are ways to work around that stuff,” said VanVleet on the situation. “But at the end of the day, I think people’s health and well-being and frame of mind is a lot more important than a couple million here or there, because we’re all filthy rich compared to what we came from in the first place. So I don’t think anybody’s crying over it. I just think that it sucks when you do start to think about what woulda happened, shoulda happened, so try to stay away from that [type of thinking] as much as possible.”
We know the “woulda” and “shoulda” here. The former: the Raptors were set to claw their way through a few rounds of the playoffs in a spirited defense of the franchise’s first and only NBA championship. VanVleet, behind Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, would have had a huge part to play in that run, showing the world why he’s a high-level player in the league, and why he’s worth the money he was expecting to earn this summer. That’s part of the latter, the “shoulda” in which VanVleet earns himself a major contract in the off-season — from the Raptors, or some other team looking to cash in on one of the better free agents on the market. VanVleet’s worth has been talked about for much of the past year, with a number hovering around $20 million as, perhaps, a ceiling. Not a bad conclusion, especially considering where Fred was around this time last year, stuck to the bench and almost entirely out of Toronto’s post-season rotation.
“Yeah, I think about it. I’m human. I felt like I worked myself into a good position, I was having a helluva year and I was planning on having a great playoffs to cap that off,” said VanVleet when asked about his future. “I think I was in good shape and I think more so than worry about what woulda, coulda, shoulda happened it’s more so like ‘what’s going to happen’?”
On that note, VanVleet joins the rest of us in trying to predict — or hope for — how this plays out. There are so many questions now that remain unanswered about the remains of the 2019-20 season and beyond. Can the NBA finish out the year? Is there still time to put together a playoff bracket? If so, how does that affect the normal process of the off-season? Meanwile, with the salary cap tied to league revenue, how does that change what kind of contract offers will even be available for VanVleet and other free agents? And what if, heaven forbid, we’re still no closer to a solution come time for the opening tip-off of 2020-21? What then?
“Those things are more so what I’m thinking about versus ‘oh, woe is me’ just because it’s something that happens to everybody,” said VanVleet, true to form with his eyes on the bigger picture. “It doesn’t just happen to me and I just happen to be in this position.”
So, in something of a twist, now we can indeed imagine ourselves in VanVleet’s shoes. We definitely can’t play basketball like he can, we’re not hoping to sign a million-dollar contract in the near future, and we may not even share his same ongoing haircare concerns. But our lives are on hold too. And, sadly, there’s nothing thrilling about it.