The restarted Raptors are still seeking to defend their 2019 NBA title. For our latest series, Things for the Rings, we’ll break down what each essential person on the team can do to answer the major question on every fan’s mind: What does each Raptor need to do to make a Toronto repeat reality?
Thing for the Ring: FVV will have to hold up against bigger players
It feels unfair to even bring this up. VanVleet did earn a Finals MVP vote after all. His incredible shot-making over Toronto’s final two series last season was a massive part of the Raptors’ eventual title win. Still, VanVleet is about a small as they come in modern day NBA backcourts, and he’s not blessed with exceptional NBA athleticism. Spud Webb he ain’t, in other words.
Looking at VanVleet’s career playoff numbers before the Milwaukee series is painful. (I’ve excluded games where he only played in garbage time):
The net takeaway is that, at times, VanVleet has struggled to make shots in the post-season. Sometimes, like against very long Orlando and Philadelphia teams, it was downright painful to watch. A year earlier, VanVleet also struggled to make shots against Cleveland — whose collection of long athletes was an oft-overlooked part of their generally very good playoff defenses.
VanVleet was unconscious in the final three games against Milwaukee, and he also memorably put up a 44.4/40.0/85.0 shooting line against the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. Still, if VanVleet has a three-game shooting run like Milwaukee again it’ll be incredible, and the Warriors, with all their injuries, weren’t a particularly long team.
The Raptors could very well have to go through the length Orlando, Philly and Milwaukee again. Meanwhile, Boston has a host of rangy wings and guards, as do the Pacers, and to a different extent Miami (not to mention both LA teams). While focusing on shooting completely ignores his exceptional on-ball defense and savvy play-making, Toronto might not be able to beat any of those teams if VanVleet is not a major threat to get buckets.
Can He Do It?
Of course he can. VanVleet owns a career .411/.389/.836 line. He didn’t compile those by shooting like garbage every time he ran up against teams with significant NBA size. At the same time, the best defenses tend to make the NBA playoffs — and the Raptors have struggled to score against those defenses this year.
Some of that problem comes down to Toronto’s backcourt lacking burst and size. You can’t blame VanVleet for being what he is — but it may remain as a baked-in disadvantage for the Raptors. What may help VanVleet is his Free Throw Rate, which spiked to a career high this year, giving him another way to generate points even on nights his shot may be falling.
Chances of It Happening: 8 out of 10
Bet on yourself, and bet on VanVleet, whose crafty game and confidence are both at all time highs. The bigger question to ask here is what do we mean by “hold up”?
Even a small down-tick for one of the Raptors’ key offensive contributors could doom Toronto. Without Kawhi Leonard to don the cape, their margin for error on offense is thinner than ever. Still, VanVleet has proven he’s a winner, in these playoffs he’ll show that no matter whose covering him, he’s going to find a way to get his.
Will it be enough? That’s what’s going to make the playoffs so interesting.