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The Fred VanVleet dilemma: A closer look

Trade VanVleet? Raptors fans learned nothing from Pascal Siakam’s 2020-21 season, it seems. But what should the Raptors do with their slumping PG?

Los Angeles Clippers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised by anything from the more reactionary side of Toronto Raptors Twitter anymore, but the way that our very online fanbase has turned on Fred VanVleet in recent weeks is pretty disappointing.

Sure, Fred is in a prolonged slump and his inability to connect on late game three-pointers have proven costly during the Raptors’ recent skid.

But a slump doesn’t mean a player is garbage and should be shipped out of town.

I don’t need to go through VanVleet’s rise from undrafted player to NBA champion to All-Star again — you know it all by now. But it is important to note that VanVleet was an All-Star last season (and he made a really strong push in 2021 as well).

I say that’s important because this fanbase also turned on another then-recently-crowned All-Star back in 2020-21. Pascal Siakam was having an incredible 2019-20 season, and was voted an All-Star starter; he then struggled in the Bubble (and those struggles were particularly costly in the a seven-game playoff series against the Celtics). When he didn’t return fully to form in 2020-21 — a season that included a well-documented argument with Nick Nurse — if you stumbled across Raptors Twitter you would have thought he was playing like 2014 John Salmons or something. So-called die-hards wanted him shipped out of town and were saying crazy things like “Julius Randle is better.” (I won’t even get into the horrifically racist treatment Siakam received from a handful of vile “fans.”)

Then Siakam returned to All-NBA form in 2021-22, and this season is playing better than ever. I’m certainly glad the team didn’t trade him at his lowest, as watching him tear it up on another team while the Raptors deliberately lost games would be pretty dang awful.

Which brings us to VanVleet.

What’s wrong with Fred VanVleet?

He’s having a down year, for sure. It started off just fine — VanVleet was shooting a career best 42% from downtown through his first 10 games, and his defense seemed as locked-in as ever. He missed three games early on with a sore back, but seemed fine in the four games immediately after (26ppg, 5.5apg, 2.0spg, 46/46/79 shooting splits).

Then VanVleet missed three of the next five games with a non-COVID illness, and it’s been downhill ever since.

In the 19 games he’s played since, VanVleet is averaging 18 points, 5.5 assists, and 1.2 steals, but his shooting splits are a ghastly 36/28/90. 28% from downtown! That’s on 8.7 attempts per game, too! It’s bad, real bad.

And then there’s the defense. I’m not an expert at analyzing the defensive end but anyone with eyes can see that VanVleet just can’t keep opposing guards in front of him. This in turn creates immense pressure on the Raptors’ already undersized paint defenders and leads to things like the Indiana Pacers scoring 62 points in the paint. It also leads to drive and kick opportunities where VanVleet is scrambling to guard someone on the perimeter — often bigger wings who can simply shoot over him.

While VanVleet’s signature dig-down and swipe action is still elite, and helps fuel the turnover-transition game that the Raptors desperately need to stay in games, he’s giving up a ton on the defensive end.

So what’s changed? I could be that VanVleet is still feeling the after-effects of his mysterious illness. I myself was sick for almost all of October with a non-COVID illness and I still don’t feel right; though I am obviously much older, and in much worse physical shape, with much less access to world-class healthcare than VanVleet, if the body doesn’t feel right then it’s going to affect everything.

It’s also possible, perhaps even more likely, that VanVleet’s back is bugging him more than he’s letting on. He recently missed two games (and left another early) with lower back soreness. And although the eyes often trick us into seeing what we want to see, there are visual indicators that VanVleet isn’t getting low into his stance, moving laterally as well, or getting his knees into his shot as much recently — all signs of a sore back.

There’s also the minutes issue. I wrote about this in my Nick Nurse analysis a few weeks back, but Nurse doesn’t trust his bench and his playing his starters way too much. He’s pretty much gone full Tom Thibodeau recently, playing VanVleet, Anunoby, Trent and Siakam close to 40 minutes a night. Injuries haven’t helped, particularly Otto Porter’s (who would likely be the team’s best perimeter threat, after VanVleet), nor has the front office’s unwillingness to acquire a backup point guard.

But none of this is VanVleet’s fault. He wants to play as many minutes as he can and his confidence in his own ability remains high — as it should.

Is it time for the Raptors to trade Fred VanVleet?

Much like with Siakam’s down year in 2020-21, the calls to trade VanVleet from amongst the more reactionary fans are increasing with every loss.

But much like with Siakam, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to trade VanVleet right now.

For one, his value is low, which is the worst time to trade a player. Trading VanVleet also leaves the team without a lead guard, and you’re certainly not getting a better player than VanVleet in trade. If you’re trading him for draft picks, they’ll likely be middle-of-the-pack picks, meaning odds of getting a better player via the draft are incredibly slim. And unless you’re also trading Siakam and Anunoby, the team will still be too good to really tank.

But more importantly, VanVleet — like Siakam — has a history of working on his craft and bouncing back to form. One need look no further than the 2019 playoffs for proof of that — VanVleet was a mess for the first two rounds, then was absolutely vital in the next two.

I’m completely confident that VanVleet will bounce back. And I sure as hell don’t want to watch him bounce back on another team. If VanVleet were to end up on team with a more balanced roster, with a backup point guard, he’ll thrive. And whatever the Raptors get in return will never be equal in value.

OK, but what about the contract?

VanVleet’s contract situation makes all of the above a little trickier. He’s eligible for a contract extension, and can opt out of his contract after this season. Smartly, he’s waiting for the salary cap to go up this summer to make a decision — and I assume that decision will be to opt out.

If he intends to leave, then the Raptors should, logically, trade him now. If they think they can’t afford him at whatever he number he wants, then they should also trade him now.

I hope he and his agent are having those discussions with Raptors management, and that everyone will do the right thing for all involved.

So what should the Raptors do?

Unless VanVleet has indicated he wants to leave, I think it’s a mistake to trade him. I believe the core of Siakam, Barnes, Anunoby and VanVleet can compete for a title, with the right pieces around them — or that one of those can be the centrepiece of a trade for a star, like DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard.

But for the latter to happen, the front office needs to make a move, or two, to get this team a proper big man and a proper backup point guard. That means Gary Trent, Chris Boucher, Precious Achiuwa, Thad Young and future firsts are all on the table? Yep.

They won’t be netting All-Stars in return, but serviceable bodies are needed. The back line of the defense must get better. And VanVleet cannot keep playing 40 minutes a night.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if VanVleet’s mindset right now is, “if the front office makes a move to construct a more logical roster around me, I’ll stay. If they don’t, I’ll move on.”

And I certainly wouldn’t argue with that. But trading him because he’s in a slump, or because the team wants to tank, I think is a mistake.