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Should the Raptors bet on Fred VanVleet?

How much is Toronto’s free agent point-guard worth anyways?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

What is Fred VanVleet worth?

It’s arguably the most important and polarizing question facing the Raptors this season.

On one hand, you have the people who want to drive VanVleet to the airport yesterday, believing that he’s overrated and overpaid, and that the idea of a raise for a small guard who seemed to be physically reduced last year is insane.

On the other, are those who see VanVleet as the soul of the team, the man fashioned in the image of the G.R.O.A.T - Kyle Lowry - in his unrelenting desire to win, and no B.S. attitude. They believe the overall package, marked by high-volume shooting prowess, unselfish play, and strong defense, is dramatically underrated, and that a low-ball offer would be both insulting and suicidal for the team.

Truthfully, unless Toronto is heading into a full teardown, or you think Scottie Barnes is ready to go full Magic Johnson (hint: he isn’t), then the Raptors have an urgent need for what VanVleet brings: organization, outside shooting, low-turnover play, and strong team defense. Nobody else on the Raps current team profiles to be able to replace VanVleet’s skills, and because of the cap, the Raptors are ill-equipped to replace VanVleet on the open market, even if they were to let him walk.

So, pay him what he wants/match the best offer out there?

Not so fast.

Of course, VanVleet is not a perfect player. He’s small, and he’s not a dynamic or efficient scorer, especially near the rim.

(Thanks to JD Quirante for the links to all the charts!).

Then again, he WAS clearly hurt - and carried a HEAVY minutes burden. He had an uncharacteristically poor shooting season and the team was a mess. Those two things are likely somewhat related — VanVleet can only do so much to make an offense with no shooting around him, especially when opponents key on him as one of the only high-level shot creators.

So again, what is Fred VanVleet worth, and what should the Raptors consider a fair salary for him?

To answer that question I’m going to look at a few all-in-metrics to see where VanVleet ranks and then see what sort of deals comparable players received.

A few quick notes:

  • VanVleet is coming off a deal that paid him an average of $21.25m a year - making Fred the 61st highest paid player in the league, and 30th amongst guards.
  • Anyone who played fewer than 45 games was excluded in the rankings.
  • Many of these metrics admittedly over-index for big men due to their big edges in rebounds and blocks.
  • On that note, while I’ll mention players close to Fred, I’m more interested in comparing him to other ball-handling guards as that is the kind of player he’s replacing on any team.

PLAYER IMPACT ESTIMATE - PIE (84th overall, 35th amongst guards)

This is NBA.coms stat - it’s meant to reflect all of a player’s box-score contributions while also trying to factor in defense.

On the surface this doesn’t look so rosy - last year Gary Trent Jr. was the 84th best paid player in the NBA and it seems unlikely Fred is signing for $17.3 million, so any contract is going to scream OVERPAY if this is the true reflection of Fred’s value.

However, there is a decent case to say it isn’t, as it tends to over-rate bigs, and doesn’t take much on/off data into account.

The comps amongst guards are... fine - guys like Spencer Dinwiddie, Malik Monk, D’Angelo Russell and Norman Powell are all just above or below this.

It’s actually more interesting when you compare ALL player-types as FVV slots right in above guys like Mikael Bridges, Aaron Gordon (and Chris Boucher!) and just below Cam Johnson and Daniel Gafford. I feel like casual NBA fans would look at most of those names and say Fred is worth substantially less than them.

Salary-wise - what does this mean? Well Spencer Dinwiddie is maybe the best comp here - he’s a year older than Fred and also not a huge guard. Dinwiddie is paid fairly accurately - coming in at 36th amongst guards at just over $19m last year.

Monk is young, and hasn’t had his big pay date yet - he’s in the $9.5-10m range, while Russell is finishing off his big deal - one that paid him a shade under $32m a year (which is certainly a comp I’d want to be making as a VanVleet’s agent).

It’s worth noting here that Fred’s PIE has been pretty consistent through out his career - this past season was a bit lower than his previously established level, but not dramatically so.

PLAYER EFFICIENCY RATING - PER (85th Overall, 28th amongst guards).

Former Grizzlies executive, John Hollinger invented this one. It’s considered a slightly more complex version of PIE, and also tends to skew towards bigs.

Because it is meant to measure similar things to PIE it’s not a shock that it sees VanVleet in a similar way.

Close comps here? Dejounte Murray, Josh Giddey and Tyrese Maxey as well as old friends Norm Powell and Malik Monk.

Powell’s 5 year/$90m deal is the most useful comparison, but seems unlikely to get it done, while Dejounte Murray’s agency is likely looking at VanVleet’s deal to establish the floor for Murray’s next deal, given age and size factors.

Interestingly, Mikael Bridges comes in just under VanVleet again. This time joined by Michael Porter. As for the unheralded big man who slips ahead of FVV? You can pick between Xavier Tillman and Marvin Bagley Jr.

(It’s also intriguing to me that Hollinger’s system sees VanVleet as a shooting guard.)

Still, it feels like these metrics undervalue VanVleet somewhat - after all Fred is already making more than most of his comps, and even the biggest VanVleet haters probably don’t think he should be making $15m a season.

Why don’t we try...

Real Plus-Minus - RPM (47th Overall, 18th amongst guards).

RPM is another Hollinger stat - meant to try to reflect how much better a player makes his team - ideally this captures the type of plays that boxscore stats can’t, and in turn gives a better picture on which players actually make the biggest impact on the court - Kyle Lowry was a noted RPM king.

Aha, now this ranking seems more in-line with the Fred VanVleet who has made an All-Star team and been in the discussion before.

If we look at the 47th best paid player last year we see Memphis Grizzly big, Jarren Jackson Jr. He’s making just a hair under $30m, but the declining nature of the deal, makes the overall contract closer to $26.5m a season - a not horrible raise for Fred.

Amongst his comps we see guards like Tyler Herro, Buddy Hield, Jaylen Brown(!) and our old buddy D’Angelo Russell.

Overall, Fred slots in just below Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Vucevic, while coming in above young bigs Walker Kessler and some kid named Scottie Barnes.

While there is no world where VanVleet is getting paid like Brown will be on his next deal, the one Brown is coming off of ($26.5 a year - just under $30 in the final season) seems to be more realistic.

Herro and Hield are both intriguing - Herro will be making an average of $30m a season, starting next year. Although his age, 23, and ability to score the ball, both suggest he’d get a premium to VanVleet.

Hield actually slots just one space below VanVleet now - at just over $21m - which indicates that the Raps did a pretty good job handicapping VanVleet’s value four seasons ago.

This metric did see a bigger tumble with VanVleet compared to the past - he fell almost 20% from 2021-2022, and RPM him about 33% below his peak from a couple of seasons ago. Depending on your mileage on: “Fred playing less will make him better”, you could argue he’s actually underrated here.

Robust Algorithm (using) Player Tracking (and) On/Off Ratings - RAPTOR (17th Overall, 10th amongst guards).

RAPTOR is the metric devised by stat-gurus at FiveThirtyEight - it looks at how many points a player adds to their teams offense and defense over 100 possessions, while also factoring in things like age and height.

RAPTOR is also named after the home-town team. They say it’s because the model predicted the 2019 Raps were better than the Warriors, and the staff didn’t believe it, so the name change reminded them to trust their own work, but I say it was because their numbers LOVED Kyle Lowry (like top-10 guy in the league loved), and that the new name is an homage to that.

Honestly, given how much RAPTOR loves VanVleet, it makes you wonder if it’s just really bad at evaluating small, heart-and-soul types.

VanVleet nestles just under Kevin FREAKING Durant and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, while being slightly above Jalen Brunson, Paul George and James Harden.

If Fred was getting the 17th best deal in the league, he’d be getting paid like Tobias Harris or Jimmy Butler (one of these things is not like the other...) - that means a shade under $38m a year.

I love Fred, and think he’s been unfairly maligned this year, but that’s too much for even the best version of Fred given his age, size, and the fact that he has consistently seen his impact on games dwindle in the playoffs.

Buuut, it’s not insane to think he may be one of the more valuable players in the league. Fred has the ball, a lot, and rarely turns it over - it’s one of the key reasons the Raps have been able to squeeze out average-ish offense even with the limited shooting. Taking care of the ball at an elite level is huge. Especially when it is paired with the ability to consistently hit roughly 38% of your threes on very high volume.

There is also the matter of his defense, which for all the hand-wringing last year, still graded out very well.

Realistically, nobody in the NBA is going to argue that VanVleet should get paid more than James Harden or Paul George, or Kevin FREAKING Durant - the league just does not look at VanVleet through the same lens as those players, but... there is ANOTHER name that seems VERY comparable...

Jalen Brunson.

The similarities are eerie. Brunson is another undersized guard who was lauded for his effort and defense more than his skills, but, if you looked under the hood, was far more skilled than people realized and had been contributing to winning in a way that outstripped his reputation.

Brunson signed a four year/$104m deal which works out to $26m a season. It’s a raise for Fred, and it gets him over the magic $100m mark for the contract while also having the added bonus of being called the: “Jalen Brunson deal”, which neatly ties VanVleet in the public’s mind to a guy who had a breakout year.

(let’s not underestimate the power of optics when it comes to what can get a deal done).

Yes, Brunson is three years younger, but if he was coming up for free-agency after the season he just had, he’d probably be getting paid a lot more.

How does Brunson stack up to Fred in the other stats? He actually comes up quite a few spots lower than VanVleet in RPM - 76th, while doing better in PER - 29th and PIE - 31st.

(For what it’s worth, Five ThirtyEight’s WAR calculation - wins above replacement - has Brunson a nose ahead of VanVleet at 9th overall compared to 13th).

The Brunson deal also matches up well with the middle-case stat - RPM - remember Jarren Jackson Jr. was right around $26m a season.

Now whether the Raps want to guarantee all the money, given Fred’s injury concerns, or if there would be some sort of games-played language in there is intriguing. Maybe Fred gets a player-option on the last season in case he ages better than expected and the cap has blown up?

I assume VanVleet will at least be testing the market to see if a team with cap-space and the need for a point guard that can shoot - Orlando? San Antonio? Houston? - might make a blow-away offer, but will they?

The Magic have a TON of PG types now after drafting Anthony Black, so how much room is there in the backcourt unless they want to move off one or more of Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony or Jalen Suggs?

And while VanVleet as a guy who can make the NBA game as easy as possible for top-pick Victor Wembenyama, or as the adult in the room for Houston. is intriguing, given the way we’ve seen teams treat mid-$20m contracts for players like John Collins and Jordan Poole (re: poison), do either of the Texas teams potentially want to saddle themselves to the possibility of paying $30+m to find out that VanVleet IS breaking down?

At the end of the day, a thing is only worth what people will pay for it, but it seems there is a good case to be made that VanVleet’s next contract will pay him like he’s a top-50 player now, and more like a top-75 player as the deal ages.

That might even be a deal both sides of the great VanVleet debate can live with.