Of all the exciting things there are about following a team, re-signing your own player is the least of them. It’s like being given a set of golf clubs you already own for Christmas.
So after a couple of weeks of handwringing, is it great that the Toronto Raptors re-signed Fred VanVleet to a four-year, US$85-million deal? Absolutely. Is it also a bit of an anti-climax? Yes, that, too. It’s both things at once.
Aside from the championship, the thing that most defines the Masai Ujiri era is the Raptors’ ability to identify and develop underappreciated talent. They did it with Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, but no current NBA player had a wider gulf between perceived worth and actual value than VanVleet. In terms of the scouting arts, he is Ujiri’s Las Meninas.
To let a player of that calibre go to, say, the New York Knicks – a franchise that kills all its beauties – would have been a crime against basketball.
Most people are happy about the VanVleet news because it keeps the Raptors’ point-guard succession plan on track. Once Lowry leaves, VanVleet assumes command.
Of course, this assumes that a) Lowry departs Toronto in orderly fashion once his deal runs out after next season or b) he comes back on a cut-rate deal, tugs a forelock in VanVleet’s direction and allows his understudy to become the team’s QB1.
Anybody who’s followed Lowry’s career can see the potential problem there. Lowry may be warmer and cuddlier than he once was, but that doesn’t mean he’s become an old softie. Show him the red cape and there is a better-than-average chance he’ll still charge. In fact, that would be kind of fun.
For my own part, I’m happy VanVleet’s returning because he’s interesting. He has deep thoughts and enjoys sharing them. That is a far rarer commodity in pro sport than an impressive vertical leap or a 100 mile-an-hour slapshot.
If you were trying to pad out a non-cloying “All-Star Team of Interesting,” drawing athletes from every sport, you’d be hard-pressed to fill the starting spots. But VanVleet would be on it.
So. The Raptors got their own man. Mission accomplished, everyone. Good job, good effort. What now? I dunno. I guess we have to play the season. How’s that looking? Not superhot to be honest.
For the first time in a while – since Kawhi Leonard was put in a box marked “slightly damaged goods” and shipped to Canada 2 1/2 years ago – the Raptors are no longer NBA title contenders.
Yes, I hear you. They are still contenders in the mathematical sense, and the “you never know what can happen” sense, and the “all the Milwaukee Bucks decided to do missionary work instead of play basketball” sense. But not in any real sense.
In the Eastern Conference on-paper pecking order, the Raptors now slot below at least four teams (Milwaukee, Boston, Brooklyn and Miami). Given the way Siakam performed in the previous playoffs, Toronto does not currently have a bonafide, win-this-one-on-my-own superstar. A contending team needs at least one of those.
They are also headed the wrong way in another department – depth.
Just as VanVleet was returning, backup centre Serge Ibaka decided to leave. He’s signing a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. This one involves a 60-per-cent pay cut to take another backup role. Ibaka wasn’t leaving Toronto so much as fleeing it.
Shortly thereafter, starting centre Marc Gasol had agreed a free-agent deal with the L.A. Lakers.
The Raptors then rushed out and got Aron Baynes, who is not exactly the reincarnation of Hakeem Olajuwon, on a deal they can call quits after one year. This team is fully in ‘plugging holes as we go’ mode.
So in short order, OG Anunoby – who is 6-foot-7 – may be the Raptors’ best option underneath the basket. Hopefully, Toronto has enough cap space to acquire a step ladder.
Last season, the Raptors drifted by on championship fumes. They were just good enough – and their competition just mediocre enough – to sustain the idea that winning without Leonard might be possible. The postseason put paid to that idea. Toronto didn’t fall just short. Turns out, it was never even that close.
Having secured VanVleet, the focus now skips over the 2020-21 season and moves to next off-season. At that point, all the big contracts (save VanVleet’s and Siakam’s) will be wiped from the ledger.
That puts Toronto in position to pursue a major free-agent prize, the majorest of whom would be Giannis Antetokounmpo. Ujiri and Antetokounmpo have history that reaches back before the Greek was drafted. We’re going to see exactly how many millions being someone’s long-time pal is worth.
Will Antetokounmpo come to Toronto? No idea. Would he have come to a team whose only name-brand product was Siakam? Almost certainly not. Nobody loves Canada enough to come here and lose.
That’s the real reason signing VanVleet was important. It keeps the long-term battle plan in something resembling order.
So if the Raptors had one big, achievable goal for 2020-21, they just achieved it. The rest of what happens this year isn’t gravy. It’s more like roughage. You eat it because it’s good for you, not because you enjoy it.
Maybe it’s fitting that the Raptors spend the season playing out of Tampa. An anonymous place for what will be a semi-anonymous team. The sort of place you hide out for a bit, biding your time before launching your next scheme.
Although some stuff will happen – and, yes, anything is theoretically possible – this will much more than likely be a lost year in the Raptors’ recent run of success.
They’ll be back home soon enough, possibly better outfitted and, by that point, perhaps ready to resume their place at the top. For the near future, wins and losses have stopped mattering all that much. What matters now is (terrible word) the process and sticking to it.