TORONTO – Hope for the best but plan for the worst.
That’s the approach Fred VanVleet took in the hours leading up to the NBA’s announcement of the all-star reserves on Tuesday evening. When you’ve experienced what he has over the course of his personal and professional life, that’s the way you’re conditioned to approach most things.
So, as family and friends spent the day trying to convince him that he was going to make it, he found himself taking on a familiar role as the level-headed voice of reason.
“I've been managing everybody's expectations, like, I don't know, I've got a chance, but I don't think so,” VanVleet said. “I really didn't expect to [make it]. But I get it. You know what I'm saying? I get what goes into all that stuff. There's a lot of politics and a lot of stuff that goes on with that. I was managing my own expectations.”
VanVleet was getting ready to take the court alongside his Raptors teammates in Tampa ahead of their second straight meeting with the Philadelphia 76ers when the news came down.
Unless he gets in as an injury replacement, the Toronto guard won’t be making the trip to Atlanta for next month’s All-Star Game. After the starters were unveiled last week – voted on by the fans, players and a select panel of media – the coaches selected 14 subs, seven from each conference, and VanVleet didn’t make the cut.
For a player that is just five years removed from being passed on by all 30 teams in the league, you know he’s not going to lose much sleep over this. He’s made a career out of using each and every perceived slight to motivate him and make him better.
At 22-years-old, he went unselected in the NBA draft. He’ll turn 27 this coming Thursday and he’s already won a championship and earned a vote for Finals MVP, signed a $85 million contract, and set the Raptors’ single game scoring record.
Not getting the all-star nod during a season in which he’s shown to be deserving of it is just one more thing he can add to his list, something to propel him even further, and another reason to go out there everyday and prove people wrong. He has a way of keeping these things in perspective – which isn’t the most common trait among professional athletes – but that doesn’t mean he can’t be at least a little bummed out.
“Obviously, I'm human, I'm disappointed,” said VanVleet, following the Raptors’ 109-102 loss at the hands of the Sixers. “As much as it doesn't matter, it does matter, if that makes sense. I'm not gonna lie and say, oh, I don't care. Obviously I care, and it's something that I want to be a part of someday. But I think just having the proper perspective on it and the understanding that I'm not going anywhere. This is not going to be my last year being up for all-star. I think I was very close, and all the guys that made it were very deserving. That's the case every year. I'll keep getting better and give myself a better case next year.”
VanVleet’s resume was strong enough to earn him consideration. He’s averaging a personal-best 19.8 points, has played in every game this season and ranks third in minutes played, he’s continued to establish himself as one of the premier defenders at his position – leading the league in steals and deflections, and his historic 54-point performance against Orlando was among the most efficient scoring displays we’ve ever seen.
He’s playing all-star calibre basketball and has had an all-star level impact on his team, but so have a lot of other guys – many of whom got voted in, and some who, like VanVleet, did not.
Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis plays for the fourth-best team in the East and just became the first player in NBA history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists and not make the All-Star Game. Atlanta’s Trae Young averages 27.0 points and ranks inside the top-10 in scoring, but he isn’t an all-star. Out West, Phoenix’s Devin Booker, Utah’s Mike Conley and San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan – each on winning teams – can all reasonably consider themselves snubs.
The reality is only 24 guys can make it each year, and there are more than 24 great players in the association.
In the East, James Harden and Jaylen Brown were locks to claim the two guard spots. Jayson Tatum Julius Randle and Nikola Vucevic were the three frontcourt selections. That left two wild card slots for four deserving guards – Ben Simmons, Zach LaVine, VanVleet and Young.
You can argue for or against any of those four. What likely separated Simmons and LaVine in the minds of the coaches was that the former plays for East’s top-seeded 76ers, and the latter is putting up remarkable numbers for an overachieving Bulls team. Rightly or wrongly, some coaches may have penalized VanVleet for Toronto’s slow start to the campaign. He also could’ve split votes with the team’s other two candidates – Kyle Lowry, who had made six straight all-star appearances, and Pascal Siakam, who made his first last season.
“I'm very disappointed,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, whose team’s streak of sending at least one player to the All-Star Game ends after seven years. “I was trying to stop the narrative. The narrative that I kept hearing was oh, if you guys wouldn’t have had such a bad start. Well, the voting just ended yesterday, I mean we’re like 14-7 in our last 21 [games]. I mean, were you still stuck on our 2-8 start?”
“Kyle's been out a bunch of games, [VanVleet’s] picked up the slack for a six-time all star, won a lot of games, beat a lot of good teams, had huge games. I'm disappointed. I take nothing away from the guys that made it. I'm sure there's some other guys on other teams that are very disappointed as well, but I think he's played his guts out and our team’s played pretty well and he's been a big reason for it.”
VanVleet will get over it quickly, and so will the Raptors. They’re probably already over it. With a couple of big wins over Milwaukee last week, as well as Sunday’s victory over Philly, it’s clear that they’ve turned a corner and have re-entered the mix atop the Eastern Conference. Even in defeat, they looked like their old selves against the Sixers on Tuesday.
After falling behind early, they dug in defensively, neutralized MVP candidate Joel Embiid for the second straight contest, and fought hard until the last second, even when they could have mailed it in with a game in Miami coming up the following night.
VanVleet was at the forefront of it, as he usually is. His jumper wasn’t falling for most of the evening – and he wasn’t alone in that regard, the Raptors shot less than 30 per cent from long distance – but he was typically impactful on the defensive end and hit a couple of threes late in the fourth quarter to push the Sixers when they thought they had the game wrapped up.
He added another 37 minutes-worth of mileage and will surely add a bunch more in what’s expected to be a physical contest against the Heat on Wednesday.
He would’ve loved to spend a few days in Atlanta next month, as unusual as this pandemic all-star weekend will be, but he’s not going to complain about getting a chance to enjoy some much-needed rest and relaxation on a beach with his family. Despite the disappointment, he still hasn’t lost that perspective.
“There’s too much real s--- going on in the world for me to be crying about [not] making the All-Star Game,” VanVleet said.