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Raptors failing VanVleet, not the other way around

Fred VanVleet Fred VanVleet - Getty Images

TORONTO – For about 10 seconds towards the end of Friday’s third quarter, Fred VanVleet laid motionless on his backside just inside the free throw line, not because he was hurt but because he needed a moment to catch his breath.

After banking in a three-pointer on the previous possession and then stripping the ball from Knicks big man Mitchell Robinson under the rim, VanVleet crashed into Miles McBride at full speed and drew a blocking foul with less than six seconds remaining. It was an impressive but exhausting sequence for the Raptors’ point guard.

For the second time in three days, VanVleet was doing just about everything he could to carry his team back into a game that shouldn’t have even been close. And, for the second straight contest, he was simply running out of gas.

On Wednesday, in one of the strangest games you’ll ever see, Toronto erased a 16-point deficit in 1:14 before falling to the Milwaukee Bucks in overtime. In his 47th minute of the night, VanVleet missed what would have been the game-tying three at the end of the extra period, later admitting he was “tired as s***.”

When he finally peeled himself off the court and split his free throws to close the third quarter on Friday, the Raptors were within three points of New York. After playing the entire third, VanVleet started the fourth quarter on the bench. Two minutes and an 8-0 Knicks run later, Toronto was down by 11 points and VanVleet was forced to re-enter. They would ultimately trim another 16-point deficit down to two inside of the final minute but, once again, they couldn’t close the deal.

The night started with Nick Nurse answering a question about VanVleet’s minutes. Going into the season, the plan – or at least the hope – was to manage his workload differently than the prior campaign, when he tied for the league lead in minutes per game and wore down as the year went on. They knew it would be easier said than done, given his importance to the team and the lack of depth behind him at the guard position. Even VanVleet was sketpical.

While things got off to a promising start – he didn’t eclipse 40 minutes until his 12th game of the season – the VanVleet preservation plan has more or less gone out the window recently, with the club desperately trying to salvage its season. If you subtract last month’s game against the Clippers, which he left early due to a back injury, VanVleet is averaging more than 40 minutes over his past 10 contests. In three games since missing two with back spasms, he’s averaged 41. He now ranks fourth in the league in minutes per game, trailing James Harden and two of his teammates, Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby.

“It’s been difficult,” Nurse said before VanVleet logged 41 minutes and scored a team-high 28 points in Toronto’s 112-108 loss to New York. “We certainly would love to cut those down by five or six minutes a night, for sure. It was looking like we were heading in that direction. We just need someone to fill those minutes where we can feel like the game is still within reach.”

VanVleet is nothing if not self-aware. He knows what some people are saying about him and he knows why they’re saying it. The seven-year vet is having a down season. To clarify, that doesn’t mean he’s having a bad season, but it falls short of the standard he set during last year’s all-star campaign.

Mostly, he hasn’t shot the ball well. With VanVleet – like with Kyle Lowry before him, as well as a lot of other players – you have to be able to differentiate his poor shooting nights from his bad games. He’s had a lot of the former this year, but only a few of the latter. They’re not always mutually exclusive, as was the case over these past two games when he combined to shoot 7-for-23 from three-point range but was still the Raptors’ best player.

“I think it’s a big drop off from where I was, as far as an all-star calibre point guard to where I am now,” VanVleet said in his recent appearance on JJ Redick’s podcast, The Old Man & The Three. “The shooting has been up and it’s been down way more than I would like it to be [but] I’ve got a lot of other responsibilities other than just scoring the ball.”

VanVleet is shooting the three-ball at a 32 per cent clip this season, down from 38 per cent over his first six NBA seasons. With the prolonged slump, some of his shot selection has also come into question. There have been nights were his typically excellent on-ball defence has fallen off, especially against quicker guards. That the Raptors are losing only magnifies his struggles. Still, more often than not, they’re a better team when he’s on the court than when he isn’t.

Contrary to the belief of some fans, who are scapegoating him for the team’s many shortcomings, VanVleet isn’t failing the Raptors. The Raptors are failing him.

On multiple occasions, he’s suggested that the ongoing adjustment to his slight role change may be affecting his play, though that seems like a stretch. It’s true, he’s had to take a bit of a step back in the offence when everybody’s been healthy. Still, when you look at his usage rate – which is down from the last couple years, but marginally – as well as his shots and where they’re coming from, his role isn’t drastically different. He’s playing off the ball more often but he’s done that before, having shared the backcourt with Lowry for multiple years, or allowed for Siakam and Scottie Barnes to initiate the offence in the second half of last season.

If anything’s affected his production, it’s the substantial workload he carries and the myriad of injuries he regularly plays through, which are so often related. Since the 2019-20 campaign, only Harden has averaged more minutes than VanVleet. He’s currently leading the NBA in distance travelled per game for the third straight season.

Some guys are built to be heavy-minute players. Siakam has shown he can handle a big workload and still maintain his high level of play and durability. Even Lowry had the padding to absorb some of the hits he took, though managing minutes was a topic that followed him around as well. But at VanVleet’s size – generously listed at 6-foot-1 and 197 pounds – and with the way he plays, especially when his shot isn’t falling and he’s attacking the rim with more regularity, these 40-minute nights aren’t sustainable.

Unfortunately, as things are now, there isn’t an easy answer. VanVleet is a competitor. He had to scrap and claw his way into the league, and provided all of his limbs are still attached, he’s probably not going to ask out of a game.

Nurse is also in a difficult spot. When the front office chose not to address the point guard position over the summer, they left him with limited options behind VanVleet. Malachi Flynn, a first-round pick in 2020, has been in and out of Nurse’s circle of trust over his three seasons. The Raptors have been outscored by 31 points in Flynn’s 39 scoreless minutes over the last three games, forcing Nurse to throw two-way player Jeff Dowtin Jr. out there for 90 seconds in his place during the second half of Friday’s loss. Sophomore Dalano Banton has shown flashes but hasn’t played well enough at the NBA level. Barnes continues to get point guard reps here and there, but to mixed results.

So, as long as the roster remains status quo and the mandate is to win, Nurse has little choice but to lean on VanVleet. Had the Raptors gotten off to a better start they might be in a more advantageous position to play the long game with their point guard. Instead, here they are again, forced to chase wins in the hopes of saving their season. They were in a similar scenario last year when, to his own admission, he pushed his body too far, leading to the knee injury that cost him several games late in the season and the hip issue that ended his postseason early.

VanVleet is hoping history doesn’t repeat itself in that regard. He’s making a concerted effort to listen to his body and keep the coaching and medical staff apprised of his various aches and pains. Instead of allowing him to play through his recent back flare up, as they may have in the past, Nurse and Co. exercised caution and pulled him early in the second half of that Clippers game and then sat him out of the next two contests.

“I think [Nurse has] tried [to manage my minutes] this year a bit,” VanVleet said. “He’s done it a little bit. We’ve had our fights about it, but I trust coach and I trust what he’s doing.”

“Just being smart about how I'm feeling. If there's a nick or bump or whatever that needs to heal, then I'll let it heal. If not, then I'll be out there competing. I had contact injuries last year that I continued to play through that I didn't let heal. So this year, if I have something that's bothering me, then I'll let it rest to be my best self. But I’m just trying to be available as much as possible. I changed a lot of what I'm doing this year to be able to be ready and be fresh and I’m seeing some results with that. So, I feel pretty good as of now and hopefully we can keep that going. But all in all, I’m just trying to find ways to get wins.”

It’s a double-edged sword. They could lighten his workload now in the hopes of preserving him for later in the season, but at this rate, there might not be much left to play for. Having lost 14 of their last 19 games and fallen to 12th in the Eastern Conference standings, there’s a sense of urgency to win now. The problem is, even if they manage to string together a few wins and get back into the race, VanVleet and the rest of the starters will have pushed themselves to the brink in order to do it, not unlike last season.

Both player and team also have to consider their futures, together or apart from one another. VanVleet can and likely will opt out of his contract after this season. His immediate goals include helping his team win games while also trying to maximize his value in free agency ahead of the summer. There’s no point in debating which he prioritizes highest because the two are so closely linked. He almost certainly wants to play as many minutes as possible to accomplish both, but there’s a point of diminishing returns where overextending himself won’t be good for anybody, including the Raptors.

Prior to the start of the season, VanVleet turned down a contract extension valued at roughly $114 million, the maximum Toronto could offer at the time, according to a source. He’s eligible to sign an extension up to that value until the end of the campaign, but considering he can make more in free agency and he literally wears the mantra “Bet on Yourself” across his chest, it’s not a surprise that he would prefer to let his current deal expire before negotiating a new one.

In terms of what VanVleet will be looking for on the open market, the four-year, $130 million deal that Tyler Herro got last fall is expected to be the baseline. Officially, the Raptors don’t have to decide whether they’re going to be the team that gives it to him until July. Essentially, though, they’ve got to make that decision over the next five weeks, ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline, or they risk losing him for nothing.

Committing that much long-term money, or more, to an undersized guard who has accumulated a ton of miles, battled injuries and will turn 29 next month isn’t a no-brainer. Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have both spoken openly about their intention to keep VanVleet in Toronto beyond this season. Despite the team’s recent setback and the re-evaluation process its prompted among the front office, there’s no indication that their stance on VanVleet has changed.

Assuming that’s the case and he remains an important part of their future, it would probably behoove them to maximize and extend his prime years, rather than running him into the ground before he even turns 30.