Fred VanVleet was a revelation for the Toronto Raptors during their championship run last year. He proved himself to be a crucial cog in their machine, the sixth man who could hold down the fort without Kyle Lowry or Kawhi Leonard. He took on an even bigger role in the playoffs, suddenly splashing threes from all over the place and playing stingy defense on the opponents' key backcourt players.
It's been much of the same this year. VanVleet was elevated to the starting lineup and proved last year was not a fluke. He maintained steady offensive production while remaining a key weapon in one of the NBA's best defenses. VanVleet is shooting 39 percent from deep on a career-high 7.1 attempts per game while setting another career-high in assists, dishing out 6.6 per game. He didn't miss a beat after the four-month layoff, either. VanVleet scored 36 in the Raptors' latest win against the Miami Heat, yet another career-high, and no matter what happens to Toronto in the playoffs over the next month, he has set himself up for a big, big payday this summer.
VanVleet is the best available unrestricted free agent in a very dry 2020 free agent market. There's a chance players like Gordon Hayward or DeMar DeRozan exercise their player options and hit free agency, but that feels very unlikely with the uncertainty of the times. After that, the best available free agent will be... Paul Millsap? Tim Hardaway Jr.? There will be players of similar skill to VanVleet out there, but none of them can be a building block for the future like the 26-year-old point guard.
It's hard to discern what the impact of the pandemic will be on team's cap sheets and their willingness to spend, but there will be plenty of suitors for what VanVleet brings to the table. He won't be getting anything like a max contract, but Terry Rozier got a three-year, $56 million deal just last offseason, and VanVleet is far better. If he really wanted to, he could probably stay with Toronto. But Pascal Siakam is due a hefty extension, Kyle Lowry is on the books for $34 million next year, and both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are free agents, too.
If VanVleet wants to maximize his earnings, which seems likely after he entered the league as an undrafted free agent, testing the waters of the open market will be the direction he'll go. And there are a lot of bad teams who sure could use a steady hand at point guard with money to spend this fall. Per usual, the New York Knicks come to the forefront as a suitor. RJ Barrett would benefit in a big way if he had a decent point guard to set the table for him and give him easier looks at the basket than having, like, Dennis Smith Jr. dribble the shot clock away. The new regime in New York will be looking to make some kind of statement in their first offseason, and signing VanVleet to a deal worth $65 million or so wouldn't hamstring them for the immediate future and give the team a vet to lean on while they work through the young players' developmental stages.
Detroit is another potential landing spot. They also lack a true point guard and bringing in VanVleet would accomplish many of the same goals as the Knicks in the same situation. Some of their cap space should be dedicated to re-signing Christian Wood, another revelation this season, but they should still have plenty of space to work with after the fact. The Pistons also don't seem entirely committed to the tanking life just yet, given Blake Griffin is still on the roster. But even if they end up trading Griffin at the first opportunity, VanVleet would be a helpful bridge to the next era of Pistons basketball. And it's not like they're using that cap space on anyone else. That's rarely a good justification to spend money (see: Knicks 2019 offseason) but in VanVleet's case, it's a very low-risk move. The importance of veteran presence in a young locker room cannot be overstated, and while VanVleet may only rarely be the reason his team wins a game, he's never the reason they lose.
VanVleet should pretty easily hit the $20 million per year salary threshold. That would put him at the same contract level as Malcolm Brogdon, which feels about right. The lack of any other attractive free agent options might drive the price up, but probably no more than $25 million a season, which is when we get into Jrue Holiday/D'Angelo Russell territory. VanVleet will forever be beloved in Toronto for his ridiculous shooting run en route to the NBA Finals, but it's about time the man made some money. It's coming this summer, and it's well-deserved.