He might not be as suspicious in nature as his Raptors point guard mentor, Kyle Lowry, but Fred VanVleet is not one to just accept things as they are presented to him.
VanVleet joined local reporters for a conference call on Wednesday afternoon. When I asked him what his workout setup was at his home in Rockford, Ill., and what he was doing to stay in shape, he suggested that I might be a spy for Raptors president Masai Ujiri. My next query was about what his intentions might be as a free agent, as the suspension of league play might dramatically change how much money is available to players on the market this offseason.
“You definitely work for Masai now,” VanVleet said.
VanVleet, who started each of the 48 games he played this year, is at the centre of what will become one of the biggest subplots following the suspension and possible cancellation of the 2019-20 season once a final decision about its fate is made. As the league and the players association collectively bargained, the salary cap for each upcoming season is determined by the basketball-related income (BRI) produced the previous year. Without getting deep into the weeds of the CBA, half of the BRI goes to the owners, with the other half going to the players. The salary cap dictates how much money teams can spend under the cap, while also determining the worth of the maximum and minimum salaries, as well as various cap exceptions teams can use to acquire players.
Assuming Anthony Davis elects to stay with the Lakers, a safe bet, you can make the case that VanVleet will be the best unrestricted free agent available. He is at the very top of the point guard market. He is just 26 but has plenty of playoff experience, and his timeline would figure to mesh well with the youth-oriented, rebuilding teams that project — or at least projected — to have money to spend this year. There will be point guard-needy teams, such as Detroit and New York, who should still have cap room, regardless of where the figures wind up.
However, with the league set to scrap about a quarter of its regular season schedule and maybe lose its entire playoff slate, not to mention the hit that the NBA took with the kerfuffle in China in the preseason, it is feasible that BRI, and the cap in lockstep with it, could actually go down this year. For years, the league has operated under the assumption that the cap will continue to rise, which makes perfect sense right up until a pandemic changes everything. There could be less money for all free agents, with VanVleet near the top of the list.
“It sucks because guys work their whole lives for this moment,” VanVleet said. “You think about not just myself, you think about a guy like (Pistons forward) Christian Wood, who ended up having a hell of a year toward the second half of the season and he’s a free agent this summer. So what does that mean for somebody like him? But I think that the league and the union will try to do a good job to make sure that the free agents this summer get a fair shake, and it’s fair negotiating.
“Obviously, we’ll probably all take a hit at some point, and hopefully the hit is just kind of minimized to just this year, and so there (are) ways to work around that stuff. But at the end of the day, I think people’s health and wellbeing and frame of mind is a lot more important than a couple million here or there, because we’re all filthy rich compared to what we came from in the first place. So I don’t think anybody’s crying over it. I just think that it sucks when you do start to think about what woulda happened, shoulda happened, so try to stay away from that (type of thinking) as much as possible.”
VanVleet’s ability and willingness to put things in perspective is appreciated, but it is hard not to feel at least a modicum of sympathy for him, as he has approached his career so intelligently. His “bet on yourself” mentality memorably unfolded on draft night, but it also played a part in the signing of his second NBA contract in the summer of 2018.
As an undrafted player, VanVleet was a restricted free agent in 2018, with the possible value of the first two years of his deal capped at the mid-level exception. While it is unclear what his options were, as there were no reports of a team offering VanVleet a long-term deal, the point guard ended up signing a two-year, $18-million contract with the Raptors in part because he wanted to hit unrestricted free agency earlier in his career. (Players picked in the first round can manipulate things to ensure they are unrestricted at the end of their fifth season, but that requires making sacrifices such as accepting what is oftentimes an under-market qualifying offer for that fifth season. Generally, players only hit unrestricted free agency in their fourth season or earlier because they failed to sufficiently impress teams near the start of their careers. VanVleet, a fourth-year player, is an exception.)
Now, with VanVleet set for that payday, having put together the best season of his career after a wildly memorable playoff run, the NBA is facing an unforeseen set of circumstances that could radically alter the nature of the offseason. In the summer of 2016, the opposite scenario presented itself. With the new American national television deal kicking in, resulting in a windfall for the owners and players alike, there was a huge bump in BRI in 2015-16 compared to 2014-15. The NBA proposed “cap smoothing” options that would have spread that money over several seasons instead of having the whole thing apply that offseason. Those proposals would have prevented that class of free agents disproportionately benefitting from a massive “cap spike.” The Players’ Association declined those suggestions from the NBA, and Bismack Biyombo and Ian Mahinmi are still reaping the benefits.
This summer could present a gigantic “cap dip,” with 2020’s free agents bearing the brunt of what should be a massive drop in BRI. Accordingly, it might make sense for VanVleet to make yet another bet on himself, accepting a shorter contract in the cash-strapped year and re-entering the market in 2021 when there figures to be more money to go around, even if there will be more talented players available. VanVleet making that decision could greatly benefit the Raptors, who have been trying to preserve as much room as possible for 2021, the Summer of Giannis. An expensive one-year deal for 2020-21, like the extension the Raptors gave Lowry in the preseason, does more to maintain flexibility than a multi-year deal would. Thus, VanVleet was accusing me of amateur espionage.
“Everything’s on the table,” VanVleet said when presented with the hypothetical scenario. “I’m in a position where I feel like I’ve done my work and proven my worth. We’re going to position ourselves the right way, but also we’re kind of waiting to see what’s offered. We have to wait to see what’s offered. We can create the deal, obviously. But nobody knows what anything’s going to look like. (A one-year deal) hasn’t been on the table for discussion really between me and my camp. It’s more like, let’s wait and see what happens. Whenever it’s time to move, then we sit down and negotiate.
“I just did a two-year (contract). Best-case scenario, no, I wouldn’t take a short-term deal. But obviously this is not a best-case scenario for anybody. I’ll just say I’m flexible. I’m open. I’ll listen. I think everybody knows what a best-case scenario looks like. We’ll start there and work our way down.”
VanVleet knows this is the only thing he can say, as none of this is in his control. Every last bit of potential BRI would help VanVleet, and he would be anxious to play even if he were not a pending free agent. Despite that, VanVleet said he is skeptical that the NBA will find a way to conclude the season unless the NBA is willing to really delay the conclusion to the season.
“If we’re saying the timeline matters, “ VanVleet said, “(if) we’re saying all these … things and you’re looking around the world at what’s going on with the virus itself, if our league is going to be a leader in terms of public health and public safety and player safety, (if) you gotta follow the guidelines of what the virus is speaking to you … the odds are probably against us in terms of that.”
At the same time, he knows what might drive the league to finish its season in whatever manner it can.
“But money, right?”