Fred VanVleet has accomplished everything the Toronto Raptors have asked from him and more. He closed Finals games for them against the Warriors, including a Game 6 fourth quarter where he made three big threes to clinch the 2019 title. With Kawhi Leonard departing and no immediate replacement, the 6-foot-1 guard took a big chunk of those minutes, was a huge part in leading the Raptors to a second-round run and elevated his status to a quasi-All Star.
The 26-year-old has accomplished all this while earning $19.5 million in his four seasons in Toronto. Not bad for an undrafted rookie. After earning the minimum in his first two seasons, the Raptors re-signed him to the maximum amount his early Bird rights allowed him to receive. Now the Raptors hold his full Bird rights and he is eligible to earn up to the maximum salary. There is a very strong chance his average starting salary exceeds his $19.5 million career earnings total.
So which teams had a chance of landing his services?
The Raptors would love to re-sign VanVleet to a long-term deal, without question. He is eligible to sign up to a five-year maximum deal worth $158.3 million with them. Other teams can give him four years, $117.3 million. He probably won’t get the maximum amount that would start him with a $27.3 million salary. He is more likely to get offers closer to $20 million annually, and that’ll probably be on the lowest end.
The conflict with VanVleet’s free agency is Raptors’ plans for 2021 free agency. They will pursue Bucks MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and are considered a frontrunner for him within league circles. Toronto already has a difficult path to maximum cap space in 2021 compared to other teams pursuing Antetokounmpo like Miami and Dallas. Right now we only have a range of what the 2021-22 salary cap could be, which is between $112.4 million to $120.1 million. This makes projecting for next summer very difficult.
Let’s say the salary cap only increases to $112.4 million and the Raptors re-sign VanVleet to a deal that pays him $25 million annually. They would enter free agency with only VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell (assuming he opts in), and both their 2020 and 2021 first-round picks guaranteed on the roster. They also have OG Anunoby who will be a restricted free agent they want to re-sign after using their cap space. In that scenario, the Raptors would have to either let Anunoby go or trade Powell to get closer to maximum cap space and they’ll still be several million short of it. Negotiations with VanVleet will be very fascinating to keep an eye on as the Raptors try to figure out a 2021-22 salary figure with 2021 free agency in mind.
New York Knicks: $42.4 million projected cap space
The Knicks have been linked to VanVleet and other point guards like Paul and Russell Westbrook. With so much cap space and no answer at point guard, it seems like they should be able to land one of them. VanVleet should continue to receive a heavy minutes load under coach Tom Thibodeau, but there is no guarantee of a playoff spot in New York. No matter what VanVleet will get paid, but if he wants to continue winning as well, he should sign elsewhere.
Detroit Pistons: $29 million projected cap space
The Pistons are projected to have $29 million in cap space assuming they hold onto Svi Mykhailiuk as well as the Early Bird rights to Christian Wood and Jordan McRae. They have been linked to VanVleet the longest, but signing him feels like a side-step in their process. Are they trying to rebuild post-Andre Drummond or do they just want to retool around VanVleet and Blake Griffin? Like the Knicks, their cap space is better off utilized in salary dumps.
Atlanta Hawks: $44.3 million projected cap space
The Hawks have the most cap space this offseason. It might be their only chance to land a really good free agent because John Collins is due for an extension. Although they have Trae Young, VanVleet has proven that he can play with off-ball with another point guard as he’s done with Kyle Lowry. Atlanta can start VanVleet alongside Young but have both players be the primary point guards when the other is resting. If they view VanVleet as their best realistic signing in free agency this year and next year, they could pursue him.
Although only a few teams currently project to have at least around $20 million in cap space, that will be enough of a market for VanVleet. Most likely, Anthony Davis and Brandon Ingram are the only other players projected to earn the maximum and they’re expected to re-sign with their current teams. Unless Gordon Hayward opts out and tests the market, VanVleet might be the only other free agent that will get a contract paying him at least $20 million annually. There is a case for most of the teams with cap space this summer to pursue him.
The Charlotte Hornets ($19.4 million in cap space) can also make a competitive offer for VanVleet, but they’re already very deep at point guard and have their eyes set on Russell Westbrook. The Suns were also interested, but now that they have Chris Paul, they are set at point guard.
Despite the intense competition the Raptors are expected to have for VanVleet, don’t expect them to let him go easily. Even with 2021 free agency in mind, they should do what it takes to re-sign him since there is no guarantee they sign another star. VanVleet is a very unique player who the Raptors will not be able to replace if he leaves.