Raptors’ Fred VanVleet focusing on aiding hometown amid uncertainty

Nearly two years ago, Fred VanVleet famously bet on himself in free agency when he took a short-term contract hoping to set himself up for a career-defining payday in the summer of 2020.

At almost every turn since, the savvy Toronto Raptors guard has made it look like his gamble was going to pay off exactly as planned.

The recently turned 26-year-old finished off the first year of his two-year, $18-million deal with a flourish, playing the best basketball of his season in the Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals, earning a Finals MVP vote while helping lift the Raptors to their maiden NBA title.

This season he came out of training camp as a starter for the first time in his career and posted career-highs in points (17.6), assists (6.6) and rebounds (3.8) while shooting 38.8 per cent from three on a career-best seven attempts per game, proving himself a more-than-capable starting guard on a team that was on pace to win 60 games before the season was interrupted.

Even in a free-agent market that was projected to be tight for point guards, it wasn’t unreasonable to project the Raptors would need to compete with offers starting in the $80-million range in order to keep VanVleet.

But not even an athlete as forward thinking as VanVleet could have anticipated the economic impact of a global pandemic on his contract situation.

The picture is muddled as the league suspended play on March 11 and can’t offer any clear guidance about if, how or when the season might resume. It’s safe to say the financial impact will be significant with $1 billion in revenues being sucked out of the system.

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That means less money available for free agents with the salary cap – which has risen in 33 of 36 seasons since being implemented in 1984-85 — potentially falling by an unprecedented 10 per cent. According to some projections, it could slip from $109-million this season to less than $100 million next year. Before the NBA’s fall out with China during pre-season and the associated sponsorship hit and now the pandemic, some projections had the cap hitting $115-million in 2020-21, nearly double what it was just seven years ago.

VanVleet is worldly enough to understand how much money is available to be had for already wealthy basketball players is not something to be complaining about given other issues, but he can’t tell a lie either:

“Yeah, I think about it. I’m human. I felt like I worked myself into a good position, I was having a helluva year and I was planning on having a great playoffs to cap that off,” he said on a conference call on Wednesday.

“I think I was in good shape and I think more so than worry about what woulda, coulda, shoulda happened it’s more so like ‘what’s going to happen’?

“Are they gonna move the dates around, does free agency move, how does it affect the cap? Those things [are] more so what I’m thinking about versus ‘oh, woe is me’ just because it’s something that happens to everybody. It doesn’t just happen to me and I just happen to be in this position.”

Perspective helps.

VanVleet was born and raised in Rockford, Illinois, a mid-sized Midwestern city that had its share of economic challenges long before being slammed by a pandemic.

On that front, VanVleet – who owns a retail business in downtown Rockford – has been spending time since emerging from quarantine in Toronto and heading back home to study what he might be able to do to help those who are going to need it most in his hometown.

“Obviously I own a small business here and I kind of can feel the [economic] impact from that standpoint,” he said. “I have some relatives that work in the healthcare industry [but] I didn’t want to rush home and just throw a bunch of money somewhere just to look good.

“I kind of have been waiting to see what they really need because our needs in Rockford are much different than, say, Toronto … I’ve been in communication with our mayor and some of the officials for the city to just kind of see what is exactly needed and then I will do what I can to help. But … my guys at the shop … they’ve been passing out lunches and trying to help some of the healthcare workers and … taking lunches to people like that so just small things right now and just waiting to see what this thing will look like and what exactly we need.”

VanVleet’s ambitious that way. He wants to help turn Rockford’s fortunes around. He’d likely be in a better position to help if he reached his goals on his next contract, not to mention signing a four- or five-year deal for $80 or $100-million, representing another remarkable chapter in the career of the fourth-year player who went undrafted as a college senior in 2016.

But the events of the past six weeks have put some of those goals in jeopardy.

“… It sucks because guys work their whole lives for this moment [to be in a strong position in free agency], you think about not just myself, you think about a guy like Christian Wood [a fourth-year forward with the Detroit Pistons] who ended up having a helluva 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’s ways to work around that stuff.”

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VanVleet says he’s of two minds regarding the possibility of the season starting again. On one hand, he looks at the way the nature of COVID-19 and says it seems unlikely, practically and logistically.

“I don’t really see how [the season resumes] unless the timeline doesn’t matter, but if we’re saying the timeline matters [and] we’re saying all these certain 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, you gotta follow the guidelines of what the virus is speaking to you,” he says. “So the odds are probably against us in terms of that.”

On the other hand?

“But money, right? So, I think they’ll find a way, they’ll find a way somehow some way, and try to make it happen,” he says. “But I can definitely see it going either way … I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t come back and I wouldn’t be surprised if we do come back.”

VanVleet stands to gain more than the average NBA player if the season can be saved. Every game played contributes to the league’s bottom line and the amount of revenue that can be split with players. It would mean more money in his pocket.

The “again” perspective:

“At the end of the day, I think people’s health and well-being and frame of mind is a lot more important than a couple million here or there,” he says. “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 [I] try to stay away from that as much as possible.”

In the short-term, there are other problems common to many. VanVleet’s turned himself into a handyman, assembling toys and furniture around the house. He’s tried to stay in game shape, lifting weights in his garage, doing workouts on his Peloton bike and getting shots up when he can.

But like NBA finances, some things are out of his hand.

VanVleet is meticulous about his hair and employs a barber regularly during the season, but – like many people on lockdown – he has had to let things go longer than usual. He says his last haircut from his preferred, Toronto-based stylist was on his birthday on Feb. 25. The Raptors left on a long road trip a few days later, then COVID-19 hit and the results have not been pretty.

“I think it’s been about seven, eight weeks without a haircut now, so I’m turning into a werewolf over here,” he said. “But I don’t have anywhere to go, anywhere to be, so I’m alright with it.”

If and when things return to some version of normal, that will be one haircut VanVleet can look forward to.

The other – the financial one that he will likely have to deal with this coming off season, whenever that might be?

Not so much.

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