The Toronto Raptors have a bit of an identity crisis.
On one hand, their vision for the future is clear. They want versatile wings who can defend multiple positions and do a little bit of everything on both sides of the ball. It's why they build a roster for last season that included 11 players between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-9 and didn't have a single player on the roster 6-foot-10 or taller.
And what do they want to add this summer to augment the roster?
"I’m still after some more wing players, some more athletic wing players so we can continue to come at you in the style of play we want to come at you with," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said during his season-ending media availability.
"If I can find more Preciouses and more Pascals and OGs, trust me, we’ll have 15 more of them on this team," Raptors president and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri said. "We’ll continue to pile them up."
On the other hand, however, the identity of the team comes from a barely six-foot-tall point guard who looks entirely out of place on Toronto's roster. Fred VanVleet's mere presence on the roster has created some contradictory talking points for the Raptors this summer. The team has expressed its disinterest in adding anyone who doesn’t fit its mold during the offseason and has also shown no appetite to move on from the one man who runs most counter to everything Toronto professes to be about.
And yet, VanVleet somehow fits.
Sure, if this was a video game, the Raptors would be looking to move on from VanVleet for some higher rated, taller, and possibly younger player. But that’s not how the real world works. VanVleet is the heart and soul of this group, the protégé to Kyle Lowry whose tough-minded underdog mentality has filtered down from one generation of Raptors basketball to the next.
“Every time you talk to Freddy… it’s winning. Win, win, win. It comes out of their mouths all the time.” Ujiri said. “You talk to all the players, and it’s win, win, win. The players you get like that are the players that are going to win. That’s what they believe in.”
VanVleet in particular embodies that spirit. Prior to last season, the so-called “Tampa tank” as Ujiri put it, VanVleet had never had a losing season dating back through his high school days. He’d defied the odds, going from a low-rated prospect coming out of Rockford, Ill., to a four-year player at Wichita State, to an unknown, undersized, and undrafted point guard, to the highest-paid undrafted player in league history and an NBA All-Star.
“He’s a winner. He’s a champion. He’s an All-Star. He beats everything,” Ujiri added. “That’s bigger than 6-9. That’s the truth. It’s bigger than 6-9. That guy’s heart is bigger. And you need those guys on your team.”
That bore out in the numbers when VanVleet was healthy this season. Prior to his injury on Feb. 14 in New Orleans, the Raptors were +10.2 points per 100 possessions better when he played, the best on the team, per NBA Stats. It was only after he sustained the knee injury that plagued the second half of his season and cost Toronto in the playoffs that everything fell apart for VanVleet. From Feb. 15 onward, the Raptors were 2.6 points per 100 possessions worse with VanVleet on the court as the 28-year-old struggled to nail his three-pointers, shooting just 30% from behind the arc, and couldn’t hold his own on the defensive end.
Next season the Raptors are going to have to adjust. Nurse has made it clear to the front office that the roster is going to have to be deeper next season so he can give the starters more time off. He, VanVleet, and the medial team are going to work on ways to limit VanVleet’s playing time so that he can make it through the full 82 games and playoffs without any serious injuries.
But regardless of all the offseason tinkering, what’s clear is that VanVleet isn’t going anywhere. Toronto may have a unique vision for the future with its unusual roster of versatile forwards, but the Raptors aren't so pigheaded to move on from the man who most encapsulates what really matters most: winning.