TORONTO – It’s been a trying season, to say the least, for just about every member of the Toronto Raptors.
A poor start, bad play, awful injury luck, even worse COVID luck, you name it, the Raptors have likely experienced it this season, leading to a 23-34 record and cries for the team to tank the rest of the 16 games it has left from all over the fan base.
For longtime observers of the Raptors, this kind of season – COVID-19 specific problems aside – is old hat.
The glory of the last seven seasons have been more like a golden outlier in a 25-year history of mostly mediocrity.
However, no one on this current Raptors squad – maybe with the exception of Kyle Lowry for one year – knows anything about what the team has been for the majority of the franchise’s existence. The splendor of the last seven seasons is what this group has known and has transformed the image into.
One of the key players during this great run that the Raptors have been on is Fred VanVleet, and while nearly all of his teammates this season have had their fair share of problems, VanVleet, in particular, has had a snake-bitten season.
The fifth-year man who famously went undrafted out of Wichita State and proceeded to “bet on himself,” turning himself into one of the best two-way guards in the NBA, has experienced a season of both great highs and lows.
Starting before the season when he signed a four-year, $85-million contract, and then in early February when he exploded for a franchise-record 54 points, VanVleet has firmly established himself as the Raptors’ best player in 2020-21.
However, despite these milestones, his team just couldn’t find any consistency and more losses would come than wins and there were times when VanVleet’s frustration was almost tangible through the monitor during Zoom availabilities. Couple this with the fact he was a very notable all-star snub, and there was foreshadowing for what was going to be a very rough second half of the season for him.
And boy has the second half been a bad one for VanVleet. He first had to miss five straight games as he revealed he contracted COVID-19. Then, in the nine games after he was finally able to return, Toronto went just 2-7, despite VanVleet averaging 19.2 points per game during the span, finally leading to him missing the last seven games that included one where he had to sit for a suspension.
He only just managed to return to the lineup Friday, but there’s a chance he could miss Sunday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder as Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said his status is a little up in the air.
“I don’t have a definitive answer,” Nurse said after Raptors practice Saturday. “I just passed [Raptors vice president of player health and performance] Alex [McKechnie] in the hallway over to here and he said he thought Gary [Trent Jr.] might be able to go but Freddie might not be able to go. But they are both still ‘mights.’”
Added VanVleet about the hip injury he just recovered from: “I’m feeling pretty good. It’s just one of those things where you’ve gotta take it a day at a time. I’m sure if you have everybody in the league a full-body MRI you’d find similar things, a little bit of wear and tear besides the initial injury that I had. So there were some things that I was concerned about but I don’t think it’s going to be anything major, long-term. I think it’s just something to keep an eye on.
“Obviously, I was itching to get back out there having taken two weeks off. So it felt good to be back out there after playing last night. Regardless of how bad I played I just felt that this is what I do, this is what I love, this is my passion and any time when you’re sidelined it kinda dampens your mood a little bit. Going to a game is supposed to be the best part of your day and sometimes you have that part taken away from you. So I’m just happy to be back healthy – or trying to get healthy at least – going forward.”
That isn’t very encouraging news for the Raptors, but it’s par for the course for the way their season has gone.
On Saturday, VanVleet was quite introspective about how everything shook down for himself and his team this season, putting into stark perspective the realities of the business of basketball.
“I wouldn’t say taken away, that’s probably a little bit too strong,” said VanVleet when asked if he’s lost some passion for the game this season. “But there’s certainly ups and downs to this thing more than I’ve ever experienced in my life.
“To be honest, this is probably the most un-pure year of basketball I’ve ever been apart of, just from the whole league and rushing the season back. It’s pretty much all about business this year on every level and it’s hard to hide it, you know what I’m saying? The NBA is a great balance of like the pure love and joy of one of the best sports in the world mixed with a billion-dollar industry, and I think this year the industry side has taken precedent over some of the love and the joy.
“But there’s good days and bad days. I’ve been saying that all year. Just dedicating yourself to the craft, to your work, to your teammates, and allowing yourself to be human and take some of those good and bad days. But it’s definitely been a trying year, for sure, ups and downs across the board.”
VanVleet seemed confident that no matter how he’s feeling about this season, he sees the purity of the game eventually returning, and there have been some of those moments, such as the career night Paul Watson Jr. and Yuta Watanabe had for themselves Friday night.
“That’s the best part about the NBA, seeing guys get that first crack or that first big performance and you hope that this is the start of a long, illustrious career for them” said VanVleet. “Both of those guys work extremely hard, as a teammate and as a friend, just really happy to see them have success like that because once you have those four, five, six years in, everybody can probably look back at one or two of those moments in their young career where they had those breakout performances.”
As great as that moment on Friday was for VanVleet to witness, though, they’ve come too far and few between in a season that’s felt too “industry” for the Raptors guard’s liking.
“I get it, trust me, I do get it, but I don’t work for the NBA office so to speak, I’m not in that business to make sure that they reach their quota or whatever numbers they do with the TV partnerships and all that,” VanVleet said. “I still view myself as a basketball player even though I’m in the entertainment business. I love the game of basketball. So it’s a fine line to try to balance both of those worlds. I’m certainly not blaming them for anything that they’ve done but it’s a fact that business has taken precedence this year. Just the way it is for now and hopefully we can get it back to a better balance somewhere in the near future, but this is the world that we’re in right now.”
And for as much as VanVleet has come to dislike the way the season has gone, he isn’t so naive that he doesn’t realize he also doesn’t directly profit from it, nor had any input into the way it’s all gone down.
“The give and take is I can sit up here and complain about the NBA all I want to but I’m a part of it, you know what I’m saying? I’m directly profiting off of it,” he said. “We did vote on what season we wanted. They gave a few options and I think for the most part most of the players picked this option, so we’re in it. Which is why I can’t complain about it but I can point out that this is what it is and the pros and cons that come with that.
“It’s very conflicting but not so much of my craft, because I just go out there and that’s the way I play and that’s the way I approach every day. I’mma take whatever consequences come with that because this is what I signed up for. But there’s certainly a lot of information that plays a role in all of these things that we’re seeing with our eyes. It’s not as simple as it looks all the time.”
Nothing in life is ever as simple as it may seem, and, looking specifically at the NBA, the idea of the play-in tournament has become a little controversial.
On one hand, the Raptors are now tied for 10th place in the Eastern Conference with the Chicago Bulls for the final play-in tournament spot (Chicago holds the tiebreaker over the Raptors so they’ll still have some work to do, but they’re right there) and on the other the NBA just fined the Raptors $25,000 for “failing to comply with league policies governing player rest and injury reporting.”
Despite getting a couple wins of late, the Raptors have appeared to roll the tank through, notably resting Lowry and Pascal Siakam earlier this week.
So then, it begs to ask the question, do the Raptors really care about the play-in tournament? Right now, there appears to be more hesitancy about it than anything else.
“I don’t know,” said VanVleet of his thought about the play-in tournament. “We don’t know how the rest of this is gonna turn out so, if we’re not in it then it’s stupid and it was a bad decision and I think it’s easy to say that in hindsight, but if, somehow, we make it into the play-in then I would say that type of mentality is not gonna work for you. … I will say I do think the play-in made more sense for the bubble with the way that the season was suspended, but we’ll see how it goes this year. I hope [the NBA] make all the money they were hoping to make.”
Added Nurse, who still seemed a little skeptical but does see some benefit in the event: “Let me see what it looks like this year to see if I like it or not. I mean, I like it. UCLA just proved that a play-in tournament – the four extra teams that get in the play-in tournament might be pretty good and be able to advance, right? UCLA played in the play-in tournament until the Final Four and gave Gonzaga everything they wanted.
“I think it gives teams that have had injury or illness or whatever issues, that if you can get it ironed out and pick up some momentum and get healthy or whatever, I think a lot of NBA teams could probably move on out of that thing.”
That VanVleet returned Friday and may not play Sunday is curious, especially considering where they are in the standings. Should he be cleared to play Sunday despite looking like he’ll be playing through injuries that would probably be a good indication that the Raptors are going for the play-in tournament. If not, well, cue the memes.
“It’s weird because it’s obviously we all know the situation with the standings, so that’s hard to say because it’s so close,” said VanVleet. “I think if we were 15th or 16th or whatever the case was, last in the league, I think that’d feel a little bit easier.
“It’s tough. I would like to play when I’m able to but I understand the other side of things. It’s just one of those things where we’ve gotta come together as a team and as an organization, and have that open line of communication. But yeah, I’m open to everything. Doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with it or believe in it, but I’m certainly not gonna cause any disruption. So that’s a tough question to answer publicly, for sure. I think that I’m on board with this franchise in whatever direction that we’re going.”
Through his first four seasons in the NBA all VanVleet has known is success. This season has been trying entire Raptors organization, but especially for him, and he’s still trying to adjust to it all.
“It’s a new thing so I’m just taking it one day at a time, just trying to stay positive, continuing to let the work drive me. So whether that’s rehab or getting better on the court, I know I’ve gotta continue to get better and that’s just what I’ve been focusing on. So trying to be the best version of myself for this team for this year and for the future and just trying to stay positive and be the leader that I am on a daily basis and I think everything else will just fall into place.”