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What the VanVleet signing means for him, the Rockets, and Raptors

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The Houston Rockets inked Fred VanVleet to a three-year contract worth a reported $130 million Friday, making him the highest-paid free agent of the offseason so far and one of the 15 highest-paid players in the NBA.

To process this enormous deal, let's break down what it means for the player involved, the team that signed him, and the team that lost him.

What it means for the Rockets

There will obviously be some sticker shock at this contract's annual value, but for a rebuilding team with no other big salaries on the books, it makes some sense. The Rockets had over $60 million in cap space and had to spend over $50 million this year just to get over the salary floor; there's no harm in committing the bulk of that money to an All-Star-caliber point guard who has championship experience and won't turn 30 until February. That said, this deal would've looked a lot nicer for them if it had come in at two years (as was initially rumored) rather than the three VanVleet and his reps were able to secure.

In prioritizing VanVleet, it's clear Houston valued getting a grownup in the room. On top of adding a valuable locker-room voice and model of professionalism, the team is getting someone who's capable of organizing an offense that's been one of the most dysfunctional in the league over the last three seasons. VanVleet will make good decisions, take care of the ball, keep others involved, and work a strong two-man game with blossoming playmaking center Alperen Sengun.

Crucially, VanVleet can also play effectively off the ball and make space for Sengun and the younger guards on the roster - namely Amen Thompson and Jalen Green - to spread their wings and hone their shot-creating chops. He's a tremendous shooter off the catch and an excellent screen-setter who can pair up with any of those bigger creators in inverted ball-screen actions.

And though VanVleet's taken a step back as a point-of-attack defender, he still represents a big upgrade in that department over what the Rockets rolled out the last three seasons, when they finished 27th, 30th, and 29th in defensive efficiency. He also remains an elite help defender. He's got some of the stickiest mitts in the game, and there's almost nobody better at digging down on drives and post-ups. He ranked top five in both steals and deflections per game in each of the last four seasons.

As a 6-foot-nothing guard without elite or even above-average speed, VanVleet still has major limitations, and this is a pretty big overpay relative to the production he'll provide. But it's a justifiable overpay for an organization craving some stability after compiling the NBA's worst cumulative record over the last three seasons. The Rockets will get three years of floor-raising (and, ideally, development-facilitating) play from VanVleet, and he'll come off their books as their young guys start to get expensive.

What it means for VanVleet

First and foremost, VanVleet is getting the whole bag, and in doing so he adds another chapter to his increasingly remarkable undrafted success story. Whether he's prepared for the frustrations and growing pains that will come with playing babysitter on a rebuilder is another matter.

Even last season with the Raptors, VanVleet occasionally bristled at what he perceived to be a reduction in touches, though he became a more central component of the team's offense once Jakob Poeltl arrived at the deadline and amped up their pick-and-roll volume. Given how much less refined the Rockets players around VanVleet will be than the guys he ceded touches to in Toronto, it's not hard to envision some clashes and resentment on the horizon.

Between VanVleet, Thompson, Green, Sengun, and Kevin Porter Jr., Houston has a lot of guys who are going to want the ball in their hands. And while VanVleet is a solid playmaker and generally selfless player, he isn't always the quickest ball-mover.

Obviously those potential issues weren't enough to dissuade VanVleet from accepting by far the highest-AAV offer on the table - one that will allow him to re-enter the market at 32 and possibly land another sizeable payday. The Rockets just have to hope that he knows what he's getting into here, and that he'll be willing to take some lumps while occasionally taking a backseat on a team that has a lot of self-discovery to do.

What it means for the Raptors

There aren't many positive ways to spin this for the team that just watched its starting point guard walk for nothing. The Raptors' mistake wasn't failing to beat Houston's offer (they shouldn't have), it was putting themselves in this situation to begin with. They accepted the risks that came with holding onto VanVleet - and with the general approach of buying rather than selling - at last season's trade deadline. Now they're paying for it.

The Raptors were already starved for ball-handling and shooting, which is why VanVleet - who was their best ball-handler and best off-the-bounce 3-point shooter - played more minutes per game than any player in the league outside of teammate Pascal Siakam over the last two years. Now he's gone, and the Raptors didn't have any cap space to adequately replace him.

Under different circumstances, his departure might have prompted the team to punt on its plans to run back last year's middling roster, especially with Siakam and O.G. Anunoby just a year away from unrestricted free agency themselves. But the front office made the tear-down-and-rebuild path more difficult by trading away the team's 2024 first-round pick (with a very light top-six protection) in order to acquire Poeltl, who they re-signed for four years and $80 million, because trading a first-rounder for a two-month rental on a 9-seed would've been an even worse look. The Raptors could pawn off their remaining vets and go into the tank next season and it still wouldn't guarantee them keeping their own '24 pick, unless they were to finish with the league's absolute worst record.

So, for now at least, the Raptors are proceeding with what remains of their run-it-back plan. Having already locked up Poeltl, they immediately used the full mid-level exception (which VanVleet's departure afforded them) to sign Dennis Schroder to a two-year, $26-million deal. Schroder's a scrappy defender who'll bring some much-needed downhill juice, but he's nowhere near the shooter or table-setter VanVleet is, and probably isn't worth this kind of investment. Toronto is also reportedly discussing a "lucrative" extension for Gary Trent Jr., whose shooting it's even more reliant on now, but who is also a fairly one-dimensional player best suited to a sixth-man role.

All told, the Raptors are on track to repeat as a play-in team, while butting up against the luxury tax, and go into next offseason with their two best players as UFAs. They can try to pivot midseason if things aren't going well, but they aren't going to get value for Siakam and Anunoby on expiring deals.

A tough day for a front office that seems to have lost its fastball.

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