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NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

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The Raptors’ reliance on Fred VanVleet made them. Then, it broke them

Toronto’s culture change was personified by a 24-year-old undrafted free agent. That’s ultimately why it fell short.

It was May 2017, and off the coast of Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, Fred VanVleet was perched comfortably on the seat of a rental jet-ski. The water was warm. The shoreline faded behind him and his girlfriend Shontai, whirring at a snail’s pace, echoing the rhythm of the afternoon, until VanVleet — “just having fun,” he now reasons — hung a sharp left, and leaned hard in the direction of his turn: a rookie mistake.

The lull turned into a slow-motion collapse as the jet-ski flipped over. Steady Freddy, his feet suddenly dangling in the shark-infested Bermuda Triangle, began to panic, his face turning crimson-red.

“That was the first time I’ve seen him panic. He was freaking out,” explains Norman Powell, VanVleet’s Raptors teammate, who watched from behind with his girlfriend. He pauses. “It was so funny.”

With the renters, who promised to swim to their rescue if necessary, nowhere in sight, VanVleet pulled the jet-ski, which kept floating away in the current, in from one side and Shontae from the other. He propped it up, fastened her onto the seat and then managed to pull himself back up.

It was emblematic of the vacuum the undrafted 24-year-old backup point guard filled for talented, but perpetually underperforming, Raptors: turning fear into adrenaline, pulling together disparate pieces in the midst of chaos. Over the course of the two years, VanVleet has turned from an undrafted prospect who spent most of his time on Toronto’s G League team, to a minimum-salary bit player, to bench leader, to crunch-time fixture and locker room spokesman.

VanVleet is a natural leader: charismatic, communicative, exuding positive energy more than emotion. Teammate C.J .Miles describes him as stoic, solid, even-keeled. When the Raptors have a leak, they’ve consistently asked VanVleet to plug it. On Saturday, before the Raptors tried to dig out of an 0-2 hole against the Cavaliers, coach Dwane Casey started him in place of Serge Ibaka, the third-highest paid player on the team.

VanVleet’s rise was symbolic of general manager Masai Ujiri’s mandate for a culture reset: unprecedented internal improvement to the nth degree. But now that they’ve been swept out of the playoffs by LeBron James again, and facing serious questions about their viability as a contender and the efficacy of their preseason goals, it’s hard not to wonder if the Raptors needed VanVleet too much. Somewhere along the line, did the asset became a crutch?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Before Delon Wright, VanVleet, Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl became one of the league’s most fearsome benches, they were disjointed collection of talented, but unconventional, athletes in a 12-man rotation that was in flux. Siakam’s Choose-Your-Own-Adventure spin moves were thrilling. Wright showed promise as a spindly, slashing defender who can fire off skip-pass with his eyes closed. Poeltl’s sound positioning and size destroyed pick-and-rolls in ways a player of his experience suited. All intriguing pieces, but none suited for plug-and-play ball.

VanVleet, a true point guard with a reliable jumper, became the connective tissue. A stout defender, fearless driver, and mistake-free decision-maker, he transmits a calm confidence through both his actions and words.

On Dec. 13th, after a narrow win over the lowly Phoenix Suns capped off a disjointed road trip for the bench, VanVleet took matters into his own hands. After spending the summer working out together in Los Angeles, the bench became close enough to acknowledge their problems in passing, but they didn’t seriously address them.

So prior to a team film session at the BioSteel Centre, VanVleet arranged a meeting for the Raptors’ non-starters and a couple of assistant coaches.

They poured over game tape and opened the floor to suggestions. Executing offensively without spacing requires near-perfection. The guards told the big men to roll harder, while the big men told the guards to use screens more effectively. They had a stated goal to ratchet up the pace and defensive intensity, but instinct got in the way.

To solve that, when Siakam caught defensive rebounds, VanVleet was told he needed to run up and fill the lane instead of waiting for the outlet pass. As a result, Siakam’s dormant ball-handling and playmaking ability was activated. Switching became the modus operandi on defense, and it translated into easy offense. Rigidity morphed into freedom.

“We’re at our best when we’re out there not thinking,” VanVleet said before Game 2. “Just playing and flying around, having fun and everybody’s eating and nobody’s thinking about the next play or the last play.”

More importantly, the meeting permanently democratized the locker room.

“It was for the young guys to be able to say things, because they don’t always speak up,” Miles explained. “They shouldn’t feel that way. If they see something, they should be able to talk it out. [The meeting] showed that they could do that.”

Moving forward, mistakes were consistently addressed instead of festering. Within a month, the rotation tightened. After painstaking tinkering, the outfit now marketed as the Bench Bros was born, outscoring opponents by a ludicrous 17.1 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, becoming the signature on-court change for Toronto’s culture reset.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Chicago Bulls Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

In the final game of the regular season, VanVleet bumped up hard against Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat while fighting over a screen, separating his shoulder. It was supposed to be a minor setback. It turned out to be a bad omen.

“I can kinda be honest about it now. I’ve been lying to myself for the last two, three weeks because I had plans on playing until June,” VanVleet said on Tuesday after the series ended. “I wish I would have been full strength for this team and this organization, but that’s kinda the cards that I was dealt.”

The Raptors’ collapse was of their own making, aided but not exclusive to VanVleet’s absence and limitedness, but they clearly missed him. The bench often looked rudderless without him, with the exception of Game 6 against Washington. Their crunch-time lineups sorely missed his combination of shooting, playmaking and defense. As a whole, they turned the ball over more.

In an increasingly numbers-driven industry, where the fallacy that what cannot be quantified must not exist runs rampant, VanVleet’s intangibles were easy to notice because they represented what the Raptors so distinctly lacked: leadership and fearlessness. Kyle Lowry’s uncompromised effort changed the franchise forever by giving them license to believe, but he had to scratch and claw to go from a temperamental malcontent to the team’s emotional leader. Nothing came naturally, and at his worst, it’s been painfully obvious.

Teammates naturally gravitate to the floor-scraping on-court intensity VanVleet and Lowry have in common, but as Powell puts it, “Kyle’s really intense, and Freddy’s only intense when he needs to be.”

It’s fitting, then, that Van Vleet is a restricted free agent with the Raptors heading into an offseason in which they’ll have to reckon with who they are. The Raptors must define the value of a peculiar asset and determine whether he fits in with the story they ending up telling themselves about who they really are now.

VanVleet is more valuable carrying water for a contender, but one can also envision him being a quasi-veteran cultural conveyer belt for a younger, re-tooled core. The talk got louder this season, but Ujiri has been emphasized culture since he arrived in Toronto in 2014. In light of a humiliating sweep, it’s hard to care about the intangibles VanVleet brought to the table this season, but they offer an avatar for the ceiling the Raptors should be striving to hit.

VanVleet’s three-point accuracy dropped from 41 percent in the regular season to 28 percent after the shoulder injury, but on the final possession in regulation of the Game 1 loss to the Cavaliers, he entered the game for the first time since the nine-minute mark of the quarter to space the floor. The defense collapsed on DeMar DeRozan’s drive, and he kicked the ball to VanVleet for a wide open three. The shot bricked, going wide right and strong. The Raptors infamously missed three tip-in opportunities, and the game went to overtime.

Five minutes later, prior to the final possession of the game, VanVleet got called into the huddle while rolling out his shoulder, and re-entered the game. DeRozan was doubled in the post, and found VanVleet again, open for the three that would have changed the entire series in retrospect. The shot rimmed out.

On both attempts, he landed somewhat unnaturally, his legs splaying out, almost like he was shooting with too much weight on his shoulders.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
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