Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet is an elite defender, a true underdog success story and an $85 million man. He is also perhaps the most honest player in the NBA. On Zoom media sessions before and during the NBA bubble, VanVleet plainly discussed feeling conflicted about participating. Last month, he described what COVID-19 did to his body, and a couple of weeks later he said that he and two of his teammates were all "hitting the same conditioning wall at the same time" because they were still recovering from it.
On Saturday, VanVleet spoke candidly about the trade-off the league and its players have made by having a grueling, truncated season during a pandemic.
"It's certainly ups and downs to this thing, more than I've ever experienced in my life," VanVleet said. "I mean, to be honest, this is probably the most unpure year of basketball I've ever been a part 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 now."
The Raptors have had it rougher than most. They've spent the whole season based in Tampa Bay, so every game has effectively been on the road. Basketball-wise, they started poorly, and right as they hit their stride several players and coaches caught COVID-19. They're now 23-34, in a virtual three-way tie for the final spot in the play-in, a far cry from where they had expected to be before the season began. While the 2019-20 iteration of the team was as spirited a bunch as you'll find in the NBA, this one has had trouble sustaining the same sort of energy. VanVleet, however, is pointing to a league-wide issue.
"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," he said. "And I think this year the industry side has taken precedence over some of the love and the joy. But there's good days and bad days. I've been saying that all year."
This is not a normal season for anybody involved. VanVleet said it's about "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." As much as possible, he tries to stay in the moment. "But it's definitely been a trying year, for sure."
Some players hesitate to open up about this subject because they don't want to be seen as complaining. The NBA did not force the players to accept the terms of the season; the league and the National Basketball Players Association came to an agreement. VanVleet acknowledged that this is literally what he signed up for.
"I can sit up and complain about the NBA all I want to, but I'm a part of it," he said. "I'm directly profiting off of it. 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, you know what I mean? 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."
The province of Ontario is in the middle of a brutal COVID-19 surge, and doctors fear its healthcare system will soon collapse. In this context, it is sadly fitting that the player who has most succinctly explained the central tension of the season plays for Toronto's temporarily relocated team. An ordinary, 82-game season is a physical and mental grind, and every player in the league knows the product would improve if there were fewer games. Fewer games, however, would presumably mean less revenue, which would mean lower salaries. The league and its players have long implicitly accepted this reality, but the pandemic has brought the terms of the trade-off to the surface.
"It's a fine line to try to balance both of those worlds," VanVleet said. "I'm certainly not blaming [the league] for anything that they've done, but it's a fact that business has taken precedence this year. It's 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."