The brewing frenzy that is NBA free agency kicked off even before an NBA champion was crowned.

While July 1 is still a few weeks away, Fred VanVleet became the first major free agent domino to fall after he declined the $22.8 million player option of his current deal with the Toronto Raptors, making him an unrestricted free agent.

Vanvleet is a pretty good player, but to say he’s great? Well it may depend on which team you’re talking to. The 29-year old had a career year in assists (7.2 per game), but shot below 40 percent from the field for the second time in three seasons. Numbers aside, VanVleet was the Raptors’ leader and made sure everyone got involved. Let’s not forget he was also instrumental to Toronto winning its first NBA title in 2019.

Him declining his player option doesn’t mean he would leave Toronto, but the prospect of changing teams is raised nonetheless. One can’t blame VanVleet for looking out for himself at this point, given that this next contract could be his largest and the championship opportunities could dwindle over time. 

VanVleet is also not alone in terms of being in a crossroads as James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Khris Middleton, and Draymond Green are all poised to be free agents one way or another as of this writing. Opinions vary on whether all of the aforementioned players can be classified as stars, but more than half of the league would love to have them on their rosters (at the right price of course).

That free agency has already become a topic of discussion within hours of the last game of the NBA season speaks volumes as to how the league never rests. A few days before clinching their first-ever NBA title, the Denver Nuggets discretely sent a protected 2029 first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder to acquire the Thunder’s 2023 second-round pick (37th overall) and 2024 first and second-round draft picks (reported to be the “least favorable” of the plethora of picks OKC has).

The game itself is not the only one moving at a fast pace; the work behind the scenes can be frenetic as well. Franchises would prefer not to get left behind, so the mentality of some NBA teams can come across as “buy now, ask questions later”. One doesn’t have to go far to remember the controversial contracts of Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, and the New York Knicks players Isiah Thomas signed, all of whom have become cautionary tales.

The new league year begins on July 1 and while trades may be announced between now and then, they can only be finalized next month. It’s a little bit different for free agency, where teams can only speak with their own free agents at this time. Of course, there’s always the chance that early conversations have already happened between parties given the flurry of deals that are announced just as the official free agency period begins, but we can only speculate.

Time is thus on the side of the Raptors, who can still work out a deal with VanVleet. For the likes of Green and the Warriors, there may have to be some other steps to be taken to appease both sides, with trades and the waiving of players rights on the table. As much as emotions and intangibles play a part in NBA success, there remains a business aspect to how franchises operate, more so now with the new CBA rules in place. Not even the championship pedigree built in the last few seasons makes a deal a sure-fire thing, and that is the reality when it comes to professional sports.

In the NBA, it seems that free agency (and pretty much everything else that goes on in the offseason) begins even before the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy is handed to the victors. It feels a lot like survival of the fittest, but that is way things go when chasing championships.