That was the name that Matt and Jack danced around for most of the game yesterday, when the thrashing of the Hornets led to the inevitable filler talk about things like the buyout market and areas to improve. It was all they could do to not utter the most famous name in Raptors history, and the possibility — however remote — of him rejoining the club if he were to seek and receive a buyout from the Sacramento Kings.
In fact, the avoidance of all things Carter was so pronounced that it almost felt as though the instructions had come from up above to avoid the topic (I can’t remember Matt Devlin ever appearing so restrained in discussing the rumour mill as it pertains to the Raptors). I won’t speculate as to why the topic was avoided with such perceptible effort, but it was certainly avoided in stark contrast to just about all of the other idle conversation happening about the Raptors since the trade deadline.
When the rumblings of a Carter-Raptors reunion began surfacing in the hours after the deadline passed, I’ll admit to being more than a little intrigued. I have vivid memories of Carter’s time in Toronto, of how he transformed the landscape of basketball in the city and the perception of Toronto around the league. The stirrings of nostalgia were inevitable, and the idea of Carter returning ‘home’ just as the Raptors were reaching their highest points as a franchise felt right.
For those too young to remember, it’s hard to fully describe the indifference towards the Raptors in the early days. They were a basketball team that played in a domed stadium designed for baseball. There was interest in basketball, but that doesn’t mean that there was a market for it. Within the first three years of the team’s existence, their franchise point guard, Damon Stoudamire, demanded a trade out of town, Kenny Anderson, part of the trade package coming back in that trade, refused to report because he didn’t want to play in Canada, and Isiah Thomas, the team’s EVP and ‘famous face for respectability’ left after a dispute with management. When the newly appointed GM Glenn Grunwald addressed fans at the end of the 1997-98 season, he was nearly booed into silence by the those in attendance (I was there working that game, it was incredibly uncomfortable).
It was at that moment — the lowest in team history — that Carter arrived. His superhuman athleticism and infectious personality changed everything for the Raptors and basketball in Toronto. He became a fixture on nightly sports highlight shows, he became the team’s first All-Star, and he dominated the 2000 Slam Dunk Competition with one of the most legendary showings of all time. He got the Raptors on NBA on NBC, a feat that elevated the club’s stature at a time when games on US broadcast TV were the only way most fans knew certain teams existed. He anchored the club’s first Playoff appearance, first Playoff series win, and famously came within one shot of making it to the East Finals in 2001.
Given that history, how could one not want to see Carter don his number 15 jersey one more time to help his club in their first legitimate push to the NBA Finals?
Well, when you’re given a few days to ruminate on this point, the nostalgia starts to fade and it becomes easier to answer how you could not want to see Carter back in Toronto.
This isn’t about how he left. As ugly as the divorce appeared at the time, history has revealed that Carter wanted to stay in Toronto after flirting with a desire to be traded, but management decided that they wanted to move on. No, the end of Carter’s time with the Raptors isn’t why the reunion probably shouldn’t happen, it’s because Carter’s time most definitely did end.
This Raptors team, today’s iteration, is not Carter’s. The franchise owes a lot to Carter and what he brought to them nearly twenty years ago, but they don’t owe him this team. This team belongs to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, two guys that have brought the Raptors to heights that Carter never could. This team belongs to Dwane Casey, who just notched his 300th win with the club, for improving both his coaching and his system year after year. This team belongs to Masai Ujiri, who constructed a supporting cast unlike any that the club has ever seen, and who established a culture of winning that no executive before him was able to implement. This team, and its successes, belong to them. This is their story. Not Carter’s.
If the attention being paid to the Carter-to-Toronto rumours over the last few days is any indication, bringing Carter back to the Raptors would make too much of this season about Carter. It would take a team that has established it’s own identity and tie it inevitably back to Carter’s Raptors. His perspective on what is going on would sought before and after games, with an urge to make unnecessary comparisons once the Playoffs arrive, and the narrative of the year would — at least partly — become about Carter mending fences and attempting to vault his own successes from 2001.
This team doesn’t deserve that. They are the best team in the Eastern Conference by record, winning percentage, and point differential (facts that many find inconvenient or irrelevant after Cleveland imported four role plays last week). They have the deepest bench in the league. They can (and have) beat teams multiple ways. They have shown an incredible ability to both develop and integrate young players. All these successes, and any subsequent ones, belong to them. Carter’s era is irreplaceable, but that doesn’t mean it gets to infringe on what this team has accomplished.
At this point, it is hard to gauge the likelihood of this happening. Sacramento wants him to stay, but is reportedly open to allowing him to walk. Carter has stated in the past that he doesn’t want to become a ring-chaser, but at the same time the connection with Toronto has ancillary appeals to their positioning to a Championship. Word has gone quiet and until one side or the other quashes the speculation (or until March 1st passes and Carter becomes ineligible to play in the Playoffs).
Until that happens, we’ll be treated to more dancing around the topic from Matt and Jack, more curious reminiscences about Carter’s time in Toronto (today marks the 18th anniversary of the 2000 Slam Dunk Competition), and more daily chatter by those in Raptor-land about pros and cons of bringing him back at all.
Carter remains a controversial figure in Toronto, all the most reason to pass on the opportunity to bring him back into the fold.