His departure cemented Toronto’s reputation as a bridesmaid. Stars came through, but none stayed. Damon Stoudamire bounced, Tracy McGrady went home to Orlando, and finally Vince forced his way out only two years into a $94-million extension. Those wounds were ripped open again when Chris Bosh took his talents to South Beach, and to a lesser extent after Kawhi Leonard ditched the title team. It scared the psyche of every Raptors fan, and it manifested as an incurable inferiority complex.
The grass wasn’t greener in the swamps of New Jersey. Vince’s career stretched another two decades, but his superstar days were short-lived. Despite teaming up with Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson, Vince never made it out of the second round and finished out his career as a role player on six different teams. His most relevant moments came in his returns to Toronto, where he delivered cold-hearted daggers in response to a fanbase that booed him mercilessly. It was a bad look for both sides.
Fans wanted to move on from Vince, but the Raptors were lifeless for a decade. It took Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan reviving the franchise before the bitterness finally mellowed out. During the Raptors’ 20th anniversary celebration, Vince returned as a member of the Grizzlies, and was moved to tears when jeers turned to cheers after a tribute video was shown. It was a powerful moment, and you could feel a karmic weight being lifted from both Vince and the franchise.
The two sides have since forged down a path of reconciliation. Reunions became joyful. Vince dunked past the 25,000-point plateau against the Raptors last season, and his opponents practically cheered him on. Vince and McGrady worked post-game at Game 6 of the Finals, where they shared an emotional embrace with Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia. This season, Vince was on hand to witness Lowry’s coronation as the franchise leader in assists, and he soaked up every last second. After the game, Vince lingered with veteran reporters and shared an extended conversation with Raptors president Masai Ujiri.
There are many potential answers when trying to figure out the peak of the Vince Carter era in Toronto.
There is, of course, Carter’s performance at the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest in Oakland. There is his NBC debut that came a few weeks later, when Carter dropped 51 points, a franchise record that nobody touched for almost 14 years. And there is Carter’s 50-point playoff game, probably the best basketball-related moment in the history of Scotiabank Arena, at least until the 2019 playoff run.
The biggest win of Carter’s Toronto tenure is rarely mentioned, and that is understandable. Carter’s line — 27 points on 11-for-22 shooting, six rebounds and three assists — is solid but not astounding. The most memorable moment of the game belonged to his long-time teammate, Alvin Williams, and not Carter himself.
Watch the game back, however, and you can appreciate just how good Carter was when the Raptors won a playoff series for the first time, beating the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in a win-or-go-home Game 5. First of all, he played all 48 minutes that evening. Secondly, the Knicks tried to take the ball out of his hands repeatedly, and for Carter to make as much happen as he did was astounding. A year prior, the Knicks embarrassed the Raptors in their first-ever playoff series, sweeping them in three games. Carter shot just 32.3 percent in that series. Fast forward a year, and Carter was perhaps the most efficient, in-control player in a sloppy game.
On Thursday, Carter announced his retirement on his podcast, Winging It. He retires after playing the most seasons, 22, in NBA history. His legacy, as well as his post-exit behaviour in Toronto are up for debate.
For everything that Carter did for the Raptors, few will forget — even if they’ve forgiven — how he ended his days in Toronto by demanding a trade and then going on national television to admit he didn’t give it his all for the franchise.
The Hall of Fame rewards excellence both on and off the court, and while Carter managed to rehabilitate his image over the 15 seasons after that infamous incident, it can’t be erased from the record completely.
But because of longevity, the stats he racked up and the supernova start to his career, Carter will become a Hall of Famer. If that happens, he will become just the second player drafted by the Toronto Raptors (or, at least, acquired on draft night) to do so, after Tracy McGrady went in in 2017.
But just because his candidacy is rock solid doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed he’ll get in as a first-ballot candidate as past transgressions can, and just might, delay the proceedings.
It was fun to have a front-row seat for the six-plus seasons in Toronto and so much of what followed: the Olympics, the adulation, the Beatlemania aspect of Carter’s time here. Road games were events, home games created a “What’s he going to do today” vibe that no one in these parts had seen before. There had been other great athletes in other sports but none came close to creating the universal buzz that Carter did.
“Inspired so many Canadian kids!” two-time MVP Steve Nash said on his social media feed. “Pre VC a couple Canadians in the NBA and this year up to 20 were on NBA rosters. Thank you VC!”
It never appeared that Carter loved the adulation or even wanted it. He understood what he was to so many people and it might not have been a burden, but it wasn’t entirely comfortable for him. In his greatest stretch as a Raptor, from about the middle of his rookie season in early 1999 through injury-ravaged seasons in 2001-02 and 2002-03, he was in demand every single day. That was wearing.
Consider this, though: In less than seven full seasons in Toronto, Carter played for four coaches (Butch Carter, Lenny Wilkens, Kevin O’Neill and Sam Mitchell) and three general managers (Glen Grunwald, the Jack McCloskey and Rob Babcock) and with myriad teammates of varying skill.
By the 2004-05 season, the franchise was pivoting to Chris Bosh, Carter’s role had undeniably changed and, no, he did not play up to lofty expectations in his final 20 games before a trade to New Jersey (for Alonzo Mourning, Aaron Williams, Eric Williams and two first-round draft picks). Could Carter have handled his departure better? Yes. Could the team have done things better? Yes. There is shared responsibility, as there always is.
The fact the Raptors were bad for two years before Carter was traded (57-107) — and just as bad in the next two (60-104) — fuelled the dissatisfaction of fans. Some of them might never come around. But to measure Carter’s overall impact, people must realize how revered he is around the league. He spent the final years of his career as a bit player and a mentor, teaching youngsters the game.
This is where Nurse can lean on his background as a guy who’s coached all over the world, and in the G League, where he won two championships before going to Toronto in 2013 as an assistant. In the G League, coaches lose players all the time on callups to the NBA; in places like England and Belgium, hardly basketball hotbeds, coaches can try different things in games, experiment. But anywhere a coach works, he or she has to know how to deal with people. That’s among Nurse’s great strengths, one that he’ll have to use in Orlando just as he did during the Finals last year, when he sprung the idea of going to a box and one in Game 2 against the Warriors. That took some guts, especially for a first-year NBA head coach – to dare to be wrong in such a big moment.
“The box and one thing’s a really good example,” Nurse said. “I hadn’t thought about it (beforehand). It just came to me right at that moment. I’d used it several times, but I showed it to Kyle in a timeout. I drew it up and I said, ‘Hey, listen – Fred (Van Vleet’s) going to go face to face with Steph Curry, and you’re going to be here, and this is what it’s going to look like.’ And he kind of looked at the board and kind of said ‘looks great,’ and he kind of stepped into the huddle and said it to the rest of the team. And all of a sudden, you get buy-in from your leader, and … that helps, right?”
It took the experience of coaching in the G League, at Iowa and Rio Grande Valley, for Nurse to get used to occasionally having to coach from the seat of his pants.
“I’ll be honest with you: my first year in the (G) League, I was like, I was so uncomfortable, like, oh my God, I don’t know how to handle this; this is unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” he said. “And then I kind of decided after my first year that you weren’t going to survive in the league unless you got comfortable with this, that you accepted it, that you just took it head-on. And I kind of flipped it and said this is (an) incredible learning experience. You can get your team to understand their roles, and develop some chemistry, and you can kind of play out your season that way.
“Well, in the (G) League, you’re going to do that for about eight games. Then, you get the experience of doing it all over again. So you’re doing it several different times, and it becomes a valuable tool in your arsenal of coaching, that you have to be able to go out there and say, my goodness, I’m missing my two or three best players, but you know what? We’re still going to find a way. We’re going to find a way.”
Odds on Toronto’s Title Chances
According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Raptors are currently +2200 to win the 2020 NBA title, and +700 to make the Finals.
The latter ties them with the Boston Celtics for the second-best bet to come out of the East, behind the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks (+165). The Heat and 76ers then follow behind at +900 to make the Finals.
Out West, The Lakers remain the favourite to represent their conference in the Finals, at +160, with the Clippers right behind at +180. The Rockets are next at +700.
As for title favourites? Seems that Lakers exceptionalism is in full effect! DraftKings currently has LeBron James and co. as the slight title favourites, +240, versus +250 for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.