Vince Carter & The Hazards Of Tanking

Vince and the flaws of tanking

Tanking seems to be growing in momentum in the minds of Toronto Raptors fans these days. After all, the current upcoming draft class is filled with glittery potential. A reset seems like a simple solution for a team that has lost its way. Lose a bunch of games, grab a few high draft picks and surely the Nirvana of hoisting another Larry O.B. will come our way. Or at least a path for contending that does not seem to be there right now. 

Perhaps the recent success of the team in drafting Scottie Barnes, after General Manager Masai Ujiri threw in the towel on the Tampa season has tainted the fanbase’s views on what success is. It may have also added to the expectations and possibilities of starting anew. 

But drafting talent, even extraordinary talent, does not necessarily lead to long-term contention. There are so many variables attached to any team’s success. Even more so for young, developing teams. There is also a transition that is required, from pure development and the losing that comes with it and creating a culture of success. Winning is a habit, as Jack Armstrong likes to say, tanking breeds bad habits.

For all of those fans, who think it is time for an overhaul, I offer a story of tragedy and woe. A tale of a team that was built on the foundation of youth and the carnage that it would leave in its wake. I give you the story of Vincent Lamar Carter.

The 1998-99 Raptors had not just one but two future hall-of-famers, having drafted Tracy McGrady in the ’97 draft and Vince Carter in ’98. On the surface, this core of talent would seem to be a surefire way to contention and an eventual championship run. 

T-Mac was vision 6’9” before the term was even thought of. Tracy was a two-way player who could defend multiple positions. He who would also become a two-time scoring champion and first team all NBA. 

Vince was excitement personified. He was perhaps the most gifted player to have ever worn a Raptors uniform. Vince would never eclipse Tracy in terms of career achievements but it was Vince who would earn the early accolades. While McGrady would earn the bulk of his success with other teams, Vince’s star shone brightest in the colours of purple and white.

Carter was a fan favourite from the get-go. His spectacular dunks and ability to close out games for a young franchise that had little experience in terms of winning drew instant attention from Toronto fans and media alike. It would not be long till the kingmakers south of the border would come a-courting. The NBA had just lost Michael Jordan to retirement, ratings were falling and both the NBA and the U.S. media were hungry to find a new chosen one to carry them to the promised land. Carter’s athleticism, late-game shot heroics and UNC background made him an obvious choice to carry on the Jordan legacy. When he won the dunk contest in spectacular fashion, eclipsing, according to many, Jordan’s very own dunk contest performance, it was over! Vincent Lamar Carter Jr. was now Him.

It was a glorious moment not just for Vince but for the franchise. Any Raptors fan who was watching will remember where they were and the overwhelming sense of pride that they felt with each magnificent dunk and his being crowned champion. It seems strange to look back and think that a mere dunk contest could mean so much to so many but for fans of a team that were so used to losing, this was everything. It felt like we had arrived.

The following year saw Vince take the franchise to a place that it had never been before: The second round of the NBA playoffs. After Raptors’ legend and now Sportsnet broadcaster, Alvin Williams’ game five heroics against the Knicks, in storied Madison Square Gardens, the stage was set for a knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out showdown between two of the league’s biggest stars, Vince and Allen Iverson. 

The see-saw battle of the titans would not disappoint. It would be a summation of Vince’s career in Toronto. The fifty points he scored in game three, where he went nine for thirteen from beyond the arc and gave the salutary Jordanesque shrug. Who could forget the storm in a tea cup over his flight to Chapel Hill for his graduation, prior to game seven? And finally , the shot, that ironically, like Vince, was so close to amazing but didn’t quite make it. 

That summer was spent by Raptors fans on pins and needles. Was Vince going to sign a contract extension? The previous year, Tracy McGrady had walked away from his extension and had instead chosen to join his hometown Orlando Magic. McGrady wanted his own place in the sun, far away from the shadow cast by Carter. 

Losing Vince would be even more heartbreaking. Vince would end up making the choice that his cousin had declined. He accepted the Raptors’ offer of $94 million over six years. Making him the fourth-highest-paid player in the league. Raptors fans celebrated and Mayor Mel Lastman declared it Vince Carter day in Toronto. 

That same summer, the Raptors would lose the indomitable Charles Oakley in free agency but the leadership of the team was still in the capable hands of veteran Antonio Davis, who with Alvin Williams and Jerome Williams had also extended their contracts. The team that had achieved so much, would, for the most part, return intact. The addition of the future hall of famer Hakeem Olajuwon only added to the expectations of the fan base. The Raptors were now widely considered title contenders and why not?

For anyone looking at that moment, the future of the franchise shone brightly. The progressions were obvious. All you needed was to connect the dots. Surely an NBA title loomed in the not-so-distant future for the team and Carter would be remembered in the annals of the NBA as one of the best to have ever played.

But the Basketball Gods were not ready to embrace such hubris. They deemed that punishment should be metered out and so somewhere deep within the recesses of the then-Air Canada Center, things would begin to unravel.

The following year would signal the beginning of the end for Vince’s exploits in Toronto. The break-up would be intense, with the Raptors using the media to undermine him and turn the fanbase against him: Vince being called out for exaggerating the seriousness of an injury, which would see him miss a big chunk of the 2001-02 regular season (he would have an offseason operation to remedy the ailing knee). The Raptors leaked stories of Vince demanding a parking spot for his mother. Vince saying he would never dunk again. Supposed stories of Carter telling the opposing team what plays the Raptors were running.

There were also obvious tensions in the locker room. Jalen Rose recounted a now-fabled wrestling match with then-head coach Sam Mitchell in the massage room. 

The eventual trade for Vince would be left in the not-so-sure-hands of newly minted GM, Rob Babcock. The infamous trade would give the Raptors two late first-round draft picks and not much else. A pitiful haul, for a man once considered to be the next Michael Jordan.

The Raptors would start the rebuilding process again, this time around Chris Bosh, a talented player in his own right. He, like McGrady, and so many other Raptor draft picks before him, would leave the team for greener pastures, frustrated by management’s inability to build a competitive team. 

It would take the Raptors fifteen seasons to return to the second round.

Vince would go on to have a seventeen-year career in the NBA. He would never again reach the heights that he rose to in Toronto. Instead, he chose a different path that would pay him well, while keeping him out of the media’s eye. 

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the path to an NBA championship is littered with young, talented teams that failed to make it. The OKC Thunder team with three future hall-of-famers comes quickly to mind. We are now almost 10 years into the most famous tank of all, The Process, which has yielded a perennial contender but nothing more than second-round exits. Even Cleveland’s tank for LeBron which would eventually lead to a championship would require the heartbreak of James leaving for Miami, in order for him to learn how to win, before his eventual return and triumph.

In so many ways, Vince Carter is the fabled Icarus in the mythology of Raptordom. The man who flew too close to the heavens, only to have the wax that glued his wings together, melts away under the heat of the sun. Leaving him to fall tragically to the sea. He is a cautionary tale for all young NBA players dealing with the heightened expectations and spotlight that stardom brings. 

He is also a reminder to fans: That future success is never guaranteed. That there are so many factors beyond talent and desire that go into being a champion. That we should all just enjoy the moment, because success in a highly competitive league, like the NBA, is fleeting. 

That all that glitters is not gold.

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