Air Canada: A Look Back at the Unparalleled Career of Vince Carter

Vince Carter

Image courtesy of sportsnet.ca

A year ago I wrote that we should enjoy what could be the last we see of Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, two of the best power forwards to ever play the game. Well they’re still playing, albeit only Duncan is still playing at a ridiculously high level. I don’t think the same will be true for Vince Carter a year from now. This playoff run with Memphis, however long their run lasts, might be the last we see of Air Canada.

Now in his 17th season, Carter has forged one of the most indelible, improbable careers in recent memory. He has gone from young torch bearer, the guy who was supposed to bridge the gap to the next era once Jordan retired, to 2nd banana on a championship contender (2010 Orlando Magic) to revered role player on great teams (’11-12 – ’13-’14 Mavs). I chatted with buddies this week about VC’s career and I can’t think of another player who has reinvented himself more than Vince Carter has throughout his career.

Carter was selected with the 5th pick in the 1998 draft by the Golden State Warriors, who promptly traded VC to the Toronto Raptors. Carter entered the league after three stellar years at the University of North Carolina, where he led his team to two Final Four appearances during Dean Smith’s final seasons (Dean retired in ’97). In today’s age, I doubt Carter would have lasted more than a year at school. Crazy to think that just 15 years ago, guys as talented as Carter stayed in school for three years.

His star shone bright immediately upon his arrival. In his second year he took the leap and slapped up 25.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.9 APG & 2.4 STOCKS per game (Blocks + Steals). Let’s compare VC’s line to Player A below:

VC: 25.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.9 APG, 2.4 STOCKS

Player A (2nd season in league): 27.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 7.2 APG, 2.9 STOCKS

Player A (’14-’15 season): 25.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 7.4 APG, 2.3 STOCKS

Outside of the APG, Vince stacks up nearly identically to Player A this season and is comparable to Player A in Player A’s second season in the league.

For those who might have guessed, Player A is LeBron James. Yes, Vince was that good during his first 9 seasons in the league. He spent his first 5.5 seasons in Toronto, where when healthy he and Allen Iverson shared the title as the most explosive players on the planet. Unfortunately for Vince, he just couldn’t shake the injury bug from the moment he stepped on the floor in Toronto. The guy played 80+ games only once in his 5 full seasons in Toronto, while missing nearly half the season in ’02-’03 and large chunks of time in ’98-’99 and ’01’-02. He was traded in December ’04 for 33-year old Alonzo Mourning (who sat out the season due to a kidney condition) & Aaron Williams, 32-year old Eric Williams and a pair of first round picks. Just like that, the greatest player in Raptors history was jettisoned for guys on expiring deals (Mourning) and a couple of future first round draft picks.

Donyell Marshall of the Raptors summed up this sequence of events aptly the day of the trade, “He was to Canada what Michael Jordan was to the Bulls.”

Keep in mind that Carter was still two months shy of his 28th birthday and had nearly one and a half years of less tread on his tires due to missing 109 games of his first full 5 seasons. Carter did something funny when he was traded to the Nets…he became a durable, dependable go-to weapon with Jason Kidd orchestrating the offense, who at the time was just a smidge past his prime. Remember the Nets made back-to-back Finals in 2002 and 2003 and lost a razor close 2nd round 7 game series in 2004 to the eventual champion Detroit Pistons.

Carter arrived the following December and together with Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson, formed a dynamic trio that led to Nets to the playoffs in each of their three seasons together. The problem was they just couldn’t get over the hump in second round playoff losses to the Miami Heat in 2006 and to the LeBron James led Miami Heat in 2007. Kidd was traded at the trade deadline in February, 2008 and while Carter remained on the Nets through the following season, the team would never contend again during Carter’s time there.

Carter was traded that summer to the Magic, as the Nets continued to retool. Now at a grizzled 32 years old, Carter had yet to achieve a Conference Finals berth and time appeared to be running out for Carter. To this day, the 2009-2010 Orlando Magic were Carter’s best shot at an NBA title (unless you think Memphis is better this season). That team posted a 59-23 record, which was good for the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference and was the 2nd best record in the entire league. They cruised through the first two rounds, sweeping the Charlotte Hornets Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks in the first two rounds but then ran up against the Boston Celtics. Against the C’s the Magic dropped three consecutive games, won the next two games and lost in Game 6.

Carter was then traded in December of the following season to the Phoenix Suns, with a just past his prime Steve Nash, who’s supporting cast was a shell of the 7-second or less suns from the mid 2000’s. The Suns posted just a 40-42 record that season and again, the 34-year old Carter departed, this time agreeing to a buyout in December 2011 to join the Mavs. In Dallas, Carter joined a retooled defending champion Mavs team featuring a just past his prime Dirk (sense a trend here?) but allowed Tyson Chandler and JJ Barea to walk in the offseason (both players were reacquired this offseason).

Carter played a huge role in the last three Dallas seasons, two of which (2012 & 2014) culminated with first round playoff match-ups against the eventual Western Conference champions, in Oklahoma City in 2012 and the San Antonio Spurs in 2014. In his mid 30’s, Carter established himself as an invaluable contributor both as a starter in 2012 and as a 6th man (for much of ’13 and ’14). For much of the last two seasons the Mavericks were publicly pushing for Carter to win the 6th man award.

Alas, this Memphis edition of Vince is nothing of what we remember in Dallas, Phoenix, Orlando, New Jersey or Toronto. He’s playing less than 17 minutes per game, shooting only 30% from 3-point range and is averaging a career low 5.9 PPG, the first time he has failed to record double digit PPG.

Carter has had one of the most improbable and likely never replicated star-crossed careers that come to mind. Grant Hill is the only other guy I can think of who was a star early in his career, was hampered by (serious, career-threatening) injuries and settled in as an invaluable role player on several great teams (late 00’s Phoenix Suns).

Here are the facts about Carter:

  • He’s one of only three active players remaining from the 1998 draft. The other two: future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki.
  • 25th all-time in points scored (nipping at the heels of Charles Barkley)
  • He was the undisputed 1st banana on the Toronto Raptors and the New Jersey Nets for a combined 9 seasons (ok, 1A on the Nets because of Kidd’s leadership/presence)
  • He was the 2nd banana on a championship contender (’09-’10 Orlando Magic)
  • 8x NBA All Star (2000 – 2007)
  • 2000 Olympic Gold Medalist
  • 1x All NBA Second Team (2001)
  • 1x All NBA Third Team (2000)

There are a collection of guys that defined my childhood. From the beginning there was Michael Jordan, Gary Payton, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. Then there was Shaq, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing. Now there’s guys like Dirk, Vince and Kobe, who will soon be exiting stage left.

There’s something like 10 guys remaining that were drafted in the 1990’s. That’s a scary thought. Do me a favor this postseason, watch a couple of Memphis games and take time to enjoy what could be VC’s last run in the NBA. There’s not a ton of those vintage guys left.

About Jim Armstrong

Jim is a life-long sports fan and split his childhood between the ‘burbs of Chicago and central NJ, while throwing in a summer living outside of Boston into the mix. This explains his passion for the 90′s Bulls, late 90′s/early 00′s Knicks and late 00′s Celtics (he will explain in a future post). Jim never played a minute of college basketball or football but did complete a Tough Mudder recently and continues to play in basketball leagues year-round. If this doesn’t make him an expert, then I don’t know what does. Jim crunches numbers for a living and enjoys applying these analytical skills to his sports obsessions. In his free time, Jim enjoys spending time with his family, fishing and writing.

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