#5: Vince Carter

Firstly, a (lot of) word(s) about “Vince Carter.”

I get that Vince Carter is super fun to make fun of. It’s easy. Vince Carter is the airline food of NBA humor. Making fun of him — for anything — is like shooting fish in a barrel. (Or letting VC shoot you out of a game, AMIRITE!?) Between his acidic departure from Toronto and the collective perception that he never fulfilled his vast potential, you’re bound to construct an easy pun and get a laugh out of using Vince Carter as the lightning rod for everything that’s wrong with basketball.

But that’s the problem — they’re not about him anymore. At some point, Vince Carter’s story stopped being about Vince Carter.

It’s easy to call him “Half Man-Half a Season” until you remember that he’s played more season minutes than all but 11 players in the NBA since 2005, with an additional 1,417 minutes in the playoffs. It’s easy to call him a choker until you scan his list of game-winning shots. It’s easy to point at his less-than-stellar playoff record until you realize that many Hall of Famers have an NBA postseason resume about as decorated — Dominique Wilkins, Chris Mullin, Tiny Archibald, Artis Gilmore, Nate Thurmond, Pistol Pete, to name a few. It’s easy to say he’s a cheating lying poopface until you realize you’re stealing that joke from Ken Jeong.

And it’s easiest to say he quit on the Toronto franchise — which he did* — but that at least attests to the fact that he once cared. Here’s a list of Vince’s best teammates in Toronto from 2001-2004: Antonio Davis, Keon Clark, a 35-year-old Mark Jackson (for one year), Morris Peterson, Alvin Williams, Donyell Marshall. That’s it. That’s the best.

*-Though John Thompson argued that VC was misquoted: “That boy never said to me, ‘Coach, I just laid down and quit.’ …I was embarrassed and felt awful about it for his sake, because I knew what he was communicating to me. I think he was more expressing a desire of wanting to do better, as we all do.”

I’m not sure Toronto’s front office even qualified for quitting. Hard to quit when you barely started in the first place. (Read here for more on the most egregious Raptors moves during the VC tenure.)

Nowadays, it’s not a judgment on Vince — it’s a judgment on the VC symbol. On “Vince Carter.” Every time he falls, he’s faking another injury. Every time he comes up short, he’s lazing through another game, not trying hard enough. Every time he fails to dunk in someone’s face, it’s another reminder of how he’s insulting the game with his very presence. Never mind that players that rely on their athleticism tend to decline quickly as they play into their 30s and lose their, you know, athleticism. Never mind how he actually approached basketball post-Toronto. Rendered irrelevant are his tangible accomplishments. The confirmation bias jury is in.

It’s interesting that often the same folks who scream bloody “CONTEXT!” about LeBron James’s lack of rings, or Kobe Bryant’s oversaturation of them, or Carmelo Anthony’s defense, or Allen Iverson’s inefficiency, or any other oft-maligned star and his oft-maligned trait, seem to eschew the same standard in favor of the next oh-so-hilarious Vince joke.

I’m not suggesting we apply an amnesty on VC criticism. Vince screwed over Toronto, and badly. He exhibited the type of class normally reserved for truck stop bathroom walls. He skipped out on games for no reason other than he hated where he was, hated carrying a franchise that screwed up move after move for six years, destroyed any chance of competing with him, didn’t listen to his requests (most famously not interviewing Julius Erving for the GM position when he was Carter’s preferred choice*), then refused to honor his trade request until he flushed his own value down that toilet. He broke every cardinal rule of high-level athletic competition. When Kobe Bryant hated Los Angeles, he averaged 36 points per game. Vince should’ve cared more, and didn’t. That stigma will always be a part of his career.

*-I get not hiring him, but not at least giving Erving a chance when your star player publicly states his preference and is already kind of pissed at you for screwing up the team? It’s not like Dr. J was green to front offices — he’d been working in Orlando as an executive VP for over six years.

But the forgotten truth, one that Toronto refuses to accept, is that Vince Carter built that franchise from the ashes left by Damon Stoudamire, then watched as Glen Grunwald burned it to the ground.

10 things (stretching between purely factual and wildly opinionated) about Vince Carter I’m sure of:

1) Vince is in the top 10 of 19 different all-time Nets statistical categories, including points, points per game (1st all-time of NBA Nets), defensive rebounds, assists, turnover rate (in the good sense), 3-point field goals, offensive rating, player efficiency rating, and win shares. The turnover rate is the most notable one to me: while most shooting guards with that kind of ball-dominating style tend to lose the rock often, VC played oddly under control. He ranks 25th all-time in turnover rate, and the only legitimate stars ahead of him are Dirk and MJ (and Glen Rice, I guess).

2) In Vince’s four full seasons with the Nets, he missed just 11 games and played more season minutes than all but six players in the NBA.

3) In some alternate universe, the Raptors ended up with Kobe and the Lakers Vince, Vince won at least two rings in Los Angeles with Shaq and became LA’s cult hero, while Kobe demanded a trade from Toronto a year earlier than Vince, went to New Jersey, won a ring with Kidd, couldn’t win another, hit 30,000 points by age 31, and never developed the reputation we know today.*

*-To be clear: I am NOT saying that Kobe and VC are comparable. That argument died after 2001, and like I said earlier, Kobe would’ve only worked harder in Toronto and not slacked like VC. Kobe would be an all-time great no matter where he played. Just noting that circumstance easily changes perception, and that prime Vince with a great big man would’ve destroyed the NBA. Now stop throwing things at me.

4) Vince was the leading scorer on the 2000 Gold Medal Olympics basketball team, and there produced the greatest highlight of all-time, one so obvious I won’t even link to it. Just Google Frederic Weis. (By the way, you know a highlight’s good when it’s the most notable thing about the other guy’s career.)

5) In New Jersey, Vince averaged at least 20 points, five rebounds, four assists, and one steal per game every season, and offset his average field goal percentages with solid shooting from outside and low turnover rates. His best full season by any measure: 2006-07, averaging 25.2-6.0-4.8, posting a 21.8 PER, an offensive rating of 111 with a usage rate of almost 31%, and hitting a career high in true shooting percentage (.559).

6) If Vince retired today and does not make the Hall of Fame, he’d be the all-time points leader and tied for most All-Star games among non-inductees, assuming the active/not yet eligible players ahead of him get in – and they will. With the same assumption, every player with at least his career points/rebounds/assists totals is in the Hall of Fame as well. It’s more complicated than that, obviously. But not that much more.

7) Purely statistically, it is absurd how similar his career numbers are to Paul Pierce’s.

8) His athleticism and dunking are the go-to, but his overall offensive game deserves more credit. His shooting touch — both from distance and around the rim — were excellent. I’ve always thought he was a bit of an underrated passer and ballhandler, while he wasn’t as flashy in either respect, he had superb control of the ball and routinely made intelligent decisions on the offensive end (with the exception of occasionally taking over the offense when it wasn’t warranted).

9) Even if Vince took layups instead of dunks, I’d still be in favor of his induction into the Hall of Fame, based on his individual record alone. The fact that he also revolutionized arguably the most marketable part of the sport is just icing on the cake.

10) In 2008-09, both SI and ESPN predicted the Nets to finish last in the East; ESPN said that “losing can bring out the worst in anyone; Jersey will lose lots, and VC’s worst is ugly.” Reality trumped narrative; Vince’s improved play and mentorship role in 2008-09 were the primary factors in the Nets competing for a playoff spot. Just having Carter on the floor allowed Brook space and Devin Harris to flourish as a slasher-creator, and contributed to career shooting years from Bobby Simmons and Keyon Dooling. There were a lot of factors that went into the disastrous 12-70 season the year after, but the departure of VC is #1 on that list. Every holdover from the year before (save Brook) flatlined at best, and dovetailed at worst.

Some of my favorite Vince moments (in no particular order): Hitting layup after layup against the Lakers in the third quarter (including an insane 360 to top it off) to lead the team to victory; the first buzzer-beater game in Toronto; the buzzer-beater from about 900 feet against Utah; the Nets-Suns rout in 2006 where Vince hit three threes from impossible distance in the third quarter; the game-winning block on Andres Nocioni against Chicago; the dunk on Dwight Howard; the game-tying jumper against Miami in the playoffs that hit the rim about eight times before falling through; the 51-point bonanza against Miami when he hit 23 of 24 free throws; his patented 360-around-the-defense-in-midair-and-somehow-spin-the-ball-into-the-hoop shot that he pulled off at least once per season; the dunk on Marvin Williams and Josh Smith; the Statue of Liberty 360s (and the regular 360s); the effortless half-court shots; the second buzzer-beater game in Toronto (the ridiculous fallaway three and the alley-oop game-winner); the game-winner against Atlanta where I screamed “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?!?” at my television when he sauntered his way up the court, pulled up from 30 feet, and drained a 3 over Josh Smith’s outstretched fingers as time expired; the 39-point near triple-double on Atlanta; and every single dunk on Alonzo Mourning.

It’s also commonplace to blame VC for the Nets’ inability to return to the Finals after his arrival, but frankly, the East just got better. LeBron and Wade began to hit their stride just as VC came to town, Shaq switched conferences, and the Nets just didn’t have the manpower or interior presence to compete with Miami or Cleveland. It would’ve been nice to see them get a little further than the second round, but it would’ve been an unexpected surprise.

Vince is 34 now, and between the Magic and the Suns last year, he easily had the worst season of his career, struggling to acclimate to the new offensive role his older body and surrounding affords him. He’ll likely be bought out by Phoenix and be looking for a new team whenever teams start doing that sort of thing again. No doubt he’ll be vying for a spot on a contender, though it’d still be in a limited role; it’s hard to imagine a world where Vince returns to even his 2008-09 form.

But for four and a half years, I had the pleasure of watching Vince Carter play basketball at an imperfectly elite level. I was lucky enough to view him through biased eyes, mostly free from the reputation he’d garnered in Toronto, seeing him only for what he did (or what I thought he did), as opposed to what he was supposed to do, what his assumed Jordanesque potential dictated as his role. I saw an athletic marvel who actually did give a crap, who wasn’t Kobe or Wade (never mind Jordan), but for a few years hung in the conversation after them. I saw a guy that I firmly believe played at a Hall of Fame level for some of that time, despite the comedy club to the contrary.

Or maybe I’m crazy. Enjoy my favorite overly dramatic Vince Carter highlight reel ever.

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