“You think you can get more points? No No No… Nooooooo!”
The first-place Toronto Raptors, visiting our Atlanta Hawks over on State Farm Drive (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, SportsNet One in TOR) this Thanksgiving Eve, come in with a simple, two-part objective.
Part One: Do not, under any circumstances, allow franchise legend Vince Carter to reach 25,000 career points on the Raptors’ watch.
Part Two: Failing Part One, try to look sincere in offering up congratulations.
But for the risk of trading down, after selecting Antawn Jamison in Vancouver’s GM Place arena on Draft Night 1998, raptorus toronticius might well have followed grizzlius vancovueris on the professional franchise extinction list. An awful lot had to happen to bring the man who would soon be known as Air Canada to The Great White North in the first place.
Although treated like a premium these days, first-round NBA picks used to get dispensed as easily as PEZ candy. Golden State decided to part with this pick and two more future-firsts, five years before, in Draft Night 1993’s fateful Penny Hardaway-for-Chris Webber deal with Orlando. Not even a year later, the Magic stapled Scotty Skiles to the 1998 pick in a multi-future-pick swap with the Bullets (the Bullets!) Then it was Washington’s turn to treat that pick like a hot potato.
Five months after the summer 1994 Washington-Orlando deal, this pick was on the move again, and C-Webb was once again squarely in the middle of it. The Bullets wanted their go-round with the NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year. They passed this first-rounder, plus two other future firsts, on to the Warriors.
Golden State seemingly thought this pick was cursed a half-decade before, so it’s no surprise they eventually parted with the selection once they got it back. It’s just one Tar Heel star for another -- heck, who will notice the difference? Welcome to the NBA, Mr. Carter… get your passport ready.
You thought Saints-colored Atlanta jerseys were a tough sell, huh? Imagine a time where a purple jersey with clunky digits and Barney the Dinosaur on it – the tyrannosaurus dribbling while wearing a jersey ON the jersey -- was a cool item, to anybody above the age of 11.
Just three seasons into their existence, with initially rabid attendance waning, a league-wide lockout looming, and yet to breach 30 wins in a season, the Raps were on the verge of being remembered, in passing, as that team that was cute for a minute, with mighty-mouse Damon Stoudamire tilting at windmills.
Bringing a few windmills of his own, Vince’s highlight-reel play elevated the temperature at Air Canada Centre, from class-clown-cool to homecoming-king-hot. Burdened by the bellyaches from veterans and future rookies alike (“Snow! Taxes! Poutine! Snow!”), a nation that was already second-guessing the long-term viability of professional hoops was suddenly turned back on.
Because the synergy was happening in the country’s largest metropolis, one that was growing increasingly diverse by the minute, Barney Jersey #15 emerged as the quintessential status symbol for all things Toronto, singularly representative of The Future of Canada sports. Anywhere just across the border to the south, and a young adult could saddle up to the Thanksgiving table with the purple jersey and get knowing nods of approval, not jeers, from all the crazy uncles.
Vince not only firmed up a wobbly franchise, he established the hoophead firmament in Canada, one that would influence the global sports and cultural landscape for decades to come. For “Starters”, what are Canadians Tas Melas and J.E. Skeets doing these days, had they met in college without Vince’s Raptors around as a hot topic? They’re not in Atlanta hosting shows on NBA TV, that’s for sure.
A Torontonian teenager named Aubrey got his big break on a Canadian high-school TV show, his notoriety coinciding with the Raptors’ rise in the early-2000s. Even so, who, back then, would have picked Aubrey as the headliner that would jam-pack this very State Farm Arena for THREE nights, just last weekend? With apologies to maybe the rock-band Rush, Toronto’s greatest gift to pop music, before Vince got there was Deborah Cox. Aubrey, How Did You Get Here?
Who in Atlanta, or anywhere, would have cared to hear Aubrey, talkin’ boasy and gwanin’ wassy about tales from The Six, put to a synthesizer? Without the appeal of Vince’s Raptors, would Aubrey one day have been tapped to be anything more than a Global Ambassador for a wheelchair company?
Besides hoops itself, Canada’s greatest gift to hoops pre-VC, was… Rick Fox? Bill Wennington? Leo Rautins? Now, we’ve got the likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander crossing Hawks up on the regular. Imagine Jamal Murray, Nik Stauskas, Dillon Brooks, Cory Joseph, all making their living as hockey goons. Whither would Kelly Olynyk, or Tristan Thompson go, absent the Half-Man, Half-Amazing phenomenon? Shoot, they’re Royal Canadian Mounties patrolling the border right this minute.
Carter made Toronto basketball, and the GTA itself, chic in the way another Tar Heel did for Chicago. Unlike Mike, Vince did that without ever bringing the city an NBA title, much to many’s chagrin. And he did that in the space of just five NBA seasons, two of them riddled with ankle, knee and hamstring injuries that had him coarsely branded by a growing legion of critics as Wince. The final season with fans’ growing sense of dread that Carter wanted to move on.
Unless they’re retiring, it has never been easy for an NBA All-Star and franchise face to plot a graceful exit. If you’re not con-Vinced, just tap Kawhi Leonard on the shoulder tonight to ask about that. Carter was wise to never trust a Babcock with GM duties, and in the summer of 2004, he put his agents to work to get Canada’s Worst Kept Secret in motion. The Raptors not getting a deal done in time had Carter getting the side-eye, from fans and coaches alike, when the 2004-05 season began.
After a lot of bad press over the ordeal, Toronto did get a rental of Alonzo Mourning, plus two more of those dime-a-dozen first-rounders, in dealing Carter to New Jersey. But the sense that Vince was bailing out on one nation’s top metro, for the glitz and glam of another’s, burned a lot of Canadian bacon, to say nothing of bridges. Could he at least have stuck around long enough to celebrate 10,000 points?
We’ve lived long enough to see spurned NBA team fans come around on their former stars. The “FUVC” tees once prevalent around Toronto are relics of the past. It took a decade after trading the future Hall of Famer away, but Raptors, Inc. finally did the whole video-tribute thing, even talking about jersey retirement soon, because, duh.
Similarly, one can foresee the day when Kawhi returns to the Alamo City and finds people willing to remember his time there fondly. 2014 Finals MVP, two-time DPOY and 1st Team All-NBA, perennial MVP runner-up and, thanks to his flummoxing “injury” “rehab” last season, persona non grata in San Antonio, for now.
That’s not the Raptors problem. In fact, they swung for the fences to nab Leonard, trading away the one All-Star who refused to demand a departure from Toronto in search of warmer pastures. DeMar DeRozan’s departure didn’t sit well with his co-star buddy Kyle Lowry. But the point guard, who helped Toronto climb out of the dregs when Chris Bosh set sail, knows the deal.
With Lowry (NBA-high 10.2 APG, career-best 59.1 2FG%) buying in, Leonard returning to superstar form, and key role players, including Kawhi’s fellow ex-Spur Danny Green (game-winning FG last night; NBA-best +192 plus/minus), stepping up, the Raptors find themselves atop the East (14-4; NBA-best 7-2 in away games). In the aftermath of the LeBronference coming to an end, Toronto is eyeing a successful return to the conference finals, or perhaps even more.
Maybe Kawhi (24.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 3.2 APG) will be the X-Factor that propels the Raptors to championship glory, in ways that Vince and many others could not. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll like his surroundings so much, he’ll be inclined to stick around for another season or five. Either way, Raptor fans don’t care. They’re just fine basking in the glow of his All-World presence. Laugh all you want, Kawhi. Fans know the adage: he who laughs worst, laughs best, or something like that.
The Raptors got as close to the championship pin as ever before in 2018, thanks largely to the designs of offensive specialist Nick Nurse, a top assistant to Dwane Casey. Following the Raptors’ latest collapse at LeBron’s hands, this time in the conference finals, team exec Masai Ujiri gambled by bumping the reigning Coach of the Year, Casey, to give Nurse a shot.
The early returns have been quite promising. Like last season, the Raptors are top-ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency, joined only this year by Denver and Milwaukee. The defense has seen a boost not only from the newcomers, Leonard (1.8 SPG) and Green, in lieu of DeRozan, but improved awareness from frontcourt holdovers Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam.
Ibaka, in particular, has been a revelation. Formerly one of the league’s greatest disappointments, the re-Serge-nce has Ibaka (17.3 PPG, 62.1 2FG%, 1.4 BPG) back in the lineup as a full-time starter, rendering Valanciunas a near-luxury as a backup big.
While much of the rest of the league has their eyes on LeBron’s return to Cleveland, and KD’s Warriors hosting OKC, Atlanta had their Vengeance Night a couple days early. Although Mike Scott (6-for-12 3FGs @ ATL) came through to bail out the Clippers in Monday’s 127-119 victory, the Hawks still have ample time to shore up their perimeter defense (38.3 above-the-break opponent 3FG%, 2nd-worst in NBA).
To notch some wins sooner than later, Atlanta’s guards and wings (Kent Bazemore, in particular) have to cease fouling inside as help-defenders, get out of the paint to allow Alex Len (minus-4.9 differential on defended opponent FGs, 12th-best in NBA w/ min. 12 opp. DFGAs per game), John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon to handle their business, and be in better position to contest the kicks and swings to long-range shooters. Aside from Green (45.1 3FG%) piling up points from the right corner, the Raptors have been benign beyond the three-point line.
There may come a time where a highly-touted prospect like Trae Young longs to be somewhere in the NBA other than Atlanta. There may come a time when the feeling, by the Hawks organization, is mutual. In a league (a pro sports world, really) where almost no one gets to be drafted and then stick around all the way through retirement with their rookie team, a not 100-percent-amicable split is likely for Young (25 points, 17 assists vs. LAC on Monday) at some point.
But there’s no need to hasten that day. Not 17 games into a career that, like Carter’s, may reach 1,500 or so before all is said and done. Not at the outset of a campaign by the Hawks where Young hasn’t had time to play with a steady complement of Atlanta starters, like John Collins, Taurean Prince and, maybe soon, Dedmon. Not before we get to see how Young, fellow rookies Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman, and future prospects take their lumps and gel together, within Coach Lloyd Pierce’s purview.
For now, Hawks fans, just suffice as Young and the Hawks charge uphill. Sit back and enjoy Trae, charting his ups and downs, while he is still young, healthy, and not crotchety and full of himself like John Wall.
Forget 25,000. It was a hard-enough lug just getting to 20,000 points, the season before Carter sauntered into Dallas one month shy of his 35th birthday. After getting discarded by the Nets in 2009, years of home-cooking in Orlando and a year full of chimichangas in Phoenix left Carter looking swelled, and not feeling swell. No one would have blamed Carter if he grabbed a rocking chair and awaited his call from Springfield, after the Suns cut him just before the 2011 lockout ended.
But then Carter got re-committed to his fitness in Dallas. All the “He’s still got it!” and “Vintage Vinsanity!” cat-calls when he did something right in a game, that used to wear him down, began motivating him to surge ahead. Playing major minutes, and sharing tutelage, alongside fellow tricenarians Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd was like sipping from a Fountain of Youth.
Working in The Association at age 42, and not just in a suit-and-tie, seemed improbable back then. Being around to score another 5,000-plus points? That was even more unlikely. The siren song of championship-chasing wears many a pro career to a premature conclusion. Demonstrating his worth in unlikely locales like Memphis, Sacramento and, now, Atlanta, Carter gained longevity in this league by committing himself to a more noble cause.
There’s no real skin off these Raptors’ backs if Vince gets his 13 points to reach the 25K plateau tonight. Having to wait a couple minutes while the game stops and the Hawks offer up some laudatory commemoration of the feat. But they’d really appreciate it if Carter gets his honor against the Celtics on Friday. If you see Coach Nurse directing Kawhi to D-up VC, you’ll know why.
Happy Thanksgiving! Let’s Go Hawks!