The Toronto Raptors have long grown beyond Vince Carter. DeMar DeRozan and Chris Bosh have scored more points in a Raptors uniform than Carter did. Kyle Lowry has surpassed Carter's contributions to winning, according to advanced metrics like Box Score Plus-Minus. Kawhi Leonard is closer to being the best player in the league than Carter ever was. The Raptors today are a better team than any that featured Carter. But the franchise wouldn't be where it is at today without Carter's monumental contributions.
James Naismith may be the Canadian who invented basketball, but Vince Carter is responsible for bringing it to Canada. There were two discrete times in Canadian basketball history: before and after Carter.
Carter made his impact felt in Toronto's hockey-crazed market immediately. The year before he was drafted, Toronto had a middling attendance record that ranked 16th in the league. That rose to 10th in Carter’s rookie year to 9th, then 6th, then 5th for the 2001-02 season.
His star rose accordingly. In 2000, Carter amazed viewers and participants alike with his inconceivable performance in the slam dunk contest. He led the league in All-Star voting in 2000, 2001, and 2002. By 2002, Carter was being featured in Gatorade commercials with more screen time than Derek Jeter. More than a decade later, The Carter Effect documentary revealed that he even brought bottle service to the nightclubs of Toronto. Carter put Toronto on the map in more ways than one.
Of course, it all fell apart at one point. His divorce from the team was ugly, and it resulted in years of boos raining down on Carter whenever the man known as Air Canada returned to the Air Canada Centre. While that resentment lasted for many years, the franchise and former superhero are no longer at odds. For the first time, the boos turned to cheers midway through a game in 2014, when Toronto honoured Carter, then with the Grizzlies, with a tribute video. The moment brought Carter to tears.
Part of what has allowed Raptors fans to once again love Carter is that Toronto became a winning team and conference contender behind the leadership of Lowry and DeRozan. By 2014, the Raptors had finally broken the franchise record for wins of 47 set in 2001-02, Carter's third year with the team.
The city no longer holds a grudge. These days, Toronto erupts with standing ovations for Carter practically every time he steps on the court. That remained true in a January 2019 game against the Atlanta Hawks (that could end up being Carter's last in the city), when the Toronto crowd stood and applauded multiple times when Carter entered the game.
Winning was what finally allowed Toronto to forgive Carter. It was easy to hate him when Toronto was mired in the dreary days of Rafael Araujo, and it's easy to love Carter now and enjoy the good old days when the team employs Kawhi Leonard and is gunning for a championship.
And winning is the reason why Carter should now return to Toronto. The Raptors have evolved beyond what Carter built, while Carter himself has grown into a veteran who values his teammates' success over his own. Toronto and Carter certainly haven't grown together, but they have grown to a stage where they now belong together.
The Raptors are one of the best teams in the NBA. Not only do they lead the league in wins, but 538's statistical model gives Toronto the second-best odds in the league at an NBA title.
Beyond all the feels that would come with a Carter/Raptors reunion, he has value he can add to the team. He has spent the last several years as a player-coach of sorts. Players in Dallas, Memphis, Sacramento, and Atlanta have raved about his cerebral ability to pass his skills onto younger teammates. Toronto employs several young wings, including OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, who could use lessons in how to translate athleticism into consistent on-court success. Bringing Carter home would benefit Toronto now and in the future.
Carter is a lovable veteran, and the Raptors are actually short on veteran presences. CJ Miles, Kyle Lowry, and Danny Green are the only Raptors in their 30s, and Lowry and Green spend too much time on the court to be the wise old heads on the bench. It would help the team to employ a level-headed, elder statesman with 88 games of playoff experience, behind only Serge Ibaka for most on the Raptors.
Despite being the oldest player in the NBA, the soon-to-be 42-year-old actually remains a passable player on the court, too. Carter shoots nearly 38 percent from deep (which would be the second-best mark on the team behind Green), and triples comprise almost two-thirds of his field goal attempts. The Atlanta Hawks are actually better when Carter's on the court than when he's off of it. When Toronto is at full health in the playoffs, with a rotation likely cut to 9 or 10, Carter would not make the cut. But for the remainder of the regular season, he is quite capable of playing well for short stretches when Toronto's wings need a rest, and could deflect media attention away from Lowry and Leonard, two stars who are media-averse. The extra attention that would come with such a reunion wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. He is comfortable with the press, even to the extent that he may pursue a career in broadcasting when his legendary playing career ends.
If the Raptors can work out a trade with the struggling Hawks, who don't look playoff-bound and signed Carter to a one-year, veteran's minimum deal, they should jump on it.
In his 21 years in the league, Carter has been many things. He's evolved from one of the most electrifying players of all time, to a villain, to a beloved teammate (who can still casually pull off one of the league's smoothest 360 dunks). He's an elite player-coach who can still play NBA-level ball, and with their championship aspirations, the Raptors could use a player and person of his quality.
The Raptors no longer miss Carter like they once did, which creates an opening where once there was only hostility. Precisely because the Raptors have passed Carter by is why they are finally ready to bring him home. From his perspective, Carter deserves another chance at playoff success (he's still without a title and has never been to the NBA Finals), and he deserves to chase it in the most important basketball home of his career.
It's been said before, but a random Tuesday night in January against Atlanta may well have been Carter's final basketball game in the city of Toronto. After so many years of wins and losses, boos and cheers, that statement is as bittersweet as it is heartbreaking.
But it doesn't have to be true. There's more amazing yet to be had. Bring. Back. Vince.