The Whiteboard: Vince Carter’s potential last game mirrored a peculiar career

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images /

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If Vince Carter has indeed played his last NBA game, his final appearance with the Atlanta Hawks was weirdly indicative of a peculiar career overall.

Make no mistake about it: Vince Carter is a legend in the eyes of many, and for good reason. According to Basketball-Reference’s Hall of Fame probability, Vinsanity has a 94.6 percent chance of being inducted — the 72nd-highest odds in NBA history, and ninth among active players behind household names like LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony.

He’s undoubtedly one of the NBA’s most respected and revered players; popularity doesn’t just accrue randomly in this kind of league.

And yet … Carter’s rise to prominence never quite reached those same peaks as the eight other guys in that group. He was never the best player on a championship-caliber team. He appeared in eight All-Star Games, proving his popularity among NBA fans, but was selected to only two All-NBA teams (one Second and one Third), and those both came within his first three seasons. He was admired for his enigmatic dunking, his immediate impact on making the fledgling Toronto Raptors franchise relevant and his emerging star status, but it never amounted to real, lasting success.

He came close, of course. After winning Rookie of the Year honors, Carter led the Raptors to their first-ever playoff appearance in just his second season and their fifth as an NBA franchise. He put up 25.7 points a night that season, earning Third Team All-NBA honors. His ceiling appeared to be as sky-high as the unforgettable dunks that won him the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest and his Air Canada moniker.

Carter pushed the bill even further in his third year, leading Toronto to a franchise-best 47 wins. That Raptors squad won its first ever playoff series, and in the conference semis, Carter traded blows in an epic battle with Allen Iverson, who was on the verge of leading his Philadelphia 76ers on their historic run to the 2001 NBA Finals. “Half-Man, Half-Amazing” was almost only amazing in that series, dropping 50 points in Game 3, setting a then-NBA playoff record for made 3-pointers and pushing an eventual Finals team to the full seven-game limit.

With 2.0 seconds left in that Game 7, Carter had a chance at the game-winner that would’ve cemented his place as a franchise player, clutch performer and lasting NBA alpha. He missed it, and the world was reminded that, amazing as he was, he was still half-man too: vulnerable, mortal, destructible.

Because he was still so young, and because it was so early in his career, nobody truly understood how long that moment would be tied to his career and his reputation, thanks in part to all the events that would soon conspire to prevent him from ever getting back to those kinds of pivotal moments again.

From that point onward, nothing seemed to go right for the new face of Canadian basketball. His durability, value and even his heart were called into question after a series of knee and hamstring injuries frequently kept him on the sidelines. His cousin, Tracy McGrady, was traded away in 2000 before they could truly accomplish anything together, and T-Mac went on to overshadow Carter as the superior player. VC’s six-year, $94 million contract with the Raptors didn’t help matters, and when he was traded away to the New Jersey Nets, he was leaving a fanbase that now resented him to join a team that wouldn’t find any meaningful playoff success during his tenure, a fact made even worse since the Nets had reached the Finals in back-to-back seasons prior to his arrival.

Carter got all the way to the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals with the Orlando Magic, but they lost. It was the only conference finals appearance of his career.

From there, he had a few memorable moments with the Dallas Mavericks, became a grizzled veteran bench piece for the Memphis Grizzlies, wasted away for a year with the Sacramento Kings and finally, joined the Atlanta Hawks, where he’s been for the last two years. It was a slow descent from “capable veteran on middling playoff teams” to “rarely-used locker room presence on rebuilding teams.”

He redeemed his miss in the 2001 Eastern Conference semis with Dallas back in the 2014 NBA Playoffs; but even then, that individual, joyous moment didn’t rewrite his own history. It didn’t come when he was the best player on a team with legitimate title aspirations nor did it even help get the 7-seeded Mavs out of that first-round series.

Carter joining a young and exciting Atlanta team would’ve conjured up considerable hype 10-15 years ago, but now in his 40s, with a rebuilding franchise, it represented an inauspicious, humble epilogue to a story that once began with similar promise. It was a testament to the ways he grew as a veteran in this league, but there was also something terribly sad about watching an aged Carter come off the bench and just hoist 3s for a losing team, knowing he wouldn’t get the same sendoff as a Dwyane Wade or a Dirk Nowitzki in his final season.

That makes his potential last game — an overtime loss to the New York Knicks on the night the NBA suspended its season due to the coronavirus outbreak — an even more beautifully sad conclusion, if that indeed was the ultimate sendoff.

It was impossible not to be happy for Carter as he received what might be his final curtain call, checking in with less than 20 seconds left in yet another Hawks loss before stepping up and drilling a wide-open 3.

It was quintessential Vince Carter: light-hearted and crowd-pleasing, but ultimately something that left us wanting more. When he announced this would be his final season, nobody expected it to be cut short prematurely in March. Then again, nobody expected his rise as the face of a franchise had peaked in just his third season either, but that’s what ultimately came to pass.

Weirdly enough, if March 11, 2020 was the last time we’d ever see Vinsanity on an NBA court, his final game was a perfectly fitting reflection of the great but peculiar journey his career took. There were no league-wide tributes or the farewell tour that we envisioned for him during his early glory days — just the obligatory fanfare, with very little catharsis or clarity on what came next.

One minute it was there, and in a flash it was gone. We knew it was something good, and we loved it for that, but most of us always thought there’d be more than a lingering, bittersweet taste. It left us content, but also somewhat unfulfilled.

At 43 years old, in his 22nd NBA season, Carter may have put the final bow on a career that was indeed half-man, half-amazing. It was a memorable, Hall-of-Fame worthy ride either way, but whether it was more “man” or more “amazing” really just depends on which side of the prism one chooses to view it through.

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