The Step Back: Air apparent

For this installment, let’s go back to 1999: the year US President Bill Clinton was acquitted of perjury and obstruction of justice; SpongeBob SquarePants premiered on the Nickelodeon cable network; and The Matrix first hit cinemas.

The NBA landscape had changed quite dramatically after the 1997-98 season. The Chicago Bulls, who had secured their historic ‘three-peat’, had been disbanded over the offseason, prompting Michael Jordan’s second retirement. Meanwhile, a labour dispute ate into the new campaign, cancelling out the first three months of the new season, which consequently spanned just 50 games beginning in February. 

The scenario prompted a great deal of uncertainty, but when the season finally tipped off, Jordan’s absence meant others got a chance to steal the spotlight. The Philadelphia 76ers’ Allen Iverson won the scoring title, Karl Malone was named regular season MVP and David Robinson and Tim Duncan led the San Antonio Spurs to their first title in franchise history, as they beat the New York Knicks in a five-game Finals series.

And yet the search for Jordan’s heir was well and truly on, with one particular candidate emerging north of the border. The high-flying athleticism of Vince Carter caught many an eye over the lockout-shortened campaign, earning him Rookie of the Year honours as well as one of the most incredible first-year highlight reels in NBA history:

Carter’s ability to embarrass defenses around the rim looked Jordanesque at times, while his 18.3-point, 5.7-rebound, 3-assist statline alluded to a ton of potential. The Toronto Raptors had clearly found a gem – one they actually acquired through a draft-day trade with the Golden State Warriors that saw forward Antawn Jamison go the other way. And boy did the franchise need him. It was, after all, in just its fourth season in the league, having joined the NBA as an expansion team prior to the 1995-96 season. And, as with most expansion teams, they’d been terrible, winning just 67 games in their first three years. Although Carter’s arrival did little to change that (the Raptors won just 23 games during his rookie year), there was a sense around the league that things were about to improve.

And then they did, starting with Carter’s inclusion in the Slam Dunk Contest at the 2000 All-Star Weekend, where man became legend thanks to his decision to improvise, as he recalls in this article from sportsnet.ca:

“Heading out onto the court I had my routine, but once I got to the layup line—and maybe I was over-analyzing—I just suddenly felt it wasn’t good enough: a lot of catching it off the backboard, you know, nothing really special… Right before I grabbed the basketball from the referee for my first dunk, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I really didn’t know.”

What he ended up doing was spectacular and even though some of the all-time greats (Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant) have made their names at the Dunk Contest, Carter’s effort is widely regarded as the best performance of all time.

It wasn’t the only place Carter found success that year, as he led the Raptors to a 45-37 record (the first winning record in franchise history) and a maiden postseason appearance. Despite elimination in the first round, Toronto looked to have transformed itself into a perennial playoff team, and even made it as far as the conference semis in 2000-01. In the offseason, Carter signed a six-year contract extension worth approximately $94 million. Money didn’t translate to on-court success, though, as he then suffered a series of knee and hamstring injuries that not only kept him out of the final 22 games of the 2001–02 regular season but the postseason that year too. Without their star man, the Raptors were ousted by the Detroit Pistons in the first round before Carter underwent offseason surgery. It didn’t particularly help, as again due to injury, he missed 39 games of the 2002-03 season while the Raptors limped to just 23 wins.

While he bounced back the following year, the Raptors once again missed the playoffs, causing a rift between the player and the franchise. After some front office shuffling, it became apparent that the two parties were unlikely to see eye to eye and Carter was traded to the New Jersey Nets for Alonzo Mourning, Aaron Williams, Eric Williams and two first round draft picks in December 2004.

Much maligned for his role in the outcome, Carter was vindicated in the long run, as the Raptors made the playoffs just twice in the next eight seasons, failing to make it out of the first round on either occasion. Meanwhile, his new team, the Nets, were two seasons removed from losing in the NBA Finals and seemed well-equipped to compete for years to come.

Led by Carter and perennial All-Star Jason Kidd, they fell victim to the Miami Heat in the first round in 2005 and then again in the conference semis in 2006. The following season, VC got a shot at his old team, overcoming the Raptors in a six-game First Round series before losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Conference Semifinals. Regardless, Carter re-signed with the Nets that summer, penning a four-year, $61.8 million deal. Not long after though, Kidd was traded to the Dallas Mavericks and the Nets dropped out of playoff contention, winning just 34 games the following two seasons.

In the summer of 2009, the Nets entered full rebuild mode and traded Carter and Ryan Anderson, to the Orlando Magic for Rafer Alston, Tony Battie and Courtney Lee. The Magic were just coming off a trip to the NBA Finals and hoped the veteran swingman could fill the gap left by the departed Hedo Türkoğlu. They ultimately needed someone to serve as a perimeter scorer, capable of creating his own shot – something the Magic had lacked the previous season.

Carter had a solid regular season, logging 16.6 points per game in 75 appearances, before averaging 15.8 points as the Magic swept the Charlotte Bobcats in the First Round of the playoffs, and 18.3 points as they swept the Atlanta Hawks in the Conference Semifinals. This set up a rematch with the team the Magic had beaten to get to the Eastern Conference Finals the previous season: the Boston Celtics. It also gave Carter his first opportunity to play at that stage of the postseason. Unfortunately, the stakes were high and the Magic bombed, as the Boston defense took away their three-point game, forcing them to try and score inside (which is, ironically, exactly what Carter was supposed to be able to do). They couldn’t, and the Magic, whose entire philosophy relied on an inside-outside approach centered around Dwight Howard, struggled monumentally, losing the first three games. They won games four and five, but were dispatched in Game 6, having given themselves too much of a mountain to climb.

Carter averaged just 13.7 points in the series, shooting 37 percent from the field and a depressing 21 percent from deep. After carrying Orlando’s offense in Game 1 (where he scored 23 points), he notched just 16 points in Game 2 and 15 points in Game 3 as the Magic’s floundered. Perhaps his most memorable moment came in Game 2, when he was sent to the free throw line with the Magic down by three and 31.9 seconds left in the fourth quarter. It didn’t go well:

Labelled a choke artist who couldn’t deliver in big moments, one who had a tendency to make the playoff contenders he joined worse, Carter was traded to the Phoenix Suns the following season and made stops in Dallas, Memphis and Sacramento before winding up with his current outfit, the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks, in 2018.

At 43 years of age, the 22-year veteran is expected to retire at season’s end as the NBA’s oldest player and the only one whose career has spanned four decades. While, in the end, he was no Michael Jordan, no air apparent, he’s considered a lock for the Hall of Fame, despite a lack of postseason success.