- Sam Smith
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Like the exchange rate, Vince Carter always seems to produce about 75 percent of what was expected.
It doesn't seem like it's ever going to change, which is one reason why it's time to see if someone can earn full value with Carter. It's time, like with Tracy McGrady, who really was Carter's downfall in the first place, that Carter move on. To both give him a chance to change and get the Raptors franchise out from under the weight of Carter's promise.
And there's one place that's perfect for both sides: The Los Angeles Clippers.
No, they didn't get Kobe. And they passed on the chance to go for McGrady while pining for Bryant. Owner Donald Sterling is known for not paying, but he always has sought to pay a star, to have a glittering piece to show off. Carter is and can be that. If he were to go to the Clippers, they would have a better lineup than the Lakers and a better chance to succeed with Elton Brand and Corey Maggette or Quentin Richardson. It would be the best talent the Clippers have had since Buffalo with Ernie D. and Bob McAdoo.
Why would the Raptors do it? All that salary cap room.
The Clippers got caught with their millions hanging out when Bryant opted to remain with the Lakers. They are in the unique position to take major contracts into their cap space. So, for example, they take Carter and a few of the Raptors' long-term deals, like Lamond Murray and Alvin Williams. They get back Richardson if the Clippers match the Suns' offer and then Richardson agrees to the trade, a one-year provision for restricted free agents. If not, another player gets substituted. Perhaps they expand it to a mega deal with Jalen Rose.
What it does is give the Raptors a chance to rebuild with upcoming salary cap room and some nice pieces on the roster. It is a beautiful city and salary cap room is rapidly disappearing. The few teams that have it over the next couple of years can score big in free agency.
The Carter era is over in Toronto.
That's clear. New management is in place with a new coach. They'll want the chance to rebuild in their image without the burden of Carter's expectations and his injuries. To say nothing of his latest angst toward the franchise over what is either his lack of involvement in the general manager's search or the Stanley Cup going to Florida. Who out there thinks the Raptors are a playoff team? Hands, please! Thought so. Especially in the powerful Eastern Conference. Now maybe if the Raptors were in the Western Conference, which hasn't had a champion since 2003.
Carter is like a precious stone to the Raptors: beautiful to look at, but fragile. He's admired but also high maintenance, to the point that perhaps they're better off with something more practical. He's a luxury they can no longer afford.
Carter is one of the great talents in the NBA, if not the best. He's not necessarily the best player because he doesn't really have the desire to be. The fact that Carter doesn't yearn for greatness was his and the Raptors' undoing, not because of what Carter couldn't do but because of the price of expecting it.
There's been much talk of late of the breakup of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and how the two could allow it to happen, how they'll come to regret it because great pairs don't often come along. But they, at least, had success, winning titles before their egos and hubris got in the way. Some point to the Stephon Marbury-inspired split with Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves that held both back for years. It's perhaps premature to speculate what, if anything, would have developed with the talented small and big man.
Which makes one wonder about McGrady and Carter.
It had the makings of a second coming of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. No, the two great Lakers never won the ultimate prize together, and it took the acquisition of a role-playing Wilt Chamberlain to deliver it. But the two high scorers were regular contenders, perhaps only deprived by the unique Celtics era.
Carter and McGrady together could have been one of the rare, spectacular pairings in NBA history. And it would have worked because Carter never wanted to be Michael Jordan. He could have.
Same pedigree. Similar abilities. The want was always missing, the desire to be the best in the group. And to let everyone know. It is the rare quality that exists with the best. Frankly, few have it. Many more have the talent to be Jordan-like than the desire.
From the beginning, Carter ran away from the comparisons. He hid, really. He didn't want to be the next anything. He just wanted to be part of the team -- the big part, mind you, but rarely unwilling to share. He liked being Vince. Not Air Vince. Or Magic. Just a guy, a very, very good guy.
McGrady wanted more. He wanted his own team and wanted to be the guy. He felt it wasn't going to happen in Toronto with Carter, his cousin, ahead of him. So he was determined to leave. Who knows what would have happened if Grant Hill wasn't hurt. Perhaps McGrady and Hill would have been that dream pairing. Instead, it was the nightmare that broke up the Orlando Magic and sent McGrady to Houston.
McGrady and Carter would have worked. McGrady played more defense then, more than Carter. McGrady was the better all-around player with more varied skills. He wasn't quite the highlight maker Carter is. They could have fed off one another. There were enough points for both. McGrady took the ball to the basket more then. Carter, while known for his spectacular slam dunks, preferred the perimeter. He's fallen in love with the 3-pointer and actually shot more threes than free throws three years ago.
And Carter can make those threes. He's got a wonderful stroke. The rap on Carter always has been he disdains the contact, that he doesn't like the middle of the lane and embrace the challenge like Jordan did. McGrady has come to float the perimeter as well in recent years, seemingly saving himself for offense with Hill away. Playing with Carter, McGrady would have had to do that. They would have been a dual double-team threat that would have opened everything up for everyone else.
Though it didn't seem to matter for awhile. The Raptors got to the seventh game of the conference semifinals in 2001, losing by a point when Carter's last attempt missed. But nothing much went right from there. Some, fans of karma, say this downward spiral began with Carter's trip to get his college degree on the day of that last East finals game, when he left his team to make a statement he didn't have to make at the time. Some say it was the departure of a player like Charles Oakley, someone to push Carter in an organization that feared and babied him.
Injuries struck after that. One season, the team made an inspired run to make the playoffs, but only after Carter was hurt. Questions were raised about his injuries and his toughness. There was much frustration from the team and the community about the team's direction. Trades were made. The team is working on its third coach in the last three years. A new general manager has taken over. Carter is said to be unhappy about it all. His reputation around the NBA is not what it was. He even was pushed by fellow players a few years back to give up his starting All-Star spot for Jordan.
But Carter remains popular, which is one reason for the Raptors' reluctance to make a move. Despite the ill fortunes of the team, Carter still draws fans. He regularly gets the most All-Star votes. He still leads the NBA on the oohs and aahs gasp meter. He just doesn't seem to fit in Toronto anymore. There's no shame. If Shaq couldn't fit in L.A. and McGrady couldn't stay in Orlando and if Steve Francis and Steve Nash moved on (if anyone would take him, Allen Iverson would be gone, too), then Carter can start over elsewhere. And while fans come to see Carter, they come more often when their team wins. Toronto hasn't been winning much with Carter for several years now.
But Carter is too much of a talent to waste away like he is. Carter needs a new start in a new home. He needs to be back in the sunshine and down the hall from Kobe Bryant. It would be a heck of a intramural rivalry for L.A.. And it would put the Raptors in position to begin moving on with the first day of the rest of their franchise's life -- to keep both Carter and the Raptors from becoming extinct.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
It's time Vince Carter left Toronto and started over ... in Los Angeles with the Clippers.