- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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In so many cities, in this Year O' The Injury, they said so. They said so in Sacramento, when Chris Webber missed the first 20 games. Said so in Dallas, when Michael Finley sat for 13. In Seattle, when Vin Baker missed 26 and the Sonics won 19 of them, people said so and really believed it.
Team So-And-So, they say, is better without the well-compensated Fill In The Blank.
In most every case, of course, it's a preposterous statement. The Kings were never better without Chris Webber, just deep enough to go 15-5 without him to start the season. The Mavericks, even after a 12-1 run sans Finley, know they need their longest-tenured Nellie disciple if they want to hold onto the Midwest Division lead. Detroit and New Jersey, meanwhile, would surely rather have Jerry Stackhouse and Kenyon Martin on the floor, even if the teams sport respective records of 5-1 and 5-2 when those lads are either laid up or holed up in a hotel room on suspension.
The one case where it's getting tougher to get anyone to listen to reason, even more so than Baker's in Seattle, is Vince Carter's in Toronto. The Raptors returned from the All-Star break to submit a Detroit Lions impersonation -- going 1-17 -- before losing Carter to knee surgery on March 26. Since then, to heap more painful fluid on their franchise player, the Raptors haven't lost anything.
Eight games played, eight games won and 5½ games made up in the standings to take Toronto back to 38-38. That's after a 29-21 record, courtesy of a thrilling home defeat of San Antonio on TNT in the last game before the break, skidded all the way to 30-38.
Only in Canada.
OK, not quite. Only in 2002's Leastern Conference is more like it.
"I was really worried," said the Raptors' Antonio Davis, rewinding to his thoughts during All-Star Weekend, before the slide. "I knew Vince [Carter] was really banged up. I knew Jerome Williams was banged up. Dell Curry, who's a shooter -- and it's important for me to have a shooter out on the floor -- was banged up. [Hakeem] Olajuwon, who was starting to show signs of being able to help us, all of a sudden he was banged up. I could see it coming. I just didn't feel that it was going to get [so] bad to where we couldn't stop it and pull it back together."
Turns out, the long stretch of bad wasn't fatal -- again, because of the Least.
Morris Peterson has stepped in ably for Carter, averaging 17 points in the eight wins. Davis is regularly flirting with 20-10 territory these days, averaging 19.3 points in that span. And, more than anything, Carter's absence appears to have strengthened the defense. No longer covering for the vulnerable guy with the bad knee, Toronto has allowed just 86 points per game during the streak. Jerome Williams and Chris Childs have been helping off the bench as well.
The biggest help of all, though, has to be the schedule. Laudable as it to see that the Raptors didn't quit, even after that Lions-like stretch of 13 consecutive defeats, it's no small factor that only one of their eight victims in the resurrection is over .500. And that was Philadelphia, playing without the injured Allen Iverson. The other victories came against Cleveland, Washington, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago (twice) and floundering Indiana on Sunday to drop the Pacers to ninth in the Least.
So, yeah. Even in L'Affaire Vince, you're taking a serious talk-radio leap to say they're a better team without him. Which naturally hasn't stopped the citizenry in one of our favorite NBA cities from widely turning on No. 15.
It doesn't matter that the 13-game losing streak started without an injured Vince, who had to skip the All-Star Game but hurried back to his team before he was really ready to see if he could halt the freefall -- 0-7 at that point. The losing only continued, and likewise coincided with the ill-timed release of a new Nike campaign casting Carter -- at famed Rucker Park, circa 1975 -- as an unstoppable character named Dr. Funk.
The ripping then started to write itself, since there is the good kind of funk -- that which fills up highlight reels and sells sneakers -- and then the kind of gloom that has consistently found Carter since his Rookie of the Year honeymoon. There was the playoff manhandling from the Knicks and then the fallout with cousin Tracy McGrady and then the furor sparked by that North Carolina graduation stroll on the morning of last spring's Game 7 in Philly. And now this, maybe the most painful funk yet.
As in Carter, playing hurt after years of being rapped for his leadership and toughness, getting booed at home for daring not to dunk on a breakaway.
"I've been surprised from Day 1," Carter conceded last month, referring not to the boos specifically but admitting that the season has been more trying than he ever envisioned.
Yet you can expect the anti-Carter blather to get louder as the playoffs near. With a not-too-taxing schedule to the finish line, Toronto has the edge on Indiana for the East's eighth spot -- with the teams meeting Wednesday at Conseco Fieldhouse. By next Tuesday, when the Raps visit the Bucks in a nationally televised showdown of the Least's leading underachievers, a playoff spot could already be clinched.
Which is why the other talk-show debate in Toronto -- Better Without Lenny? -- has largely been hushed. The Raptors' surge into contention threatens to save Lenny Wilkens' job, which poses a greater risk, team insiders insist, than the prospect of a Carter comeback in the playoffs. Toronto's veterans seemed to tune out Wilkens during the win drought, only heightening suspicions that the gentlemanly coach is somewhat past it at 64. Or at least too passive and uncreative to a) keep his high-priced roster focused and b) get the most out of Carter.
But that was last month. Like Webber and Finley before him, it's pretty much just Vince hearing daily how much the Raptors don't need him. No argument here that Carter has slipped dramatically to No. 3 among 1998 draftees, behind Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, and needs to shoot fewer jumpers and more free throws and embrace the responsibility of a $90 million player. All that said, Toronto ain't better without Carter. And anyone rational in Raptorville better be hoping he responds as well as those other two.
Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.