DeRozan, Lowry have taken over from Carter as Raptors’ torch-bearers

Vince Carter played what could be his last game in Toronto and talked about someday potentially returning to the franchise he ignited, the Toronto Raptors.

Toronto — To the extent there is a debate about how Vince Carter should be recognized by his old team – if-and-when the former Toronto Raptors great ever stops playing NBA basketball – it’s worth pausing to state an obvious point.

The man who christened the Air Canada Centre with an alley-oop thrown by Charles Oakley (in 19-freaking-99 and against the Vancouver Grizzlies, for crying out loud) and who will forever be credited for helping a franchise sink its roots, not to mention assisting in the sport flourishing across a hockey nation, has benefitted from wading in very shallow waters.

It’s not his fault.

As Carter said after what could be his last game at the ACC as he passed through town with the Sacramento Kings, playing in Toronto way back when meant starting from scratch:

“I know what we walked into 20 years ago,” he said. “It’s like we were still establishing ourselves … and it’s great to see now. I watch the playoff and see what the fans are doing and how they love the game it’s just refreshing.”

As good as Carter was early in his career, the bigger story might be that it’s taken so long for others to push their way into the conversation as the best Raptor ever, or however you want to phrase it.

Other teams don’t have these issues.

As the Los Angeles Lakers prepare for Kobe Bryant’s jersey retirement on Monday, Hall-of-Famer Isiah Thomas asked Hall-of-Famer Magic Johnson to name the top-five Lakers of all-time “including yourself.”

Johnson quickly mentioned Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bryant. You could see the panic seeping in as he realized he only had two spots left on the list.

Who do you leave off and risk offending? Jerry West? Wilt? Shaq? Elgin Baylor? James Worthy?

Johnson wisely changed the subject.

The Raptors don’t have these problems. On, they list each franchise’s top-12 players, as expressed by Win Shares, and Carter is still fourth, even though he logged just over five seasons in Toronto. Chris Bosh is first and he’s retired, having last played for the Raptors in 2009-10. Morris Peterson is a top-10 Raptor; Alvin Williams – great guy, very average NBA player – is 10th. It’s a sad tale.

It’s only been recently that the fortunes of his native franchise have risen enough to the stage that Carter’s epic second and third seasons – combined he averaged 26.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4 assists 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 40.6 per cent from the three-point line – are no longer the franchise’s undisputed high-water marks.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have had individual seasons that at least compare to Carter’s two-year masterpiece, and they have far surpassed him in longevity and overall accomplishments. The team and individual record books will belong to them, and them alone, by the time they are done.

With franchise fortunes on the upswing, whatever bitterness that festered in the years following the rupture between him and the franchise that led to him being traded in his sixth season seems to have finally receded.

Or maybe booing the soon-to-be-41 year-old Carter is like honking your horn at as a senior citizen shuffles along while crossing the street.

Regardless, on Sunday, the sold-out crowd at the ACC cheered enthusiastically when he was introduced and even more warmly when he was subbed out with 11 seconds left. There were no boos. People have moved on.

Soon enough the debate will be how to honour a player who shone so brightly, yet so briefly, here and has since played 15 years elsewhere.

Carter is ready to embrace it if he ever stops playing, something he’s not ready to put a date on yet: “it’ll happen, for sure,” he said of a Raptor reunion. “Somehow, whether it’s [a] one day [contract] or something, it’ll happen. It’s supposed to happen, I think. I can say that now.”

Is this the end for Carter? He says no, but at this stage he really is day-to-day. I asked him why he didn’t go ring-shopping like some of his peers have – Richard Jefferson with Cleveland; David West in Golden State – and Carter said it’s because he still wants to play. He’s not ready for a ceremonial role although his stat line – he’s heading for career lows across the board – suggest it might be closer than he wants to accept.

“I still wanna play, I still wanna compete, I still wanna get out on the floor,” said Carter, who scored four points in 25 minutes while making his first start of the season for the Kings. “You know [a championship] is not guaranteed, obviously, on some of those elite teams who are already established. I’m just not ready for that. I enjoy getting on the floor. I don’t care how many points, it’s not about that. When I step on the floor, I just wanna help my team and make those guys better and play the right way.”

Should the Raptors retire No. 15, raising it to the rafters? Should they honour it – a kind of half measure where the jersey is recognized but still in the rotation for future players (three other Raptors have worn No.15, the last being Anthony Bennett, briefly)?

Should there be a statue or monument, recognizing that Carter’s electric swath across the sky of Canadian basketball changed the perception of the game here forever, lit a fire under a generation of kids, several of whom are in the NBA today and credit Carter as an inspiration?

Lowry, for his part, firmly believes that No. 15 should be hung proudly. “He is someone who has earned the right to have his jersey retired in this arena,” he said. “I tip my hat to the guy who pretty much changed the game of basketball for a whole country.”

Hard to argue. But the franchise should tread carefully, I think.

Carter had two things going for him as a Raptor: One was an absolutely eye-popping level combination of athletic ability and basketball skill that briefly had people arguing that he was on par with the likes of Bryant, his contemporary.

Another was timing: for a very long time, he was the best of a bad lot.

That’s not the case anymore. There is no arguing that the current Raptors era – playoff frustrations and all – is the greatest era the franchise has ever had and is showing no signs of slowing as Toronto improved to 20-8 with their 108-93 romp over Carter’s woeful Kings.

These Raptors may not ever make their way to an NBA Finals, let alone win a ring, but DeRozan and Lowry have built something sturdy and worthy of respect as they navigate their way to another 50-win season and their fifth straight top-four finish in the East; something that doesn’t seem lost on the city given the Raptors sold out their franchise-record 149th consecutive game Sunday.

Whatever the Raptors decide to do to honour Carter’s legacy, they need to be mindful that whatever is done for No. 15 will have to be exceeded by what is done for Lowry’s No.7 and DeRozan’s No.10 when that day comes, as distant as it might be.

As a still-young franchise goes about figuring out how to write its history and Carter’s place in it, it’s worth remembering that the Raptors best days are right now and the franchise’s greatest players are in uniform, their histories unfolding before our eyes.

The Raptors aren’t Lakers, but they aren’t Vince’s team any more.

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