The Ultimate Raptors Rankings are the RaptorBlog editors’ attempt to rank the top 30 Toronto Raptors of all time. These rankings are obviously somewhat arbitrary and endlessly debatable, but they’re based on each player’s contribution, performance and longevity as a Raptor, and on how beloved they are by Raptors fans.

Vince Carter’s Raptors résumé:

- 2nd in All-Time Franchise points (9420) and 1st in Points per game (23.4)

- 3rd in total rebounds (2091) and 4th in total assists (1553)

- 2nd in total blocks (415) and 3rd in total steals (534)

- Leader in P.E.R. (21.8)

- 5th in games played (403) and 3rd in minutes played (15,114)

- Perennial All Star and multiple-time leading vote-getter

- 2000 Slam Dunk champion

Okay, so maybe Vince Carter doesn’t exactly gel with the “how beloved they are by Raptors fans” part of our criteria, but whatever you personally think of Carter, it’s pretty difficult to argue with him as the greatest Raptor through the franchise’s 17-year history. And whether you want to admit it or not, at one time or another, the word “love” probably didn’t even come close to describing your feelings for him.

Without further ado, let’s get into this post on Vince Carter, the greatest player to ever wear Raptors red…or purple, or white, or “Naismith silver.”

The Beginning:

The date was June 24, 1998, the NBA Draft, where franchises’ futures hang in the balance. The Toronto Raptors had won just 67 games total over their first three years of NBA existence, and had taken a discouraging step back in season three, losing 66 games and trading their original face of the franchise, Damon Stoudamire. Quite simply, they needed to hit a home run. They needed to find a saviour.

With a draft night trade that sent their own pick (No. 4), Antawn Jamison, to Golden State in exchange for the player the Warriors selected fifth overall, Vince Carter, Toronto had found that saviour, all be it a temporary one.

The North Carolina product burst onto the NBA scene with an exceptional rookie campaign, averaging 18.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, three assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals per game while starting 49 of Toronto’s 50 games in the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season. In addition, the Daytona Beach native led the Raptors to their best season up to that point (a 23-27 record and .460 winning percentage), had Canadian basketball fans thinking playoffs through parts of the season, and was rewarded with the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award.

Perhaps most importantly, Carter gained league-wide recognition as one of the game’s young stars and potential superstars, and even had some pundits throwing out the “next Jordan” comparison. The Raptors weren’t prime time just yet, but with Vince leading the way, it was obvious that they were on the cusp.

The Rise:

After virtually guaranteeing a playoff trip during the final game of his rookie season, Carter was ready to deliver in his first full 82-game NBA season in 1999-2000. It was during this season that Vince took his game from young star and potential superstar to bonafide young superstar and potential future MVP candidate.

He scored, he attacked the basket with ferocity, he hustled, he hit big shots with the game on the line and whenever his team seemed to need one, he delivered that elusive first playoff trip in Raptors history, and with his absolutely spectacular and awe inspiring performance at the 2000 Dunk Contest, he officially put Toronto and Canada on the NBA map.

Vince Carter as “Air Canada” may have been built and groomed as a rookie, but it was during his sophomore season season that Air Canada officially broke free of the runway and took flight.

The Peak:

By the time Vince’s third season rolled around, the initial short-term goals had been met. The Raptors were a legitimate playoff team, a big time draw around the Association and on television (they had appeared on NBA on NBC the previous season, with Vince scoring a career-high 51 points against the Suns at Air Canada Centre), and were a respected franchise within the NBA.

It was time to set the bar higher, and that meant going from a young team just happy to be there at the postseason party to a team that not only expected to get there, but also expected to win once there.

Once again, Carter, along with a lovable and memorable supporting cast that will live forever in Raptors’ fans hearts, delivered for Toronto. He averaged a career-high 27.6 points per game during the 2000-2001 season to go along with 5.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.5 steals and just over a block per game, leading the Raptors to another franchise-best, 47 wins, a result they have matched (and never surpassed) just once in the 11 years since.

He helped the Raptors win their first and only playoff series in a rematch of the 2000 Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Knicks, averaging 22.8 points per game in the series and coming up big when it mattered most, scoring 59 combined points with the Raptors facing elimination in Games 4 and 5.

Then he traded unbelievable performances (VC hung 50 on Philly on my 12th Birthday) with Allen Iverson in an Eastern Conference semifinal series against the top-seeded 76ers that still stands as one of the best NBA playoff series I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, Carter missed a potential Game 7 and series-clinching shot at the buzzer in Philadelphia, leading many to criticize him for flying to his UNC graduation earlier that day.

This 2000-2001 season was indisputably the peak of Carter’s career, the peak of his popularity (he would still lead All Star game voting for a couple more seasons), and also the peak of the Raptors franchise to date.

The Fall:

The biggest part of the Raptors advancing in the playoffs and coming within a shot of the Conference Finals was what happened after that. Carter signed a lucrative long-term extension and the Raptors acquired Hall of Fame centre Hakeem Olajuwon, leading many to reasonably expect Toronto to compete for the Eastern Conference crown and potentially even for the NBA championship for the foreseeable future.

As we’re all painfully aware, it never panned out. And while Olajuwon’s failure to ever really make an impact had something to do with the Raptors’ failures that season, the big blow was what would turn out to be the first of many derailing injuries in Carter’s Raptors tenure. Without Vince, the Raptors sputtered and eventually had to embark on a remarkable season-saving run over the last month of the season just to make the playoffs, where they would lose to the Pistons in a hard fought five-game series.

Despite the expectations and hope of a full return to health and return to his prime, Carter’s numbers and efficiency began to take a dive beginning in his fifth season and first season post-injury, and his hustle and overall work ethic were called into question. His attitude seemed to deteriorate, he and a fresh-faced big man named Chris Bosh never seemed to compliment each other on the court, the fans began to fall out of love with their once exciting superstar, and Carter himself appeared to be falling out of love with being a Toronto Raptor.

The Ending:

Between a trade request, his half-joking that he was done with dunking because it was “overrated,” him being booed at home and a disturbing report that he had tipped off the Sonics in a close loss, Carter’s time in Toronto had clearly run its course.

He was traded to the New Jersey Nets on December 17, 2004 in exchange for Alonzo Mourning (who would never suit up for the Raptors), Eric Williams, Aaron Williams and two future first-round draft picks. It immediately went down as one of the worst trades in NBA history, certainly the worst in recent memory, and cemented the level of vitriol Raps fans would forever throw Carter’s way.

Of course, there was also a nationally televised interview with John Thompson which multiplied the Vince-hate North of border tenfold.

The everlasting clip of the interview for Raptors fans was Vince responding to the question of whether he always pushed himself: “In years past, no. I was just fortunate enough to have the talent. You get spoiled when you’re able to do a lot of things. And you see that, and you really don’t have to work at it.

At the end of the day, Vince has continually said that the interview was taken out of context. And really, a diehard Carter fan could easily say that he never specifically referenced Toronto when discussing not pushing himself. Perhaps he was talking about high school ball or college games at UNC.

No one knows the true answer, but if you look at the dipping numbers, the changing personality with the media, and the interview itself, it certainly seems like damning evidence to most.

The Aftermath:

While the Raptor-killing returns to Toronto, the booing, the electricity in the ACC and the overall storyline was kind of fun, I eventually reached a point where I was just over everything that had happened.

In talking to other Raptors fans, many feel the same way. I rarely hear anyone say they still boo Vince Carter nearly a decade later because of the John Thompson interview or because he quit on the team. In all honesty, most Raps fans I talk to admit they either don’t really know why they still boo him or say they just do it for fun, “because everyone else is doing it.”

If someone still believes that Carter quit on the team, the city, and the country, then by all means, boo away. But if you’ve reached a point of apathy, where you’re booing simply because it’s fun or because you want to be a part of an exciting and unique experience and atmosphere inside the Air Canada Centre, then may I suggest something else, like cheering?

Seriously, the booing, while maybe still deserved depending on your opinion, is old. It’s worn out. It’s not really that fun anymore and it’s certainly not unique. You know what would be unique? You know what would be exciting, special, and probably a lot of fun? Being inside the Air Canada Centre on a night where Vince Carter receives a warm welcome and maybe even some sort of ovation. Whatever you think of Vince, you can’t deny that at this point, it would be a much more memorable experience to be a part of than another night of booing him every 15 seconds.

***

Because of basketball’s global popularity compared to other North American sports, you can make the argument that since Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles, no professional athlete playing for a Canadian franchise has been as popular as Vince Carter was in the early 2000′s.

Couple that global phenomenon known as “Vinsanity” with his performance on the court, and the fact that he led the team through the most successful period in franchise history, and it’s easy to see why RaptorBlog has come to the conclusion that if you’re going to rank the Ultimate Raptors of the first 17 years, Vince Carter has to be No. 1, regardless of how much the guy at No. 2 looks like an actual Raptor.

As I wrote about Vince a couple of years ago, you can say that Raptors fans brought out the best in him, both in his time as a Raptor and in his post-Raptors days, with his best performances always saved for his ACC returns.

You can also say that Vince Carter brought out the best in Raptors fans, whether it was in a positive way during the peak of the team’s success or in a different kind of way, evoking unprecedented passion and emotion from them, when he returned as a member of another team.

Either way you look at it, in any other uniform, he was simply Vince Carter. A former superstar and a shadow of his former self.

But whenever he stepped foot on that Air Canada Centre court, whether as a beloved Raptor or a loathed ex-Raptor, he was Vince “Air Canada” Carter. Half-man, half amazing.

And the greatest Toronto Raptor we’ve ever seen.