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Celebrate Vinsanity

Just how good was Vince Carter in his prime?

Check out the award-winning artists featured on ThankYouVince.com
Check out the award-winning artists featured on ThankYouVince.com Marianna Tomaselli

All week long here on NBA.com we're celebrating the amazing accomplishments and enduring legacy of Vince Carter who decided to call it a career after an awe-inspiring career that spanned a record 22 seasons. For more never-before-seen Carter content, check out ThankYouVince.com which features an interactive look back through the defining moments including never-before-seen content.


Prime Vince Carter... just how good was he really?

Let's start here: he's a lock for the Hall of Fame. One of the most influential figures in the history of the sport in Canada, an eight-time All-Star, Olympic gold medalist and arguably the greatest dunker in NBA history across a career spanning a record 22 seasons, Carter has done more than enough to earn his way into Springfield.

But putting aside influence and overall impact, how good was he between the lines?

It's a question I've found myself asking plenty over the last two weeks since Carter announced his retirement.

On one hand, Carter's unquestionably one of the most electric and exciting players in the history of the league, an entertainer capable of igniting fireworks faster than you can say Frederic Weis. 'Half-Man, Half-Amazing' belonged alongside the stars, a glistening presence with enough wattage to slot seamlessly into any NBA constellation.

On the other hand, Carter never sat at the table as a major player when it mattered the most. Not once during his peak with the Raptors or Nets did he make it out of the second round and by the time he finally played in his one and only Conference Finals in 2010 with the Orlando Magic, 'Half-Man, Half-Amazing' had officially crossed into the 'Half-Man, Half-Solid' portion of his career.

MORE: VC didn't need to ring chase to secure his legacy

There's perhaps no other star player who came along at the exact right time with the perfect storm of circumstances that further muddies the water when trying to gauge just how good he was at his best.

A rookie during the post-Jordan lockout season in 1999, Carter immediately filled the void left by His Airness with a bouncy game that pulled in fans from all corners of the NBA map. He didn't have a Shaq-sized teammate to draw away attention and with the Vancouver Grizzlies in a free-falling tailspin, Carter was essentially the only real star of any consequence in all of Canada. The defining North star. Then there was the benefit of playing for the Raptors, a young franchise at that point devoid of any hated rivals and with no real pressure to win which made it all the easier for casual fans from other 29 teams embrace Vinsanity full stop.

Those first three years truly did tee-up an all-time career. An abbreviated Rookie of the Year campaign during which he racked up 113 of 118 ROY votes set the stage for Carter to enter the spotlight. By the summer following his second season, Carter had led all players in All-Star voting, delivered the greatest dunk contest performance of all-time, dragged the Raptors to the playoffs for the first time ever and uncorked the Dunk Heard Round The World at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney en route to a gold medal.

Carter had checked nearly every box on the way to superstardom.

He then parlayed that momentum into an awe-inspiring 2000-01 season during which he made All-NBA Second Team while averaging an efficient 27.6 points per game and leading the NBA in offensive box plus-minus. That second part is no joke. Peruse the list of players to lead the league and you won't hardly find a single outlier. It's Hall of Famers and MVPs.

Let's pause for a moment.

The incredible highlight reels take away from the fact that young Carter could do far more than merely dunk. There's a sentiment that not until late in his career did he become a capable outside shooter but it's simply not the case as he shot over 40% from 3 in each of those All-NBA seasons despite an astounding degree of difficulty. To do that and average over 25 points per game… and do it twice?... practically unheard of in that day with Larry Bird and Dale Ellis the only other players who could make that claim.

When I say that Carter dragged the Raptors to those first few playoff appearances, I quite literally mean it.

Toronto was an astounding 17.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor during the 1999-00 season. The next best mark of anyone on the team? Charles Oakley at a paltry +2.0. There were equal parts substance and style to early VC, a fact that often gets lost in the grander scope.

It should paint the picture of a burgeoning star headed for pantheon level greatness.

Except it never really happened.

Since 1980, Carter is one of only 15 players to make a pair of All-NBA teams within his first three seasons. Assuming Joel Embiid makes another one, Carter will be the only among that group never to do it again. And again excluding Embiid who is just 26 and in the early stages of his prime, every other player from that group made at least five with the exception of Penny Hardaway who likely would have had it not been for a devastating career-altering injury.

Player 1st 3 Seasons Rest of Career Total
LeBron James 2 13 15
Tim Duncan 3 12 15
Shaquille O'Neal 2 12 14
Hakeem Olajuwon 2 10 12
Charles Barkley 2 9 11
Michael Jordan 2 9 11
Larry Bird 3 7 10
David Robinson 3 7 10
Dwyane Wade 2 6 8
Blake Griffin 2 3 5
Kevin Johnson 2 3 5
Isiah Thomas 2 3 5
Penny Hardaway 2 1 3
Vince Carter 2 0 2
Joel Embiid 2 0 2

Yes, he became an All-Star staple as he retired an eight-time All-Star but a closer look reveals his All-Star resume certainly received a boost from his popularity as much as his play.

Voted in as a starter in six of his eight All-Star seasons, Carter was a perennial fan favourite even during the seasons where he didn't warrant much consideration.

Consider those six All-Star seasons following his final All-NBA season. From 2001-02 through 2006-07, Carter sat within an elite group of just nine players who made the All-Star team every season, a who's who of early 2000s stars. Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki and Jermaine O'Neal.

MORE: Where does Vince rank among all-time Raptors?

In 2002-03, injuries caused him to miss 32 games over the course of the first few months of the season. When All-Star starters - which included Carter - were announced on January 23 of that season, he had played just 10 games and ranked 17th in the Eastern Conference in scoring. If you add up points, rebounds and assists per game up until that point, Carter ranked just 24th in the East.

Or what about the very next season? For the fourth time in his career, Carter received the most All-Star votes which at the time tied Julius Erving for the second-most ever trailing only Michael Jordan. Though not as egregious as 2003, he certainly didn't fit the bill as a shoo-in, ranking 12th in the East in combined points, assists and rebounds per game at the time starters were announced. Not only did Carter rank 23rd among 24 All-Stars that year in Win Shares, a whopping 47 players that didn't make the All-Star finished with more including the likes of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Richard Jefferson and Lamar Odom. Another notable Eastern Conference snub? Some rookie by the name of LeBron James.

And then there's 2004-05.

Lackadaisical. Disinterested. Uninspired. Effortless. Any of them could have accurately described his play over the first 20 games with the Raptors which of course ended in a divorce with the trade that sent him to the New Jersey Nets.

Here's a quick game involving two different sets of blind resumes to paint the picture of Carter's season as a two-part show.

  • Player A: 15.9 Pts, 41.1 FG percentage, 3.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists
  • Player B: 15.7 Pts, 40.2 FG percentage, 3.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists

Even if you'd probably take Player A, there's an undeniable resemblance in terms of productivity. Player A is Carter with the Raptors prior to the trade to New Jersey. Player B is Dillon Brooks this season, the same Brooks who for outside of a nice month of January has ranked among the least efficient wings in the entire league.

By now you've probably picked up on where this is going, but here's another set of blind resumes.

  • Player A: 27.5 Pts, 46.2 FG percentage, 5.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists
  • Player B: 26.9 Pts, 46.9 FG percentage, 7.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists

The top one is Carter following the trade to the Nets. With the snap of a finger following a change in address, he quite literally transformed into another player. The comparison? Kawhi Leonard from this season during which he's enjoying the best year of his career.

I'm not saying that version of Carter was quite as good as this version of Leonard… but it's not THAT far off.

Nevertheless, Carter once more was voted in as a starter despite quitting on his team. It's basically a worse version of what happened with Jimmy Butler and the Minnesota Timberwolves and although both sides have more than made amends as time heals wounds, it's still there as a glaring black mark.

That's three All-Star nods which run the gamut from curiously questionable to borderline indefensible. Why does this matter?

Because Carter's Hall of Fame candidacy is propped up in part due to those eight All-Star appearances.

Basketball-Reference.com's trusty Hall of Fame probability calculator - which considers a whole host of factors that have proven over time to predict who gets in and who doesn't - tabulates a 95 percent chance for Carter to get in.

Bump those eight All-Star appearances down to five and suddenly it's far closer to a coin flip than a slam dunk. Leaving everything the exact same and using that same formula, I calculated Carter's new Hall of Fame probability at 55 percent.

That's probably too low given Carter's place in the grander scheme. Somewhat similarly to someone like Yao Ming, Carter's legacy can't be entirely summed up by statistical achievements as there's a nuanced yet substantial intangible influence that has to be considered when talking about VC's place in the game.

MORE: Vince, YouTube and the NBA's greatest game changers

And that's all incredibly important! But it can also muddy the waters when attempting to zero in on the on-court impact of Vince Carter as a basketball player and nothing more. While there's a noticeable lack of any extended postseason runs in his prime, Carter did have his moments such as the 2001 series-long duel with Allen Iverson or the entirety of the 2006 postseason during which he was undeniably great. Beyond the box score, Carter elevated his teams as they performed better with him on the floor during each of his first 16 seasons. Again, that matters and rules outcries from the empty stats peanut gallery.

Earlier this year, ESPN.com revealed its updated list of the top 74 players in NBA history. They slotted Carter in at No. 55, ahead of legends like Ray Allen, Clyde Drexler, Manu Ginobili, Bob McAdoo, Willis Reed, Dennis Rodman and Alonzo Mourning. That feels high.

When ESPN.com performed a similar exercise back in 2016, they ranked him No. 69 which feels closer. Even when accounting for the likes of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis, four players who certainly would have passed Carter over the ensuing four years, it feels appropriate to place Carter somewhere in the backend of the top 100.

MORE: The different stages of Vinsanity

There's a popular perception that 'Vinsanity' as a story is a two-act play. But that's an oversimplification which exaggerates his peak by focusing on the meteoric rise while largely ignoring a plateau obfuscated by historic popular appeal. Carter's arc more accurately rates as a three-part play, a trilogy of sorts with three distinct characters operating in three different spheres.

There's Vince 'Half-Man, Half-Amazing' Carter, a top-10 player who seemed on track to one day enter the pantheon.

There's Vince 'Half-Man, Half-Borderline All-Star' Carter, a top-25-ish player who made up a far larger portion of his peak than the far catchier aforementioned version.

There's Vince 'Half-Man, Half-Solid' Carter, the veteran role player and stately lockerroom leader that evolved with the game and stuck it out longer than any player in the history of the sport.

So again… just how good was Vince Carter?

It's complicated.

The views here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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