With the NBA season over, no sports to discuss and the potential ending of Vince Carter’s career, fans and pundits have been looking back at his greatest achievements fondly.
There is talk of his all-time dunk contest performance, the return to Toronto, the buzzer-beater in Dallas, the additional stops in Memphis, Phoenix, Orlando, and appreciation for the way Carter took on a valuable leadership role with a young Atlanta Hawks team (as he had also done in Sacramento).
Very little, however, is said of Carter’s lack of championships. That sort of conversation is usually reserved for a few years after a player is gone, and this isn’t a hit piece on the one they called Half Man, Half Amazing.
But what Carter achieved is both historic and worth noting for how ironic it is: 22 seasons is more than any single player in the NBA, the BAA or the ABA has ever played. Carter’s not tied with anyone. He’s up there all by himself.
Only seven players managed 20 or more seasons in the league, but here is the kicker: Carter is the only one of those players to have not won a single NBA title.
It goes against the odds, doesn’t it?
There are only 30 teams in the league, and Carter played 22 seasons. Since he was drafted in 1998, nine different teams have won an NBA title. Even in a perfect world, with a different team winning every season, it only leaves eight teams on which Carter could have played and not won a championship.
So how did this happen? Why did the longest-tenured NBA player ever not walk away with at least one ring?
Well, it’s fair to throw away the first few years. Most teams with a high draft pick are bad. There’s a reason they get the chance to select one of the best players in the first place, and Carter was one of the best, (though he might not have been as good as people thought at the time).
A rarity during the era of high school phenoms going pro, the Mainland High School product averaged 22 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.5 blocks per game and helped his team become the best in the state of Florida. Rather than opting to enter the NBA, he decided upon pursuing a college education instead—a decision applauded by many and one so personal that nobody can knock him for it.
When he reached North Carolina, Carter didn’t even go one-and-done, partly because he wanted to finish his education. But he also didn’t necessarily flourish straight away, averaging just seven points, three rebounds and one assist as a freshman.
After three years at North Carolina, he steadily improved and built good fundamentals into a solid college career. His team won the ACC and appeared in the Final Four multiple times, though it never won a national title and he was never the best player on it.
Carter’s dunking caught national attention, however. How could you not be attracted to those early contest highlights?
His scoring was reasonably versatile and had shown development throughout college. His physical gifts offered potential on defense, and he was absolutely electrifying in one-on-one situations. That is why the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors made a pact to draft his Tar Heels teammate—and then considered the better player—Antawn Jamison along with Vince Carter, then swap the players immediately.
Carter could sell tickets on a directionless Raptors franchise and fill a role offensively they desperately needed.
There was reason for excitement almost immediately, as the Raps made the playoffs during Carter’s second season and topped out at 47 wins in 2000-01. However, that season the Raptors played the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals and Carter traveled to his graduation ceremony on the day the teams played Game 7.
When he missed a potential game-winner, Carter drew the ire of Toronto fans. And while he re-signed with the team that summer, things started to slip.
He began struggling with health, the Raptors let some of its other talented players go—including Carter’s cousin, Tracy McGrady—who went on to perform elsewhere. Torontonians started wondering why winning was eluding the city after 10 years.
Carter’s numbers dipped as the team began to build the offense around second-year big Chris Bosh and a good trade opportunity presented itself when the New Jersey Nets offered former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning.
Had Mourning not refused to turn up in Canada, it would have been halfway decent for both sides, but the frustrating way in which Carter left was the first sign that he might not be the type of talent you want to build around for a title.
The Nets presented an excellent opportunity. Coming off back-to-back Finals appearances, the team needed a jolt with star point guard Jason Kidd recovering from surgery and the current group having been shown up twice by stronger Western Conference competition.
Alongside the best point guard in the league—and running the lanes with another athletic wing, Richard Jefferson—the Nets were fun as heck but had a disappointing first season together.
Things got better the following year, but with the likes of Shaquille O’Neal moving to Miami, LeBron James becoming a force, and Dwight Howard learning how to use his height and strength to dominate, New Jersey’s lack of size became apparent and led to multiple losing seasons before Kidd saw the writing on the wall. He left to join a big who could stretch the floor (with Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas).
The Nets seized an opportunity to move the franchise into another era and shifted Carter, ending another situation that could have been great but that had fallen short of expectations.
Rather than beat the rising Magic, Carter was lucky enough to join Howard the year after he led Orlando to the Finals. The team needed a player who could create his own shot, and they returned to the Eastern Conference Finals with Carter on the wing. But a last hurrah by the aging Boston Celtics put an end to Orlando’s run in 2010.
The Magic were losing their edge as new title contenders began to pop up in Miami and Chicago, and Howard was getting frustrated. In a bid to keep him happy and contending, the Magic traded away any wizardry Carter might have had left to the Phoenix Suns, a team keen to squeeze the final good moments out of Steve Nash.
However, Carter’s time in Arizona only lasted 51 games before the league shut down for a new CBA negotiation.
It was the off-season after Nowitzki (and Kidd) led the Mavericks to a title, and the German’s team was keen for talent to support a run back to the Finals. However, rather than splashing to re-sign center Tyson Chandler, the Mavs let him walk and replaced him with bit-part bigs and Carter.
Three solid role-player seasons from the Carter saw him average 12 points, three rebounds and two assists over 223 games, but those years were wasted on a franchise incapable of putting another title contender together. This made it a disappointing run for Carter, who could see opportunities to win getting away from him.
Teams with space to offer multi-year security and be in a position to win are always limited, but the Memphis Grizzlies had a bit of both. The only problem was that the 38-year-old Carter was only a few years older than some of other Grizzlies who’d managed to reach the Western Conference Finals two seasons earlier. Maybe the best years were behind Grit’n’Grind? Maybe Carter was arriving in the right place at the wrong time, again.
The Grizzlies put together a magical season in his first year, however, and Carter averaged 6 points, 2 boards and an assist in fewer than 20 minutes per game. Despite his small-but-solid role on a good team, nobody was stopping the Golden State Warriors on the way to their first title of the Stephen Curry era.
Carter began breaking down physically the following season, as did several members of the aging squad. Once again, Vince had joined a team a season too late and Memphis started dismantling the roster.
Maybe it was time to call it a day? Carter didn’t necessarily need to retire—he was still productive—but he was no longer going to be a big piece of a contender.
The coach who brought him to Memphis, Dave Joeger, was now in Sacramento, as was former Grizzlies teammate Zach Randolph. Joeger needed some veterans to help youngsters like De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein. It was a good situation for someone who had previously won the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award as well as the Players Association’s Most Influential Veteran.
The hopes of being a champion had all but vanished, but Carter could still be the guy every front office wanted in their locker room.
The last two years with the Atlanta Hawks have been just that, and while the premature end to the NBA season is not the way the league and its fans want to see a revered player like Carter go out, it made sense in many ways: He entered the league during a shortened season and finished his career in the same way, ultimately falling short at every stop along the way.
At least he got a chance to say goodbye.
“The game’s been good,” Carter said in his final post-game press conference.
It was never perfect, and Carter was never in the right place at the right time. But for all the never-to-be-forgotten highlights and years of excitement, not to mention the mentoring and appreciation Carter received and gave along the way, the game has been better for him being in it. He may not have had fate on his side career-wise, but Carter is the rare NBA legend who never outlived his name while still in the game.
It’s been good indeed.
Huw is a TBW staff writer who grew up in Wales and currently lives in England where he coaches a local basketball team. He loves all sorts of basketball: men’s, women’s, wheelchair, international, good and bad. He has bylines with the NBA/WNBA’s UK broadcast rights partner Sky Sports, has featured on Sporting News covering FIBA events and is a Lead Writer with UK-based basketball website and podcast Double Clutch. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @coach_huw where he often posts about how Tim Duncan was the best player of his era.