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On another Vince Carter return (and maybe the last)

Raptors fans honoured Carter again on Sunday, but where and when will his career’s finale take place?

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

As he left the stage Sunday afternoon, Vince Carter seemed to accept — through the cheers and standing ovation — that his fate is ultimately in Toronto.

Carter is 41 now, and without mincing words too much, reaching the end of his career as a useful role player in the NBA.

With the Grizzlies over the last few years, he retooled his game again: a physical wing defender who had earned a loose whistle, someone who could get in a low stance, use his old man muscle, and body up his opponent. This year, in Sacramento, he looks like he’s finally slowing down. Scoring just four points a game puts him at the back end of the team’s roster production; the Kings wanted to balance veterans and youth, but now they want to shade toward the latter.

So, with retirement no longer an eventuality but something imminent, we ask again: will Vince Carter end his career in a Raptors uniform?

Yesterday seemed to be the final wave in a tidal shift for Carter’s narrative in Toronto. What started in the mid-2000s as a hateful, disgusted response to Vince’s passive-aggressive tactics to force a trade, has changed with context. Year after year, young Canadian basketball players join the league, or make it big in the NCAA, and talk about who they watched and drew inspiration from growing up: Vince Carter.

Vince was effortless athleticism before it took over the league. Today, players of Carter’s size and skill are the most desired type in the NBA. Teams have won championships around it. Even 15 years on from Carter’s peak in Toronto against Philadelphia and New York in those memorable playoff series, his legacy lives on in the next generation after.

Also, the Raptors are good (and fun). It’s easy to move on from a bad relationship when your new one is even better. Toronto may feel differently about Carter if they perpetually wallowed as, say, the Minnesota Timberwolves have in the post-Garnett era. Instead, they had the happy accident of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan becoming one of the best backcourts in the NBA, and have enjoyed continuity and organizational smarts from Masai Ujiri.

For me, having Carter join that core, even for a short stretch, would be more meaningful than a 1-day contract at the end. Vince has admitted he doesn’t want to join a championship contender and not play, but wouldn’t there be a spot for his skill set with the Raptors?

It would be a nice bow on what’s been a surprisingly enjoyable season, so far, for the Raptors. Toronto will undoubtedly honour Vince Carter when his career is finished, but getting use out of him would make it even more sweet.