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Raptors What Ifs: Butch Carter and the legacy of Tracy McGrady

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If Butch Carter maintained his sanity, would Tracy McGrady have stayed a Toronto Raptor? If so, what happens next?

Butch Carter

In ranking the most controversial Raptors figures named Carter, it would be difficult to place anyone above Vince. In fact, many would have difficulty even naming another Carter in Toronto lore. There is, however, a different, oft-forgotten Carter who stars in his own scandalous tale, shrouded in mystery, having played an instrumental role in one of the largest What Ifs in Raptors history.

Once upon a time, the Raptors employed a coach, Butch Carter, with a shrewd basketball mind. In this tale, he inherited an appalling team and gifted them a magical system. In just two seasons, this coach transformed a collection of inharmonious personnel into a perfectly-tuned, playoff-bound force, for the first time in franchise history.

Unfortunately, this is not a fairy-tale; there is no happy ending. The following season, Butch experienced a precipitous collapse in the form of a mental breakdown. Following a flurry of unorthodox antics, he was fired, and Tracy McGrady, an exceptional talent, decided to leave the Raptors for the Orlando Magic. Many fans and reporters alike cite Butch Carter’s descent into madness, and ultimate dismissal, as the primary reason for McGrady’s departure. Often, fans ponder what success the future might have yielded had Tracy McGrady stayed in Toronto. To answer that question, we must delve deep into the origins of Raptors history, and ponder the factors that caused McGrady to abandon Toronto, beginning with none other than Butch Carter.

In the 1997-1998 season, Butch inherited an 11-38 Raptors team when then-coach Darrell Walker was fired midway through the campaign. After being promoted from assistant to head coach, his ragtag team of eclectic personalities fumbled to an abysmal 5-28 record to finish the season.

After a season devoid of highlights, the Raptors traded for future superstar Vince Carter on draft day. In Toronto, the rookie played alongside his cousin, sophomore McGrady, during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. While Butch led the Raptors to a much-improved 23-27 record, this season also marked the beginning of the end, as he began to display some unconventional habits.

Butch held both Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, his budding studs, to a minutes-restriction, despite their requests. He later defended his actions by reasoning, “they don’t run two-year-olds in the Kentucky Derby… [because] they’re too fragile”. The coach claimed he was simply attempting to prolong Vince and McGrady’s careers by easing them into the arduous NBA lifestyle. He added, “once you use your players over 36 minutes, you’re doing tremendous damage to your franchise. You’re taking years off their careers.” Needless to say, this did not sit well with Vince and McGrady.

The following season, Butch Carter displayed more unusual behaviour. He invited rapper Percy Miller, also known as Master P, to a Raptors tryout in the 1999 pre-season. Butch later mentioned that this publicity stunt was orchestrated as an effort to distract the media from Rookie of the Year Vince Carter. The antics that followed were, unfortunately, not as amusing and light-hearted. During the 1999-2000 season, Butch released a book wherein he accused his legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight of launching into a racist tirade, which Knight vehemently denied. Butch also spoke of conspiracy theories; he believed that the NBA front office was arranging a plan to relocate Vince Carter to a more popular, United States-based franchise to drum up television ratings. Venturing further down Butch’s rabbit hole, he sued Marcus Camby for defamation after Camby called him a liar in a newspaper article. He also attempted to coerce the team into promoting him to General Manager, a position then held by his longtime friend, Glen Grunwald. Despite overseeing the team’s most successful season to date, at 45-37, management decided to relieve Butch of his duties. Shortly thereafter, McGrady bolted in free agency, and the team hired Lenny Wilkens as head coach, heading into the 2000-2001 season.

The following year, Vince Carter led the team to their first playoff series victory, and nearly toppled the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the playoffs. However, a combination of injuries, management issues and lack of effort culminated in Carter’s exit to the New Jersey Nets in 2004, and the Raptors, once again, sunk to the bottom of the NBA trenches.

Now, I’d like to discuss: what if Butch Carter’s antics did not exist? Let’s imagine a world where Butch allows his burgeoning young stars to play satisfactory minutes, and there is no off-court drama surrounding the coach and the franchise.

In this alternate reality, nothing changes in the year Butch takes the head coaching reigns from Darrell Walker mid-season; McGrady’s minutes-restrictions only played a key role in the following season. Thus, the following year, the Raptors are still able to select Antawn Jamison and trade for Vince Carter on draft day.

We see the first significant divergence from reality in the 1998-1999 season, when McGrady and Carter’s minutes are no longer capped. While the Raptors’ record sees only a marginal improvement, the increased minutes bolsters McGrady’s development. At the end of the season, Toronto fans are excited at the prospect of watching two high-flying superstars dominate in tandem, rather than focusing on Vince, who, in reality, overshadowed McGrady.

The following season, the Raptors’ future really begins to take shape. Master P never makes an appearance at training camp, there is no defamation lawsuit, and no conspiracy theories whirl around Butch Carter’s head. Instead, the team, coaching staff and organization are determined to succeed, a goal made achievable by the absence of distracting antics. Using the much-improved McGrady alongside Vince, the team wins six extra games and finishes third in the Eastern Conference, as opposed to sixth. In the playoffs, the Raptors defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, but fall to defensive player of the year Alonzo Mourning and his Miami Heat in the second round – Toronto’s lack of playoff experience proves substantial enough to cost them the series.

Originally, at this point in time, Tracy McGrady decides that, due to a combination of factors — his lack of playing time, Vince’s media attention, and the organization’s Butch-centric issues — his career was better suited in an Orlando Magic uniform. But, in this alternate reality, McGrady sees a future in Toronto, the city that drafted him. He envisions a longstanding duo alongside his cousin Vince, both equally celebrated, growing together into an unstoppable force. With no outside distractions to make him think otherwise, he re-signs in Toronto to a long-term contract. Thus, a bright basketball future is solidified north of the border.

In the 2000-2001 season, the Raptors rocket to second in the Eastern Conference, capitalizing on a fruitful partnership between two of the league’s brightest young stars, and a brilliant coach. Since the Orlando Magic did not acquire McGrady during the previous offseason, they no longer make the playoffs, and the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers take over as the seventh seed. The Raptors topple the Pacers in the first round, and play the winner of the Milwaukee Bucks-Charlotte Hornets first round series. Since the Bucks actually played and defeated the Hornets in the original timeline’s second round, it’s likely that the result would have been the same had they played in the first round. And so, the improved Raptors squad plays and knocks out the Bucks in the second round of the playoffs, going on to play the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. In reality, the Raptors fell one shot short of defeating Allen Iverson and his 76ers. However, in this alternate dimension, the deadly duo of McGrady and Vince is too much for Philly to handle — Toronto advances to the NBA Finals. Of course, the Raptors lose to the Los Angeles Lakers, being completely overpowered by a prime Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

In the 2001 off-season, the Raptors bolster their defense, acquiring Bruce Bowen, who originally signed with the San Antonio Spurs. Though, in this alternate timeline, he sees a brighter future in Toronto than in San Antonio, complete with a more successful 2000-2001 campaign and young, exciting talent. In the 2001 playoffs, the Raptors see equal success, advancing to the finals once more, but are again toppled by the Lakers.

When the 2002 offseason arrives, the Raptors find themselves in need of a point guard, and instead of signing Rafer Alston, they ink Chauncey Billups, who gladly joins the team near championship contention. As well, Shawn Kemp, in a last-ditch effort to win a ring, decides to join the Raptors as a free agent. With a starting lineup of Billups, Vince, McGrady, Kemp and Antonio Davis, the Raptors are at the top of the league. While the San Antonio Spurs face off against the Detroit Pistons in the original 2002-2003 NBA Finals, that does not occur in this alternate timeline. The Spurs, without their defensive anchor in Bruce Bowen, fall to the Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks, who face off against and defeat the Toronto Raptors in the championship series.

Kemp was serviceable in his final year in the league, but disappointed nonetheless. In reality, Kemp was replaced by Juwan Howard in the 2003 off-season, who joined Tracy McGrady on the Magic. In this alternate reality, the same transaction occurs, but on the Raptors. Finally, it appears Toronto has the pieces to call themselves the front-runner for the title. In 2004, the Pistons originally defeated the Lakers in the finals; however, in this alternate timeline, the Raptors face off against the Lakers instead. A tough-nosed team with bountiful playoff experience, the Raptors thwart the Lakers’ championship season, and finally bring the trophy home to Toronto. Naturally, Vince Carter re-signs in 2004. The bond between himself and McGrady remains unbroken, and the perception of the Raptors forever changes to one as a winning franchise.

Of course, this alternate dimension is certainly optimistic. Is this the fairy-tale ending the Raptors might have had? Would a well-balanced Butch Carter have been able to lead this Raptors squad to a championship? Let us know in the comments!