On Thursday, former Raptors Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady will be joining TSN's Michael Landsberg on Off The Record to discuss, amongst other things, the question that has plagued Raptors fans for over a decade: what could have been? The Carter/McGrady era was very short in Toronto - only two seasons - but not only did it precede the most successful era in Raptors history but it also created the single greatest 'what if?' scenario the team has ever known. What if McGrady had re-upped with Toronto in 2000 instead of heading down to Orlando? What might have been if those two players spent their prime years together in Raptors purple? It's a question that haunts Raptors fans to this day, eleven years after McGrady left, and one that has come to define the Raptors organization in more ways than one.
McGrady walking away from the Raptors in free agency was not a surprise in the summer of 2000 to those paying attention. His first year in Toronto was fraught with loneliness and marginalization. He had next to no role on the team after coming to the NBA straight out of Mount Zion Christian Academy in the 1997 draft and he clashed with then-head coach Butch Carter, who the team fired in an attempt to woo McGrady when he hit free agency. When McGrady's distant cousin Vince Carter joined the team in McGrady's second season, it was a bittersweet arrival. The two bonded, but Carter vastly outperformed McGrady on the court and immediately captured the affections of his home team in a way that McGrady was never given an opportunity to. Despite an uptick in minutes and making the Playoffs for the first time in 2000, McGrady simply didn't feel that Toronto was the place he wanted to set up shop in for the next seven years and instead he left to play closer to home in Orlando.
The stink of that "defection" still resides at the ACC. McGrady had every right to leave Toronto as a free agent, and the prominence he was afforded with the Magic certainly catapulted his career trajectory. It was difficult for people in Toronto to understand, though, why a player would leave not only a team on the rise but also his own flesh-and-blood, and most arrived at the conclusion that Toronto (and by extension Canada) must have been to blame. No one pays much mind to his bitter early years, his status below Carter on the pecking order and his fondness for home. Instead, the blame is laid on the shoulders of the city of Toronto, regardless of whether or not McGrady ever pointed to it as his reason for leaving.
His leaving eventually set the narrative for the departures of Vince Carter and Chris Bosh in subsequent years, even though both could be forgiven for wanting to leave teams mired in mediocrity - or worse - during their final seasons in Toronto. Carter has never had a bad thing to say about the city of Toronto, in fact, but his repeated praise has never registered with those who insist he left because he hated Canada. There is ceaseless insistence on the part of hoop-heads north of the border that no player truly wants to play in Toronto, and that any star they manage to get will want to leave as soon as he's legally allowed to. The breakup of Carter/McGrady was the starting point for that mindset, and it is one that will not abate until an All-Star caliber player opts to spend his entire career playing for the Toronto Raptors.
That's the most tangible downside to McGrady leaving, anyway. We may never know how he and Carter would have developed as a tandem had they stayed together, but we definitely know the pall that hangs over the team because of his departure. In fact, one could argue that had the two of them stayed together that the team may not have been any better off than they were as time went by, but it made for a better story to imagine that they had.
As romantic an idea as it is to imagine the Raptors as an unstoppable force in the early 2000's with Carter and McGrady as the team's centerpieces, however, the problems that would eventually bring the team down are still likely to have occurred whether T-Mac was there or not. Paying those two maximum-dollar salaries would have made it even harder for the team to secure the services of the legit center they always longed for but never acquired. It would have also impaired the team's ability to surround the club with enough complimentary talent to stay competitive, and it would have made it nearly impossible for the Raptors to keep both Antonio Davis and Alvin Williams in the summer of 2001. It's also worth remembering that those two players duplicated a lot of skills, and when you consider committing nearly $200 million to two players, you generally want to be able to cover more than one position on the basketball court with that money.
More than anything, though, Carter and McGrady's aversion to training, and the subsequent breakdowns of both of their bodies shortly after their split, is the most unavoidable thorn in the side of the 'what if?' game. Injuries were a major part of what derailed the Raptors on their quest to take the next step as an organization, and having McGrady around through 2007 was hardly going to help matters in that area. Truth be told, the money freed up by McGrady not re-signing, and the balance that brought to the roster, was probably a key reason the Raptors improved as much as they did in 2001, ending the season one shot away from the Eastern Conference Finals. It's not an opinion shared by everyone, certainly, but the pair of them staying together was no sure-thing, and the team may have even been better off for their parting.
It will be very interesting to hear those two reminisce about their days in Toronto, especially now that both are in the sunset of their careers and have the requisite perspective to look back and wonder at the paths each took. Neither one ever fully capitalized on their tremendous potential (very few do) and neither left a dent in the league's history like so many predicted they would when they were younger. Would staying together in Toronto have given them a more lasting legacy? We'll never know, but it will nonetheless be interesting to hear their take on it this Thursday when they appear on Off The Record.