What If Week: Featuring the 2002-2003 Raptors and Vince Carter

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Lately it seems I’m semi-obsessed with the late-era Vince Carter Raptors. I wrote about the Carter playoff years in my postseason movie rankings, and also I wrote a “What If” about Jalen Rose and the 2003-2004 Raptors.

And now I wanna write about the lost season in between: the 2002-2003 Raptors, an oft-injured team that went 24-58. It was a nightmare of a season that firmly turned Toronto against Carter and saw Lenny Wilkens limp out of town.

Let’s set the stage first. The 2001-2002 Raptors, you’ll recall, scuffled all season. Their big off-season acquisition, Hakeem Olajuwon, was clearly over the hill and their young superstar, Vince Carter, couldn’t stay healthy. But, finally, the team rallied after Carter was shut down for the season: They won 12 of their last 14 games and entered the playoffs as the seventh seed, where they fell to the Detroit Pistons in the first round.

After the success of the 2000-2001 season (47 wins, one shot away from the Conference Finals), the 42-40 2001-2002 season was a disappointment, but with the Carter injury, it was understandable. In 2002-2003, expectations were back up; Carter was seemingly healthy, and with Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams, Alvin Williams and Morris Peterson, a solid core was in place. If Vince was back to form, and he was leading a team that had stepped up in his absence, the sky was the limit right?

Not so much. Olajuwon had left, which wasn’t a great loss, but so had Keon Clark. That left a gaping hole at centre, to be filled by Davis and newcomers Nate Huffman and Jelani McCoy — and, when Huffman proved unable to play, Greg Foster.

So not exactly a murderer’s row, and when Davis got hurt, the front line couldn’t stop anyone. And Carter? He wasn’t healthy at all and ended up playing the fewest games of any season in his (extremely long!) career.

And so the Raptors racked up 58 losses, suffered losing streaks of 12, eight, and six games (twice) and missed the playoffs by a mile. Wilkens resigned after the season which led to the hiring head coach Kevin O’Neill, which led to the firing of GM Glen Grunwald, whose replacement botched the Vince Carter trade… and so on.

But what if it had played out differently?

What if… the Raptors re-signed Keon Clark? Clark was coming off a great run in the 2002 playoffs, but the Raptors were approaching the tax and declined to re-sign him; he signed with the Kings. The Raptors clearly needed him, so let’s set the money issue aside and say he comes back. This may have ended badly regardless (see here for Clark’s unfortunate downward spiral) but the 02-03 Raptors clearly needed him and he was a good fit as a shot-blocking, change of pace centre — something Huffman, McCoy and Foster were not.

Re-signing Clark also means, hopefully, that the Raptors aren’t stuck with Huffman’s salary on the books for three years. RIP, but, three years and three million dollars for seven games was, uh, a lot.

What if… Carter and Davis stayed healthy and played 75 games? Both players went down with injuries the third game of the season; they missed a combined 68 games that season. NBA.com lineup data doesn’t go back that far, so it’s hard to extrapolate what this team would be like with both of the them healthy for the whole year. But, as the team’s two best players, we can assume they’d be better than 24 wins!

What if… Lindsey Hunter and Lamond Murray played 75 games? The Raptors may not have re-signed Keon Clark, but they did acquire Hunter and Murray in the offseason. Hunter was looking to regain form after a disappointing single season with the Lakers, while Murray was coming off an impressive 2002 where he averaged 17 points and 5 boards while shooting 42% from downtown. But Hunter missed 53 games and Murray the entire season with foot injuries. It’s safe to say both players would have helped!

Here’s your depth chart:

PG: Alvin Williams, Lindsey Hunter

SG: Morris Peterson, Voshon Lenard

SF: Vince Carter, Lamond Murray

PF: Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams

C: Keon Clark, Jelani McCoy

Not bad It’s not quite 10 deep, but, I think that team if healthy — especially if Carter is back to his 2001 form — could have won 45 games.

What if… this team made the playoffs? If the 2002-2003 Raptors won between 43 and 45 games, they’d have entered the playoffs as a seventh seed and faced the eventual Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Nets. (Yes, I know, Toronto’s additional 20 wins would have had to come from other teams which would alter the standings. We’re not gonna sim the whole season here, so just go with it!)

Could a Carter-led Toronto team have beaten the Nets of Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Kerry Kittles and Richard Jefferson in round one? That’s a tall ask. I would give Lenny Wilkens, even at that point, the edge over Byron Scott in a coaching matchup any day, and a full strength Carter was almost unstoppable. But that was Jason Kidd at the height of his powers. I think it would have been a close, fun series, but probably another first-round exit — Toronto’s third in four years.

What if… Lenny Wilkens stuck around? It’s not hard to see why Wilkens quit after the 24058 season and all the sniping about Carter and his injuries. But it may have been harder to walk away from a playoff team. So then the question is: Would he be willing to come back as a lame duck, or, would Grunwald have given him, say, a two-year contract extension?

I was no big fan of Lenny at the time; he seemed perpetually checked out, like he couldn’t wait to retire. But if the choice for the 2003-2004 season is Kevin O’Niell or a checked-out Lenny Wilkens, I’m taking Lenny. (And I’m pretty sure I’m taking Lenny over Sam Mitchell too).

So what happens next? Given the money situation, there was no real way for this team to improve, other than to hope Carter kept getting better. They were, more than likely, stuck on the “treadmill of mediocrity,” a perpetual 42-to-48 win team that bowed out in the first round every year, maybe getting to round two with a favourable matchup.

Would that have been better than missing the playoffs for four straight years? Probably. It would’ve meant we didn’t get Chris Bosh — but it might have been enough to keep Carter around, perhaps even to sign a second contract with the Raptors. Maybe it’s the start of a “winning culture” that became more attractive to free agents, and when players like Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams and Alvin Williams came off the books, that money could be used on a player like Joe Johnson, an RFA who the Suns couldn’t re-sign in 2005, or even Ray Allen, a UFA in 2005? Imagine one of those two on the wing alongside Carter?

That’s probably about as far as I’m willing to speculate at this point. But injuries robbed us of seeing what that 2002-2003 team could have done, and led us down a path that led to four straight completely forgettable losing seasons and one of the worst trades in NBA history.

It’s certainly more enjoyable to think about what could have been, rather than what actually was, in 2002-2003.