No Leading Man
Despite his status as a star, Vince Carter won't take charge of the struggling Raptors
Injuries, a 13-game losing streak and a torrent of criticism have turned this into the toughest season of Vince Carter's four-year career. Now teammates and supporters—as well as those critics—are wondering: Will Carter overcome these setbacks and carry the Raptors (as Michael Jordan did the Bulls)? Or is he on his way to being merely a spectacular scorer on a chronically underachieving team (like Dominique Wilkins as a Hawk)?
Many players, coaches and scouts around the league lean toward the Wilkins analogy. They believe that Carter settles for too many jump shots and lacks the mean streak that sets the best players apart. " Allen Iverson is 10 times tougher," says an Eastern Conference assistant coach who maintains that Carter's highlight-worthy dunks are outweighed by the all-too-common sight of him "jogging back" on defense, "dying on screens" or "whining and not playing hard."
But, Carter's backers ask, if he's such a liability, how did Toronto come within a jump shot of upsetting the 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last year? Former Raptor Charles Oakley says Carter may be limited defensively, but that's because he has to conserve himself in order to provide the scoring that Toronto needs. Carter hardly looked soft when he poured in 43 points in a 112-109 loss at Houston on March 5, then limped around the locker room because of back and leg injuries. "I see him trying to help his team win," says Philadelphia coach Larry Brown. "He's trying to play hurt, and I think it's commendable."
Carter's seasonlong run of in-juries includes the left quadriceps strain that sidelined him for the first seven games after the All-Star break, which began the Raptors' losing streak. At week's end they had dropped to the 10th spot in the East. "I've never gone through this many injuries before," says Carter, who scored 16 points in an 83-74 win at Miami last Friday, ending the slide. "I can't play as fast-paced or as quick or as high or as strong as I want to right now."
Carter won't muzzle the doubters until he takes responsibility for his team. Throughout his career he has refused to utter the words so often spoken by stars like Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett: Get on my back and I'll carry you. Carter's belief that he's an equal partner with his teammates in Toronto's fortunes infuriates critics, who accuse him of avoiding the duties that come with his talent—and with a six-year extension, worth as much as $94 million, that kicks in next season.
Asked if Carter is one of the top players in the league, Raptors power forward Antonio Davis says, "It depends. If you need points, then he's one of the top players. But if you need a leader, if you need other things, then other players are going to come into consideration."
Indeed, it was Davis who spearheaded the players-only meeting after the 13th straight loss, and it is Davis who encourages Carter to push his teammates and hold them accountable. "He needs to learn leadership," says Davis, "just like he learned to perfect a jump shot." But Carter isn't comfortable lecturing his teammates, especially when he feels he has played poorly. "He needs to understand that he delivers more often than not," says coach Lenny Wilkens. "Leadership will come, but it's something a guy has to do on his own—you can't force-feed it to him."
The Raptors aren't among the hardest-working teams in the league, and they won't be until Carter becomes more focused. Rockets forward Kevin Willis, who played with Wilkins in Atlanta (from 1984 to '94) and with Carter in Toronto (1999 to 2001), says Carter must pay more attention to the details. "Dominique didn't have the mental preparation to take a team on his back," Willis says. "That requires a lot of discipline—watching game tapes, all types of preparation. Vince needs to do every little thing that players don't usually do, because those are the things that separate you."
Wilkens predicts that Carter will triumph because he's a team-minded player. "I'm taking everything they say and trying to learn from it," Carter says of his critics. "I just ask for everybody to be patient It's going to take a little time."