Raptors’ GM snares Vince Carter – how it was done

The NBA draft swirls with intrigue. Here’s the backstory of why the Raptors chose Antawn Jamison, not Vince Carter, in 1998 – and how VC ended up in Toronto anyway.

So much of what we do here at Raptors Rapture starts with asking questions, and today’s post is a classic example. For years I had scratched my head about a draft night deal in 1998 which landed the Toronto Raptors the services of one Vincent Lamar Carter, shortly to be dubbed Air Canada. I asked “why did that happen?”, then went to the source. Former Raptors General Manager Glen Grunwald was kind enough to answer my questions, and here’s the story, based on his responses.

Grunwald was convinced the best player in the draft was Carter. However, that opinion wasn’t universally held by other GMs. In particular, the Golden State Warriors wanted to grab North Carolina forward Antawn Jamison, but were deathly afraid the Raptors, with the #4 pick, lusted after him. Grunwald, following the first rule we all learn at the poker table, was keeping his cards close to his chest. In other words, his desire to select Carter was known to no one else.

Helping the cause was a rumour to the effect that the Raptors would select Jamison on behalf of Milwaukee, then do a swap. Grunwald was quite content to not clear the air.

Jan 20, 2014; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Los Angeles Clippers power forward Antawn Jamison (33) smiles before the game against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Clippers beat the Pistons 112-103. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Golden State approached our GM with a proposition: they were so determined to get their hands on Jamison, they would pay the Raptors “standstill” money, in effect, to ensure he didn’t slip away. A deal was struck by the teams’ GMs, and finalized by a phone call between GS owner Chris Cohan and Raptors head honcho (then as now) Larry Tanenbaum. In exchange for a payment of several hundred thousand dollars, the Raptors agreed to select Jamison, after which the Warriors would pick Carter, and the players would immediately be traded.

Of course, this deal had to be kept a secret from other teams, which it was. Both the Raptors and Warriors agreed that the transaction would immediately be vacated if one of the three teams selecting ahead picked either Jamison or Carter.

Happily for Raptors fans, the Los Angeles Clippers were in the midst of their gong-show era. With the #1 pick, they choose Michael Olowakandi, usually considered the worst top selection in NBA history. The Vancouver Grizzlies (sigh) choose Mike Bibby next, then the Denver Nuggets went for Raef LaFrentz. The Raptors-Warriors deal was good to go, and quickly effected. Both teams got their man.

To understand this deal from the Raptors’ perspective, you have to follow the money. They got paid because Grunwald kept his mouth shut about the organization’s lust for Carter. Furthermore, because Vince was the fifth pick, the Raptors didn’t have to pay him as much as the fourth selection, as per the CBA.

If all this foofaraw seems like too much work to earn chump change, remember this was just the Raptors’ fourth year. There was no guarantee the team wouldn’t hemorrhage cash for seasons to come. The era of big TV money creating wildly inflated franchise values was not on the horizon yet. If Steve Ballmer had wanted to buy the woeful Clippers in 1998, he probably could have done so for perhaps 10% of the $2 billion he ponied up in 2014.

The Golden State-Toronto deal turned out to be a win-win, particularly when compared to the players selected before. [20-second timeout: The Raptors coach at the time was Butch Carter, and he wanted Robert “Tractor” Traylor, who was selected by Dallas, then traded to Milwaukee for Dirk Nowitzki. Some observers had Vince Carter and Harold Miner as similar prospects. Draft selections can be spectacularly wrong.] Olowakandi hung around for 8 ineffectual years. Bibby was a volume shooter/scorer on bad teams, and LaFrentz was barely a journeyman. Jamison scored over 20,000 points and was a 2-time All-Star in a 15-year career.

Vince Carter as a Raptor was breathtaking.