Carter trade shakes up East, not to mention north and south

December 18, 2004|By DAVID STEELE

INDIANAPOLIS - Pacers coach Rick Carlisle's reaction to the trade of the year so far in the NBA was dead-on accurate yet barely scratched the surface of the impact it made.

Said Carlisle, "It changes the complexion of the East."

Among other things. It also happens to change the face of basketball in two entire countries. Vince Carter crosses the border from Toronto, home of the NBA's only non-U.S.-based franchise, to New Jersey, one overpriced bridge toll away from the media capital of the universe.

He crosses under less than the best of circumstances - he and the Raptors can both claim irreconcilable differences in their split, and his image has sunk badly since the height of Vin-sanity a good four seasons ago, when he led the Raptors to their only playoff series victory in 2001.

Still, Carter has big marquee value, evidence of which can be found in the All-Star Game balloting at forward in the Eastern Conference; he leads by well over 100,000 votes amid the worst season of his seven-year career.

Plus, as many of his now-former Raptors teammates pointed out yesterday at Conseco Fieldhouse before their game against the Pacers, Carter was the face of basketball in Canada. Not long ago it was argued that the game might wither away there altogether if not for his then-luminous presence, and that notion was strengthened three years ago, when the Raptors' expansion brethren, the Grizzlies, abandoned Vancouver for Memphis.

The NBA's push north of the border had ridden solely on Carter's acrobatics. Now he's back in the States, which has to please the marketing types, even with the nation being less Vin-sane than it once was.

"He was to Canada what Michael Jordan was to the Bulls," said Donyell Marshall.

Jalen Rose concurred: "Vince was probably the most beloved athlete in Toronto history, let alone the Raptors'. And that's saying a lot with it being a hockey town."

Yet those same players reflected the chasm that had grown between Carter and the franchise. Trading Carter had become a matter of when, not if. Thus, the players dutifully answered media questions before yesterday's game, then went about their business, pausing at one point to dispassionately watch reports about the trade on the locker-room monitor. It didn't exactly compare to Gretzky's tearfully departing Edmonton.

The Raptors players' biggest concern was not the impact of losing the biggest star in team history, but whether they got anyone good back in trade.

The answer didn't impress many. Alonzo Mourning, the key component going north, wanted out of New Jersey as badly as Carter had wanted out of Toronto, with the Nets reverting from contender to pretender in a disastrous offseason. The assumption was quickly made that Mourning, who turns 35 in February and had a kidney transplant a year ago this week, would be moved again as soon as possible. Rose and Marshall, two expensive veterans who aren't thrilled to be on the sinking Raptors ship, are reportedly on the market as well.

Oddly, Mourning was moved in a deal that surely woke up the most disgruntled Net of all, Jason Kidd. Presumably, he's happy to have a new running partner to join him and Richard Jefferson and give the Nets the punch they gave away when they let Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles go in an offseason salary dump. Kidd himself has been in a new trade rumor every week, having vented regularly about how a recent two-time Eastern Conference champion had been gutted overnight virtually behind his back.

It's safe to guess that Kidd is happier this morning than he had been any morning this season and that the Nets wouldn't even have made this one and risked angering him further unless he'd given it a thumbs-up.

Meanwhile, as Carlisle pointed out, the East is a jigsaw puzzle tossed in the air. Miami, with Shaquille O'Neal, might be the best matchup against the powers of the West, but might not even win the East. The Pacers can't be judged until, at least, Jermaine O'Neal comes back from his suspension at midseason. The Pistons have yet to play one full week like the defending NBA champions.

Otherwise, can the Magic be believed? The Wizards? The Cavaliers? Well, you'd better believe the Cavs or else incur the wrath of Paul Silas. (The Coaching Blow-Up Hall of Fame just waived its five-year waiting period to induct Silas and Thursday's "Am I speaking Chinese?" outburst.)

And now, the Nets have a pulse. At least they should. Yet it wouldn't shock anyone if they still didn't. With Vin-sanity on the horizon, anything is possible.

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