The Modern Day RC Card
Today, almost all of the RCs in the mid to high range products are either #'d, autographed, have a piece memorabilia (jersey, patch, hat, etc...) or have a combination of these elements. Just 10 years ago, in 96-97, we saw the advent of the 1st #'d & autographed RC year cards. Fleer came out with their E-X2000 Credentials #'d 499 & Flair Legacy Collection #'d 150, which were both parallel sets. Fleer also led the way for the RC year autographs, with their Skybox Autographics insert, which included first NBA autos for RCs like Ray Allen, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury & Steve Nash.
It wasn't until the 98-99 year that the first #'d base RCs came out, from Upper Deck's two premium brands: SPAuthentic #'d 3500 & SPx Finite #'d 2500. UD then continued their innovative leadership by introducing the hobby's first autographed base RC, with their SPx Auto RCs #'d 500 & 2500 in 99-00.
Topps, the market veteran, has been dragging its feet regarding these types of innovations. Their first #'d base RC was 99-00 Finest #'d 2000 (SERIES 2 ONLY). Their first base Auto RC was 01-02 Topps High Topps Auto #'d 850. This product could've been hot if Topps had hyped it a bit more, instead of how it turned out; a flash in the pants one-year product. It has Zach Randolph's only base auto RC, in addition to auto RCs of Joe Johnson & Gilbert Arenas (one of only 3 base sets that had an Arenas auto RC).
Fleer/Skybox, after their pioneering sets in 96-97, then followed up with a redundancy of crappy new sets like Fleer Metal, Focus, Authentix, Force, Marquee, Maximum, Platinum, Shoebox, etc... that were all in the low to low-mid end product group, providing collectors with very little content at low prices, and which also cannibalized each other. I would say that this was what led to the company's demise. UD then picked them up in 2005 (another instance where Topps missed the boat), which allowed them to continue Fleer's stronger products, that now include 86-87 Fleer Jordan buyback RCs (reg & auto'd versions) and Jordan Autographics.
Being a strong believer in the idea of competition, I really hope that Topps brings something exciting to the hobby very soon. Some of their recent successes in my mind were adding Autos to the Finest RCs in 02-03, introducing Bowman Signature in 02-03 and introducing Topps Rookie Photo Shoot Autos in 03-04. Some of their recent blunders are making too many parallel versions for Finest RCs from 04-05 to present, and not having Auto RCs in the regular Bowman set in 06-07. I wish Topps lots of luck in improving their Basketball offerings, and hope that they're not just sitting there thinking at least we're strong in Baseball!