Not everyone can be Steve Nash and play as if they were a decade younger. Almost as rare are the Tim Duncans and Kevin Garnetts of the world, who seem to show a little age during the regular season and then manage to turn up the octane when the playoffs roll around.
Most great players entering the twilight of their careers have to find ways to adapt to age and sometimes injuries, but there are certainly role players and, in some cases, players who have reinvented their game.
Vince Carter has been one of the most explosive and entertaining players in history, and many consider him perhaps the most spectacular dunk machine of all time. Almost certain to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Carter will be hitting the ripe old age of 36 next season. "Half Man Half Amazing" isn't soaring the way he used to, and in Dallas last year, he settled into primarily a reserve role for the first time.
Vince started his basketball career in Florida and was a high-school McDonald's All-American, before leaving for the University of North Carolina to play under legendary coach Dean Smith. Teaming with another future star Antawn Jamison under new coach Bill Guthrie, Carter helped North Carolina to consecutive ACC Men's Basketball Tournament titles and Final Four appearances.
In the 1997–98 season, he finished with a 15.6-points-per-game average and was named a second-team All-American and followed College Player-of-the-Year Jamison in declaring for the 1988 NBA draft. Unheard of as it is for a player of his caliber today, he had played for the Tar Heels for three years and was subsequently selected in the first round of the 1998 NBA Draft. In a curious twist many people forget, Jamison was picked fourth and Carter fifth by the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors, respectively, who then swapped the former teammates.
He started off his career with a bang and never looked back, winning the 1999 NBA Rookie of the Year Award and the Slam Dunk Contest at the 2000 NBA All-Star Game the following season. That summer, he represented the United States in the Summer Olympics, winning a gold medal.
Four teams and eight All-Star appearances later, some say there's not a lot left in the tank, but the numbers show something completely different. After a year of disarray in Dallas where he played solid basketball in ways that are not necessarily obvious when glancing at the box score, can Vinsanity become Vincredible in with a different flavor?
It's not unusual for older players to provide veteran leadership, mentoring and a steadying influence when the physical skills start to wane. However, players who adapt their game to compensate are harder to find.
Former Duke nemesis and Suns teammate Grant Hill is a great example. Once touted as perhaps the next Michael Jordan, Hill went through serious, potentially career-ending injuries midway through his career, yet as late as 2010, he became one of seven all-time NBA players to average 13 or more points at 38 years of age or older playing for the Phoenix Suns. He started for another year and recently signed with the Los Angeles Clippers where he is expected to play a significant role on a young up-and-coming team.
Even without the athleticism of his early career, Hill remains a solid player even at his age, driven by a fierce competitive spirit, strong work ethic and great court sense as well as being an asset in the locker room.
Can Vince Carter flourish as a senior citizen as well?
Some say that Carter no longer has the tools, but even last year with Dallas, his old moves may have been less frequent but far from absent. Still, assuming Father Time is catching up, what does Vince have to offer?
Of course, the first thing I noticed about Vince Carter when I started seeing him regularly was the smile on his face. An upbeat attitude is nothing new for Vince, and he seems to have found a positive take on his evolving role. In fact, Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News had a number of observations about him in February of 2012 that painted a much brighter picture than the box scores.
At that time, Carter had communicated that he was graciously willing to help the team in any way possible. And help them he did. Fraley reported:
"Carter may not have a starter’s ego, but he still has a starter’s game. He is averaging 10.8 points in less than 24 minutes per game and has been the club’s best post-up player while showing an unexpected enthusiasm for defense. The plus-minus statistics say Carter has been the Mavericks’ best player. The Mavericks have had a 161-point advantage with Carter in the game. Dirk Nowitzki has the next-best score on the club, at plus-86."
Advanced team statistics for the entire year confirm that Carter played a valuable role, basically outperforming everyone other than Dirk himself.
So after a season of relative disarray and with a new cast of characters, what's the plan?
With at least some of his inside game remaining and and the ability to post up guards and small forwards, VC can still use his high basketball IQ to score in any number of ways. When you have as many scoring tools in your repertoire as Vince, you don't have to rely on the ones which may have diminished. Beyond that, he has always been solid from long range and can continue to spread the floor, making him a multiple-option scoring threat.
Presumed to be the starter at SG until the signing of O. J. Mayo, Carter can take over the sixth-man role vacated by Jason Terry and build on it. In my recent rundown of how the Mavericks scored in free agency, the one negative I envisioned was the loss of Terry. The good news is that Carter is a perfect candidate to help everyone get over the Jet's departure.
He can contribute solid backup minutes for both Mayo and Shawn Marion, something the Jet couldn't do. He is capable of hitting from outside as Terry is, but is a much more versatile scorer. Finally, with an underrated or perhaps previously underutilized ability to defend and an apparent increase in enthusiasm for doing so, he can contribute on both ends of the floor, and on top of that, he's an underrated rebounder for a shooting guard.
Everyone loves a trip in the Wayback Machine and a return to Vinsanity would be a beautiful thing, but if that's not in the cards or a face lift is in order, there are numerous ways Vince Carter can make his time in Dallas invaluable. One can only assume that all the Mavericks have to do is ask.
Although the spring of 2012 didn't go well for Dallas, it did contain huge accolades for Vince. On January 31, 2012, Carter was honored as one of the 35 greatest McDonald's All-Americans, and on February 23, 2012, the basketball fan-in-chief, President Obama, gave high marks to Carter's game as a "huge treat for me ever since he’s been playing for the Tar Heels," as reported by The Washington Examiner.
Hopefully he's still going. Fraley concluded, "in his 14th NBA season, Vincent Lamar Carter remakes himself."
Sounds like just what the doctor ordered.
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