In May 2010, Vince Carter was producing about 18 points per game for an Orlando team — his hometown team — that swept the first two rounds of the playoffs and looked like the best team in the league. He was the no. 2 option, a livelier and more polished version of Hedo Turkoglu, and the Magic were primed to win the title they lost to the Lakers the season before. But the aging Celtics stole Game 1 of the conference finals in Orlando and were hanging on late in Game 2, up 95-92 with 31 seconds left, when Carter stepped to the line for two must-have free throws. He missed both. Orlando lost the game and Carter disappeared for the rest of the series, averaging just 10 points per game on 33 percent shooting as Boston earned an improbable return trip to the Finals.
Carter was out of Orlando before Christmas the next season, sent to a mediocre Phoenix team in the megadeals that landed the Magic Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, and Hedo Turkoglu. Carter played listless ball in Phoenix, ceding the lane to others on offense and politely vacating it on defense when he had opportunities to take a charge. He was an inattentive defender away from the ball on the perimeter, shot just 42 percent from the floor, barely got to the line, and looked every bit the part of a broken, selfish gunner playing out the string on his last massive contract. Vince Carter had become irrelevant faster than nearly any Hall of Fame–level superstar in the history of the NBA.
And then something unexpected happened, and is still happening: Carter reinvented himself in Dallas as a solid two-way player willing to work on both ends of the floor and fill whatever role the Mavericks asked of him on offense. He busted it during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, but the results were uneven — 41 percent shooting and a 13.6 Player Efficiency Rating, both career lows. Carter's numbers have ticked back up this season, even as the Mavericks have shifted him almost full-time to small forward and asked him to occasionally work as the centerpiece of their offense in Dirk Nowitzki's absence. The Mavs signed Carter in 2011 with no idea whether he'd contribute at all, but tune in to a Dallas game during crunch time this week and you'll likely see Carter running the pick-and-roll or using his beefed-up post game to draw a double-team, scan the floor, and find the open man.
The praise out of Dallas is unanimous, to the point that it doesn't seem possible the Mavs are talking about the same Vince Carter — the malingerer who exaggerates injuries, loafs on defense, and pouted his way out of Toronto, devastating a franchise and costing several higher-ups their jobs. "I can't say anything but great things about [Carter]," Mavs owner Mark Cuban says. "He brings it every night. He will take on any role coach asks of him. He is even taking a charge now and then."
Elton Brand laughs and clarifies that Carter leads the team in attempted charges. "I don't think he's actually got that many," Brand says with a laugh. "But he's throwing his body around down there." Brand and Carter are old Duke-Carolina rivals, but Brand didn't know Carter well before this season. He says he has been impressed so far by Carter's approach to the game. "He's one of the great superstars of his era, but he's coming off the bench here without complaint, working tirelessly, and being a really good teammate for the young guys," Brand says. "He's not out there trying to rock the boat, or saying he should be starting." Others in the Mavericks organization agree that Carter has taken on a key mentorship role, especially with Jae Crowder, the team's promising rookie combo forward.
Brand, a fiercely proud defender, adds this: "And Vince executes team defense really well." Wait: Vince Carter?
Let's not oversell things. Carter isn't a reliable one-on-one isolation scorer, and the Mavericks have probably leaned too heavily on him late in close games against Charlotte, Golden State, and others. He's not going to lock down an elite scorer for 35 minutes a night — or even play that many minutes. His pick-and-roll play is more functional than spectacular, and when he goes for spectacular, he usually ends up forcing a very difficult floater while bumping into a defender's chest in the lane. He's mostly a jump shooter, pulling up for 3s when defenders go under screens, or popping from the right elbow when defenders chase him over picks.
He's a good passer, but he's not Steve Nash or Chris Paul, the kind of player who creates passes that wouldn't otherwise exist with deep penetration and clever stop-and-go moves in the lane. Carter mostly makes the simple pick-and-roll passes. If the defense traps him, he'll jump right away and hit the roll man in the lane. If a defender on the weak side shifts into the paint early to bump that roll man, Carter will make the very basic pass across the court to the open spot-up guy — the shooter most defenses will leave open for a split second in order to patrol the paint. Carter makes most of these passes from outside the 3-point line, meaning he's not getting into the teeth of the defense.
But not everyone can make those passes, and Carter can sling them in part because he's big enough to see over defenders in his face.
The story is the same on defense: functional, but not game-changing. For the second straight season, Carter is doing fine on his own against one-on-one attacks; players are just 5-of-13 in isolations against him after going 13-of-44 last season, per Synergy Sports. Carter's footwork is genuinely very good, and if you blacked out his upper body and focused only on the legs dancing in concert with the dribbling would-be scorer, you might mistake his footwork for that of Jason Kidd. He doesn't bite on pump fakes, and he challenges shots without fouling.
The real revelation has been Carter's ability to fit nicely within Dallas's complex team defense schemes. He funnels ball handlers the right way, battles through screens and watches the ball without losing sight of his man — a chronic problem during his Phoenix malaise. The Mavs over the last two seasons have adopted an even more aggressive "pack the paint" philosophy with Tyson Chandler gone, and it's a strategy that requires maximum coordination, communication, and effort. Help defenders away from the ball are supposed to be in the paint early, as Carter is in the two stills below:
The goal is to take away what the offense wants to do on the strong side, and to force that offense to reset things by swinging the ball to the other side of the floor as the shot clock dwindles. When the offense makes that swing pass, those weakside defenders have to be ready to rotate to the correct players — to return to their own man if the situation allows for it, or to pick up the slack for a teammate who has gotten sucked too far into the paint to find his original mark.
Watch Carter doing that stuff. He's banging roll men in the paint and darting back out to his guy with maximum effort. He's talking and pointing, directing less experienced teammates to the right places as the offense changes shape. He's mostly making the right reads — rotating to the correct player so Dallas doesn't have two defenders chasing the same shooter, and closing out harder on Steve Novak than Alonzo Gee. There is a braininess to Carter's defense now.
Again: Nothing spectacular, just what smart defenders are supposed to do. But Carter wasn't doing it in Phoenix, and he was a subpar defender for most of his time in Toronto, when he had to carry an offense before he demanded a trade and then quit on his team in order to finally engineer one. You wouldn't have guessed two years ago that Carter, almost 36 now, would be attaching this coda to his career. His reputation certainly wouldn't have suggested it. "I wasn't worried about his reputation at all," Cuban says. "We look very closely at guys who have supposed reputations around the league. [Those reputations] are usually wrong, and they give us an opportunity to add good players."
It's hard to argue that the perception of Carter has really been wrong. His effort level did fall off when he wanted out of Toronto, even as he collected giant paychecks. He flopped in Phoenix, and those two missed free throws against Boston are only the most glaring lowlights in his career postseason underperformance. He has shot 40.2 percent or worse from the field in five of his seven trips to the playoffs, though he was productive in the other two — especially during a masterful 2005-06 run with the Nets. His playoff issues have given rise to the opinion around the league, including among his peers, that Carter is "too nice" to win, and that he was perhaps pressing in his quest to bring a title to the Magic.
Is all of it — the Toronto disgrace, the postseason flops, etc. — enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame? It looked like it a year or so ago, when Carter appeared on his way out with career numbers that were very nice, but that did not quite confer Springfield lock status upon him. But he's averaging 13 per game now, shooting 42 percent from deep, and playing legitimately solid defense. He'll at least approach 22,000 career points this season, and with a guaranteed deal for next season, he has a shot to reach 23,000 if he stays healthy. Only 13 players in NBA/ABA history have eclipsed 22,000 points, 5,000 rebounds, and 4,000 assists; Carter, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce will make it 16 shortly, and a few others — Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton, Larry Bird — barely missed. Eleven of those 13 players are in the Hall of Fame, and the other two are Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. There is obviously some major cherry-picking involved in selecting those numbers; Carter will barely make the rebound and assist totals, while several players, including Dirk Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Patrick Ewing, have blown away the 22,000/5,000 feat by a wide margin while falling short on the dimes. Still, the numbers are impressive, and if you like plus/minus stuff, Carter's teams have usually scored much more efficiently with him on the floor — and defended at about the same level with him on the floor as on the bench.
Numbers aren't everything; that's why Antawn Jamison, a horrid defender for much of his career, is unlikely to get in. Carter has long had the counting stats and regular-season numbers. It was the other stuff that had fans, players, and media members justifiably holding their noses when it came to Carter's Hall candidacy.
And that's fair. Carter has earned that skepticism. But that shouldn't blind us to a fun little late-career evolution happening in Dallas — the kind of evolution a lot of players never figure out. Only 21 of the 87 first-rounders in Carter's draft class and the subsequent two are even active in the league. Carter is still surprising us.
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. Boston's Alternate Road Jerseys
Dear Celtics: You have the best uniforms in the NBA, and one of the very best in all of U.S. pro sports. The green road jerseys are particularly attractive and iconic. Please stop messing them up with black trim, black numbers, and black words. The black alternates are for teams desperate to sell more stuff or project an unearned coolness. You are neither.
2. Milwaukee's Sudden Mike Dunleavy Pin-Down
Having a shooter run off a screen for a catch-and-shoot opportunity is NBA bread and butter. I can see it in my sleep. But the Bucks have a fun variation for Mike Dunleavy, whose on-the-cheap signing stands as one of the most underrated free-agent moves of the last few summers. It will start with Dunleavy innocently fading to the left corner as the Bucks run a pick-and-roll on the right side. The other two Milwaukee players will be standing next to each other on the left side, opposite the pick-and-roll action, as the play unfolds. And then suddenly, they will bolt together down toward Dunleavy, forming a monster moving double screen around which Dunleavy can cut up toward the foul line, catch a pass, and fire an open jumper. It's a fun variation on a classic NBA action, one that works in part because Dunleavy at the start of things looks to be clearing the right side for a pick-and-roll that is really just a decoy.
Also: LARRY SANDERS!
3. Marc Gasol's Shoes
They say "MARC" in giant letters on the part of the tongue that sticks out. I find this hysterical for some reason.
4. The Lakers' Defense
The Magic eviscerated the Lakers down the stretch on Sunday night in what had to be a very satisfying victory, and they became the latest team to expose the inconsistencies that will doom the Lakers if the glamour team doesn't fix them. Pick-and-roll ball handlers have been able to get by Dwight Howard's help defense more easily than usual, and he's not cutting off passing angles with the same precision as he did in Orlando. Pau Gasol has often been slow and out of position in trying to cut off those same ball handlers. Metta World Peace is trying his damnedest to guard the best opposing perimeter player every night to spare Kobe Bryant, but the results have been uneven. (World Peace sacrificing in this way is the main reason it's a joke Kobe keeps ending up on the All-Defensive teams.)
The Lakers have too often failed to force ball handlers to the baseline on side pick-and-rolls, and the chemistry between Howard and Gasol just isn't there. The holes are too big when one of them slides over to help on the strong side, and they don't close quickly enough. Smart cutters can find space to score, and a lot of enemy possessions end with Gasol and Howard shrugging at each other trying to hash out who was supposed to do what.
It's not a crisis. The Lakers have been among the league's 10 stingiest defenses all season. But they'll have to find consistency to get where they want to go.
5. Al-Farouq Aminu, Dribbling
Aminu is shooting a career-best 48 percent, hitting the boards, and working hard on defense. But teams don't guard him on the perimeter, and when you watch him attempt to dribble the ball at any location on the court, you can almost understand why the Hornets declined their $3.75 million option for next season on Aminu.
6. Kenneth Faried at Center
George Karl is still trying to find a comfort zone with his big-man rotation, but using Faried at center doesn't appear to be a workable solution. The two most common such lineups have allowed 115.2 and 123.8 points per 100 possessions, respectively, per NBA.com; the Hornets' league-worst defense has allowed 107.5.
You can understand what Karl is chasing. Pairing Faried with a center cramps the spacing for Denver's perimeter players so tightly even Ty Lawson can't squeeze all the way to the rim, and pairing Faried with a second unreliable defender in JaVale McGee has been a disaster; the Nuggets have allowed 112.2 points per 100 possessions when those two play together. But the Nuggets with Faried as the nominal center just don't have the size to compete for long stretches. The uncertain big-man rotation is the biggest issue separating Denver from the Western Conference heavies.
7. The Noise in the Barclays Center
The Barclays Center provides some of the best sight lines in the NBA, but it is also turning me into my father. "WHY IS IT SO LOUD IN HERE?! WHAT? WHY ARE THEY STILL PLAYING MUSIC OVER THE GAME ACTION 45 SECONDS AFTER THE LAST STOPPAGE? THE CHEERLEADERS ON STILTS ARE FRIGHTENING ME!"
It is overwhelming. It almost literally hurts.
8. The Bulls' Version of the "X" Cut
The Bulls have slipped to 21st in points per possession, and it takes some ingenuity to squeeze points from the current roster. One nice wrinkle: Chicago will have Luol Deng enter the ball to Carlos Boozer on the right block and jog across the paint toward the left side of the floor so casually it appears he's just clearing space for Boozer to work. But Joakim Noah will be lurking at the foul line, and Deng's jog will take him right beside Noah's defender, at which point Noah will accelerate around the scrum of players, cut toward the rim, and take a pass from Boozer for a layup.
9. Detroit Starting Kyle Singler
Detroit is 6-5 since moving Singler into Rodney Stuckey's starting role, and though the change hasn't turned the Pistons into a white-hot scoring machine, it has helped. Detroit's new starting lineup has scored 102.1 points per 100 possession so far, a mark that would rank 12th in the league. The old lineup, devoid of any long-range shooting, is scoring a sub-Wizards 88.8 points per 100 possessions, and this new group at least looks likes an NBA-level offense. There's more impactful off-ball movement, a bit more space on the floor, more dribble handoffs, and a level of dynamism that wasn't there before. It's not much, especially as Brandon Knight continues to have control and turnover issues, but it's a start.
10. Jeremy Lin's Functional No-Look Passes
Lin's still struggling, but he can take heart in knowing he actually fools defenders with his no-look passes. So many no-look passes fail because they aren't really no-look passes; guys throw the pass and then look away. Lin's are real, and they work.