Back in his heyday with the Toronto Raptors of the early 2000s, Vince Carter was one of those one-man highlight reel types. They gave him nicknames like "Vinsanity", "Half Man, Half Amazing" and "Air Canada". One YouTube search of 'vince carter dunk' quickly brings up some of basketball's more memorable moments from the last two decades:
Memories of a 23-year-old Vince Carter dropping 51 points against the Phoenix Suns or hanging off the rim by his elbow speak to what we remember him as. A powerful leaper with a flair for the awe-inspiring. A lethal scorer that would leave broken ankles in his wake.
We don't really associate those memories with the Carter of the present. Of his nicknames, only one still sticks: "VC". Carter isn't half amazing anymore, and instead of breaking ankles, we worry more about his body breaking down. In twilight stops with the Orlando Magic and the Phoenix Suns, VC looked like he was well on his way out of the NBA.
But quietly, the now 37-year-old Carter has re-emerged with the Dallas Mavericks under the hand of Rick Carlisle. He's no longer a show-stopping dunker or an unstoppable one-on-one scorer, but Carlisle has molded Carter's fading talents into a new type of player, one that proved effective even through last season's playoffs.
Carlisle took Carter, a former 27.6-points-per-game scorer in the 2000-01 season, and what remained of those skills to create a different type of offensive player. Carter's athleticism is long gone, and that was his hallmark trait. But instead of trying to use Carter as a centerpiece to his offense, Carlisle made VC a secondary weapon to support an offense built around Dirk Nowitzki and pick-and-rolls.
It'd be wrong to call Carter strictly a catch-and-shoot guy at this stage of his career, but it does represent a lot of what he does. I talked with Mavs Moneyball editor Hal Brown about Carter's late-career transformation in Dallas and he said, "Carlisle is most known for his wizard-like scheming and X's and O's trickery, less for the player side of things, but I think the best thing he ever did for Vince was just give him the green light to be honest."
Carter's release is still silky smooth, and Carlisle constructed a Mavericks offense that has built Carter's confidence back up by way of quality catch-and-shoot opportunities. Carter's three-point percentage was 39.4% last season and 40.6% the season before, only the second and third times that his three-point percentage has even sniffed the 40% mark since leaving the Raptors in 2005.
Carlisle built a home for Carter along the three-point line, specifically in the corners and on the weak side. He acts as a counterweight to the action occurring near the ball, hiding away in the corner and making the defense pay when they dare to leave him. It's not always a glamorous role, and Carter was sometimes overeager to shoot off-balance, contested or simply way deep threes, but what he did was of value nonetheless.
Pick-and-rolls featuring Monta Ellis, Devin Harris, Dirk Nowitzki, Brandan Wright and more were a staple of the Mavericks' offense last season, and this set more than any other was anchored by Carter's shooting ability.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, spot-ups have accounted for 25.6% of Carter's offense in his three seasons with the Mavericks. That represents the second highest source of Carter's offense by a large margin, with pick-and-roll ball-handler situations being the only play type that accounts for more at 28.6%.
Spot-ups are a more efficient play type by nature, but Carter still has valuable if diminshed shot-creating skills. He's not the type of spot-up shooter that's only helpful when he gets the ball to shoot, and Carlisle has put his shot-creation ability to use by utilizing him in the pick-and-roll. Sometimes, Carter still shows the prerogative of a former All-Star, jacking up ill-advised jumpers out of the pick-and-roll. Other times, he drives into the lane in the way that the old Carter would – only to realize that today's Carter can't soar and slam for the same highlight.
Still, it isn't all bad when Carter puts the ball on the floor. On Carter's pick-and-roll responsibilities, Hal said, "You never knew how to feel with Vince getting into a pick and roll. In some ways those sets could bring out the worst in him, with picks convincing him that he had enough space to pull contested shots, or that he had enough space to get to the rim, where he often got into trouble (though, Vince is spectacular at converting really tough, contested shots at the rim; surprising for a 37 year old). It's also where he shined the brightest. He could be incredibly crafty in space around picks, and he has an amazing sense for where the big man setting the pick is at all times. He was probably a better pick and roll passer than either of the Mavs' point guards last season, and he did a lot of scoring in the space provided by a screen."
The pick-and-rolls that Carter runs aren't pretty to the eye anymore, but they're pretty effective. He ranked 21st in points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler last season in Synergy's database (although the minimum requirement of attempts to qualify for the rankings are unclear), and ranked 13th the season before. Perhaps Carter was hugely benefitted by a Mavericks system and roster structure that was designed with the pick-and-roll in mind (he absolutely hit it off with Brandan Wright, a human basically built to set picks then roll), but because of it, he's found ways to create shots even with much of his old scoring talent sapped.
Carter can't accelerate in the lane and dunk on a big man waiting in the lane anymore, but he finds other ways to score. He may elect to take jumpers with less restraint than ideal, but he makes enough of them that it demands the defense to respect his shot. That opens up driving lanes where he can bump his defender and finish with a layup or floater. The faster and more athletic Vince Carter of last decade would've made an easier and more exciting score, but this one still finds a way with a more patient and selective approach.
Just as importantly, he's proved capable of finding his roll man and executing the two-man game. Alarm bells don't start ringing in the heads of the other team every time Carter gets the ball as they used to and he draws fewer double-teams on drives, but on a basic level, he's still able to find what his drives create. He won't see the tricky-to-spot passing lanes and fire off no-look bullet passes like Manu Ginobili, but being able to simply make the available pass in that situation has worked wonders for Carter's shot-creation ability as he's aged. Many former superstars fail to come to grips with their fading scoring talent in this way.
As a veteran quirk, Carter has even put together a bit of a post game. He rarely needed to rely on this element of his offense in the past, but it's come in handy now as he can serve the offense by punishing weaker players and contorting the defense to free up space for teammates elsewhere. Even if his arsenal with his back to the basket is limited and not all of his post-ups are directly designed for him to shoot, Carter gets enough out of his moves – a turnaround jumper, a baseline spin move – to become a viable post-up weapon.
Carter's adaptation from go-to scorer to catch-all Swiss Army knife hasn't been perfect, but it has enabled his survival in the NBA as he nears his 40s. A player who can knock down his threes, coordinate some offense out of the pick-and-roll and serve as an overall utilityman is a very usable tool in a team's offense, even if that means being relegated to a supporting role behind the go-to scorer role that Carter used to direct. He's not scoring 25 points per game anymore, but having learned to assimilate into an offense with greater depth than "get the ball to Vince Carter", Carter can still cobble together 12.0 points on a .546 true shooting percentage and 2.4 assists off the bench. Not bad for a guy who was in the NBA three seasons before the Memphis Grizzlies were even the Memphis Grizzlies.
With a usable offensive game that has helped him succeed as a secondary weapon on that end, Carter has also morphed his defensive identity to become more of a two-way player than he has ever been. The most important thing Carlisle has done to offer Carter's career a second wind may simply have been getting him to buy into playing defense. Even back when he was in his physical prime in Toronto, Carter had lazy tendencies. When he got to Orlando and Phoenix and saw his career dwindling, his effort on defense wasn't exactly improving all of a sudden.
It was Carlisle's pen that re-wrote the script, and when Carter signed with Dallas, Carlisle convinced him to play a bit harder and pay a bit more attention on defense. No longer a superstar on either end of the court, Carlisle made Carter a player that was solid on both. He became a guy who moved his feet on defense, took the contact where necessary, and made the right rotation. That didn't suddenly make him a great defender, but it made him a not-bad one that even drew praise from his teammates.
None of it is spectacular. You haven't seen a single play that harkens back to the Carter from the first two YouTube videos in this piece, the one who hurdled over a 7'2" center. At this stage, Carter is a guy you can only count on for double-digit points and solid defense on any given night. He won't carry the team on either end, and last season he fell into the background of Dallas' offense and failed to keep their sinking defense afloat.
But at 37, Carter has remained relevant. To be sure, he's no longer Vinsanity, Air Canada or Half Man, Half Amazing. But VC has revived his career in Dallas after learning he wasn't a superstar anymore in Orlando and Phoenix. Hal had this to say:
"In the waning days of Vince's career in Orlando and Phoenix, there were a lot of coaches trying to get him to do things that he wasn't keen on doing – like purely spotting up – that they figured he would need to do as he got older. Carlisle more or less said, "do what you do best," and I think that Carlisle and Vince both knew that he's smart enough to figure out that "what he does best" has changed with age."
You have to look no further than Carter's cousin to see what happens to former superstars that fail to come to terms with what it is they do best as time takes its toll. Tracy McGrady, a former shoo-in for the All-Star Game just like Carter, fell out of the NBA after the 2011-12 season after nightmare stints with the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks proved he was just a shell of what he used to be. After that, he played for the Qingdao Eagles in China and then latched on to the San Antonio Spurs for their 2013 postseason run – only playing a total of 31 minutes in those playoffs. In the summer of 2013, T-Mac announced his retirement from the NBA for good. Today, he's 35 years old – two years younger than his cousin who remains in the NBA and just signed another multi-year contract with the Memphis Grizzlies.
That Carter will be making about $4 million for each of the next three years speaks to his standing in the NBA nowadays. Over in Detroit, Jodie Meeks will be making nearly double that over the same period. The expectations for Carter with the Grizzlies will be modest for sure. Those expectations exist, however, which is as much as anything he could've hoped for his future three years ago when he signed with the Mavericks. Carter could be a starter, or the lead man for the bench. The hope is that he can fill a need and raise this team's ceiling closer to a championship.
If the Grizzlies are celebrating any success after next season's playoffs, Carter will play his part. Maybe it won't be a big part, but for whatever he can bring to the table, some thanks are owed to Rick Carlisle for taking on a 35-year-old Vince Carter still holding on to 23-year-old Vinsanity and seeing him leave as 37-year-old VC, signing a contract that may just keep him in the NBA until he's 40.
Thanks to Hal Brown (@HalBrownNBA) of Mavs Moneyball for his valuable opinion on Carter's pivotal three seasons with the Mavericks!