When Vince Carter started the first game of his NBA career on February 5th, 1999, I had just celebrated my 12th birthday. Deyonta Davis was a little more than two-years old. The current youngest player in the NBA, Dragan Bender, was 15 months old. Carter scored 16 points in his debut, a victory for the Toronto Raptors over the Boston Celtics 103-92.
A lot of life and history have transpired over the past eighteen years. Bender and Davis are now Carter’s peers. Vince eventually left Toronto and has now played for six total NBA teams. Yet the more things change, the more they say the same. In his first start of the 2016-2017 NBA season, replacing the injured/ineffective Chandler Parsons, Carter scored 24 points and helped to lead his team, now the Memphis Grizzlies, to a victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.
That win started quite a run for the Grizzlies that was like a breath of fresh air. After a five-game losing skid, Memphis is currently on a four-game winning streak. There are a variety of reasons for the success the Grizzlies have had the last four contests- Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are back to playing like superstars, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are playing their roles quite nicely, and if we are being honest the absence of Parsons, for this regular season at least, is addition by subtraction.
There is reason to believe, though, that the good stretch of play for the Grizzlies is directly connected to the decision by David Fizdale to insert Vince Carter, and not James Ennis, Andrew Harrison, or Troy Daniels, in to the starting lineup.
Know Your Role
It starts with the aforementioned roles, which are now more set with Chandler Parsons being officially ruled out for the remainder of the season. James Ennis, Troy Daniels, and Andrew Harrison have started a combined 53 games between them over the spans of their respective careers. Vince Carter, meanwhile, has started 60 games over the course of his 19 seasons in the postseason alone. Over the course of his regular season career, he has played in 1,336 games (14th in NBA history) and has been in the starting lineup 958 times, or 71.7% of those contests. While Carter has only started 11 games over his last 350, it is surely not foreign to Vince what must be done as a starter to contribute.
In addition, on top of the experience factor, Vince’s game is more well-rounded than the three players mentioned above. Daniels is an elite shooter but a flawed defender who cannot create for himself consistently. Ennis is a 3-and-D player who could fit with the starters, but Memphis is 14-11 with him as a starter this season and he struggles playing up to starting level competition. Harrison is now the true back-up point guard behind Mike Conley, but even with him as a starter he can be a secondary ball handler, netural defender, and not much else at the beginning of games.
All three of those players have flaws that would potentially weaken a starting five. But Vince Carter, whose major flaw is age and a loss of a step or two, has a game that is able to mix and match with whoever he is playing with. Vince has played long enough to be malleable, whether creating in the pick and roll with Marc Gasol or coming off screens and hitting threes. He can be whatever you need him to be- and that is insanely valuable, in a Shane Battier type of way.
This allows for Ennis to play against bench competition and not be overwhelmed, or for Daniels to be bursts of offense as a reserve. This is the best use of them- but it only works because Vince Carter is healthy and ready to take advantage of this place and time in his career.
Racing Father Time
But the best thing going for Memphis with Vince as a starter in the short term is his competitive drive. You hear the stories- how he has changed his diet and workout regimen, how he gets to the arena so early he has to drive himself because the team bus hasn’t left yet. He knows what must be done for him to be effective at this age, and he also understands that this is his last chance.
What comes next for Carter is unsure. Retirement, another year of playing (which would be remarkable at 41 years old), working in a front office or on TV. All are possibilities. But what is almost 100% sure is Carter will never be a starter for a playoff team, or any team for that matter, again, barring injury. That is why Vince is in this role to begin with- because of the ineffectiveness and injury issues of Chandler Parsons. Even if Vince plays another year, and it is in Memphis, it will probably be as a reserve as long as Parsons is “healthy”.
He knows that.
In front of him is one last chance at NBA glory directly influenced by his play. One last opportunity to have his name and his school announced over the loud speaker as an NBA starter. He plays with tenacity, as if he is racing against Father Time, knowing that he will eventually get caught but running his best race anyway. He is a proud man- he knows his legacy and that he can still add to it. He sees the possibilities in front of him to be a leader, a steadying force, a player to be counted on in the largest moments of the playoff race and postseason.
And he loves it.
He plays basketball like he is still that rookie from 18 years ago. Not in terms of athleticism- he has adapted as the years have added up on his legs and body. But in terms of his love for the game. You can tell he is thankful for this moment, and does not want it to slip away.
He doesn’t want this new-found role, this unexpected rise, of his to end. He started his tenure in Memphis with injury concerns, being viewed as a waste of money and potential lost cause. Now, in what is possibly his last season as a Grizzly, he is leaving behind a lasting impression of what exactly “Vinsanity” is to those who believe Memphis.
It’s not dunks, or poses after made threes. It is making an impact on the game, the team, and the city.
Vince Carter knows the end is near. And Memphis stands to reap the benefits.
Statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com & nba.com/stats