By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
VIDEO: One-on-one with Vince Carter
DALLAS — Vince Carter turned 37 in January with a physique that screamed 27. His motivation?
“I think about how can I avoid retiring,” Carter recently told NBA.com. “That’s kind of the approach.”
It’s working. Carter’s production off the bench this season, his third with the Dallas Mavericks and the final one of his contract, is a major factor in the Mavs fighting for a playoff berth. With a drop-dead 3-point shot — he’s canned a league-high 107 off the bench and is closing in on seventh all-time — and a first step that can still buckle a much younger man’s knees, Carter has put himself in the conversation for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. He’s not a frontrunner, but as one of the league’s true elder statesmen, just getting into the conversation is worthy of a six pack of Ensure.
Since the league awarded the first Sixth Man trophy in 1983, six players over the age of 30 — and just one older than 31 (a 33-year-old Bill Walton with the 1985-86 Celtics) have won it. Carter’s college teammate at North Carolina, Antawn Jamison, won it at age 27 with Dallas in 2003. Now 37, Jamison rode the end of the Clippers’ bench until being traded to Atlanta, and waived.
“I get a lot of those moments when guys that are in the NBA now come say when they were in middle school they had my poster on their wall. Now I’m guarding these guys,” Carter said. “Of course, there’s a lot of things I still do I used to be able to do with ease. Sometimes I watch film, I make it look it easy, but it [used to be] consistent. Now it’s like, ‘Ooh, I remember that, it didn’t feel easy.’ That was an easy play like five, six years ago.
“But, it’s made me learn the ins and outs of the game and how can I be effective, be the same player that isn’t going to jump as high, not as fast, but still dominate in my extended time. It just makes you think.”
This 37-year-old business ain’t easy. Yet Carter has mostly made it look that way even after it seemed his high-flying, highlight-churning career was coming to an uncomfortable end a few seasons ago after being traded from Orlando to Phoenix. The Suns bought out the remainder of his contract after the 2010-11 season. Dallas, on the heels of breaking up the 2011 title team, raised eyebrows when it signed Carter to a three-year contract for more than $9 million.
“They still believe me in me,” Carter said. “When somebody believes in your ability, you feel good about it, you go out there and do it.”
Carter, durable throughout his career, has played in 207 of a possible 214 games with Dallas. Three more and he’ll pass Vlade Divac for 50th on the NBA’s all-time games played list. Before then, likely on Sunday when Dallas next plays at Oklahoma City, Carter will become the 27th player in NBA history to record 23,000 career points. He needs eight.
Carter’s 11.8 ppg in 24.2 mpg are both the lowest of his 16-year career, but those numbers are a faulty way to judge his season. When and how he’s scoring — 37.9 percent from beyond the arc — has been as critical as his leadership and tenacity. In a tight game against Indiana last Sunday, Carter leaped once, twice, three times to snare an offensive rebound away from 23-year-old Paul George. Carter finally secured it, roared with the crowd, then whipped a pass to Jose Calderon, who buried a 3-pointer. Dallas won the game. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle called it a “spiritually lifting play.”
Carlisle scoffs at anybody who suggests Carter is not a sure-fire Hall of Famer. After Dallas was eliminated from the playoffs last season, owner Mark Cuban, who has twice now resisted trading Carter to a contender, said he felt worse for Carter, whose teams have made the playoffs in just seven of his previous 15 seasons, than for reigning Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki: “The guy lays it out every time. I can’t put it any other way. He’s one of those guys I want to retire here.”
That was 11 months ago. A retirement speech isn’t expected whenever Dallas’ season concludes.
“These guys will tell you,” Carter said, pointing at this teammates in the locker room, “after practice, after shootaround, after games, I’m in the cold tub. I wasn’t a big fan of it. I went from just up to the knees to OK, maybe at mid-thigh, alright to the hip, to now I’m all the way in. You hate it, but it’s important. After every game, after practices, I do it after shootarounds. I used to be like, ‘I’m going to get the hell out of here,’ but I was like, ‘Nope, got to stick to it.’ So it’s a discipline thing that you really have to work on and I’ve done that within the last couple years and I’ve seen the difference. Longevity is important to me, so those are the things I have to do.”
Carter is one of 10 players to either start this season or to turn at least 37 during the season. Jamison, Mike James, 38, Steve Nash, 40, and Chauncey Billups, 37, have combined to play 62 games. Carter has played in 65 of 66. Kevin Garnett, 37, is having an awful season and is now hurt. Andre Miller, 37, clashed with new Denver coach Brian Shaw, was banished from the team and later traded. Tim Duncan, who turns 38 next month, Ray Allen, 38, and Derek Fisher, 39, join Carter as significant contributors in varying roles.
According to Basketball-reference.com’s Win Share statistic, a measure of how many victories a player contributed to his team, Duncan leads the 37-and-up crowd at 5.7. Carter is next at 3.6.
“As you get older you see young guys come in, younger and younger, jump higher, stronger, whatever, and you think, ‘OK, damn, how can I keep up with this young guy to keep a job?” Carter said. “So I just make sure that I’m shot-ready and I’m knocking down shots. I make sure that my body’s ready and I’m as strong as possible, while also as you get older you’re trying to lose a little weight to play the type of game that I want to play.
“So here I am.”