NBA: Vince Carter masters art of ageing gracefully with smooth transition from full-time starter to indispensable squad player

What the NBA’s oldest player Vince Carter can teach the league’s top stars about ageing gracefully in the breakneck speed of the NBA

Karan Madhok March 08, 2019 18:16:45 IST
NBA: Vince Carter masters art of ageing gracefully with smooth transition from full-time starter to indispensable squad player
  • After turning 42 less than two months ago, the Hawks’ Vince Carter is presently the oldest basketball player in the NBA and the fifth-oldest player ever

  • A string of knee and hamstring injuries slowed Carter down somewhat, but he remained an All-Star level talent in his stint with the New Jersey Nets

  • As time passed, the top players of Carter’s generation, like Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, and Tracy McGrady took different directions in the course of their careers

Earlier this week, the Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls — two of the worst teams in the NBA — played one of the best games of the season. It took four overtimes (a total of 68 minutes, which has only happened 15 times in NBA history), a combined 329 points (the third-most in history), and career highs by two electrifying young players (Trae Young, Zach LaVine). When the dust settled, the Bulls had won the marathon, 168-161.

NBA Vince Carter masters art of ageing gracefully with smooth transition from fulltime starter to indispensable squad player

Atlanta Hawks forward Vince Carter (15) smiles after being taken out of the game against the Sacramento Kings during the second quarter at Golden 1 Center. Reuters

The game was a true display of endurance, and as rebuilding teams with a rotation of mostly-young players in their teens or early-20s, both the Bulls and the Hawks kept going and going, hitting haymakers and bouncing back, displaying oodles of energy and stamina in a late-season game that really only had value in deciding lottery odds at the bottom of the league.

But among the group of youngsters was one weathered old man. After turning 42 less than two months ago, the Hawks’ Vince Carter is presently the oldest basketball player in the NBA and the fifth-oldest player ever. And yet, in the quadruple-overtime classic against the Bulls, Carter played an amazing 44 minutes—the most in history for an NBA player his age—lodging 13 points, including a sweet one-handed dunk in the third quarter.

It’s a small and specific list, but Carter is the greatest player of the NBA’s “42-and-over” club, playing more minutes (16.4 mpg) and scoring more points (7.1 ppg) than anyone ever did at his age. He has been in the NBA since 1998 — almost 21 years — and has seen it all: through the Jordan era, to the Duncan-Spurs, to Kobe and Shaq, to the Miami Big Three, and up till the current Warriors dynasty. He was drafted to the NBA three months before his team’s rookie sensation Trae Young was born.

New fans might consider Carter to be just another old role-player, the type that now travel franchise to franchise to serve more as a sage locker-room presence than be a real threat on court, the type that is only on the team for his intangible qualities.

But Carter, even at 42, has been different. Night after night, he continues to look relatively spry and active, making and taking big shots, finishing acrobatic lay-ups, and consistently dropping down impressive slam dunks to remind fans of his old prowess.

To those who were lucky enough to be NBA fans in the late 90s, Carter was the greatest high-wire act in all of sports. For his first few years with the Toronto Raptors, he was a nightly one-man highlight reel. He became an unquestioned superstar, a fan-favourite, and arguably the greatest dunker the game had ever seen.

A string of knee and hamstring injuries slowed Carter down somewhat, but he remained an All-Star level talent in his stint with the New Jersey Nets, and was a valuable contributor when he moved on to the Magic, and then the Suns, and then the Dallas Mavericks. And since 2011, he hasn’t even been a full-time starter in the NBA, playing important bench roles for the Grizzlies, Kings, and Hawks. The downturn of his career has been almost a decade, a smooth loss of speed. He’s mastered the art of slow deceleration.

Few players in NBA history have had an arc like Carter’s. Borrowing the immortal words of rapper 50 Cent, most players who taste stardom early in their careers either ‘get rich or die trying’; as in, they either build on their potential to become All Time greats, or flame out too early, leaving the league before their time.

As time passed, the top players of Carter’s generation, like Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, and Tracy McGrady took different directions in the course of their careers. Some, like Bryant, remained the focal point of their teams till literally his last game. Some, like Duncan and Nowitzki, were an important part of their team’s rotation until right before the very end. Others like Iverson and McGrady bowed out early—through injury or a change in their role—long before they entered the latter “senior” phase of their NBA careers.

Many star players get in a habit of being the centrepiece of their teams, dominating the flow of the game on court and earning the most lucrative salaries off of it. But — for reasons of injury or age — when their skills fade, their demands of an enhanced role and contract end up working against their favour.

Too many stars of Carter’s generation ended up hobbling to the finish line at the end of their NBA careers. Allen Iverson went from being a franchise centrepiece for the 76ers and an important role for the Nuggets to being bounced around between Detroit, Memphis, back to Philadelphia, and then to Besiktas in Turkey in three short years before retiring from the game. Tracy McGrady was a crucial player for the Rockets till 2009. But when injuries limited his impact, he couldn’t adjust, and bounced around to the Knicks, Pistons, Hawks, Qingdao in China, and the Spurs. Both had played their last NBA games by 34.

One of the best contemporary examples of the “sudden downfall” is Carmelo Anthony, who was an All-Star player with the Knicks two years ago, and has been passed around to the Thunder, the Hawks, the Rockets, and the Bulls, where he was waived. Despite being one of the best offensive players of his generation, Anthony didn’t adapt as his talents diminished, insisting that he deserved to be a starter and a high-volume scorer. At 34, he is currently without a team.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are superstar players who spent the majority of their careers without suffering a major injury setback, and thus, managed to remain in important starting roles till the twilight of their careers. Michael Jordan, before his 1998 Chicago Bulls retirement, was still the best player in the NBA at 35. Even though his return as a Washington Wizard at ages 38-40 was disappointing by his high standards, he was still his team’s leading scorer.

A lifetime Spur, Tim Duncan slowed down as a scorer in his last few years, but his defensive presence, IQ, and leadership kept him a starter as he continued to play in big-time playoff games till the end.

Kobe Bryant, after a long and prolific career, suffered a major Achilles injury at 34, but he returned to play for three more seasons as the centre-of-gravity for the struggling Lakers. He scored 60 points in his last ever NBA game at 37.

As the old adage goes, Father Time is undefeated, and all the biggest stars of this era will also soon succumb to the slow erosion of their talents. For over a decade, LeBron James has been one of the top players in the league, and although he continues to be brilliant on the offensive end, this season is finally showing the cracks in the 34-year-old’s armour. LeBron’s career is likely to dwindle down like his Laker predecessor, Kobe. A player of his stature and his playing style is unlikely to adjust his game too much until his very last day. One way or another, LeBron will spend his last few years in the NBA remaining a relevant All Star.

Most star players of the ‘LeBron generation’ saw their careers dwindle down less gracefully, like Chris Bosh (heart condition), Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, or Carmelo Anthony. Only Chris Paul is still playing at a relatively high level, but his path is always marred with injuries. Other over-36 former stars in the league, like Pau Gasol and Tony Parker, are long past their glory days.

LeBron’s closest ally in the league, however — Dwyane Wade (37) — has been able to stretch his relevance a little more. True, he has more nights looking like an old Wade rather than the Old Wade, but every once in a while, he shows flashes of greatness. His final season has been a self-branded #OneLastDance, where he has tried to put on a show for his fans. While Wade’s minutes are limited, his style of play rarely allows him to take a backseat to anyone. Plagued with injuries and refusing to relent, Wade will retire after only 15 years in the league —“only”, considering that his former Miami Heat cohort James is still playing at a high level.

The other player in (likely) his last season is 40-year-old Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki is the only player — other than Carter — drafted into the league before Y2K. Despite being one of the greatest power-forwards ever, this final season has been a struggle, where he has seen a sharp decline in his ability to contribute and play big minutes. Already, it seems like he’s spending the season in semi-retirement.

None of these problems, however, seem to affect the league’s “grandfather”, Carter. At 42 and in his 21st season, Carter continues to be efficient and useful off the bench. Although he suffered numerous injuries in his career, he rarely enjoyed long playoff runs, and only made it to the Conference Finals once with the Magic. The lack of mileage early in his career is serving him towards the end. He has played less than 28 minutes a game since the 2011 season, staying healthy and pacing himself. Just like the Hawks-Bulls 4OT matchup, Carter’s career has been a marathon, featuring highs, lows, over 25,000 career points, and many, many great dunks.

In August, Carter stated that the 2018-19 season would “90%” be his last. But by January, he changed his tune.

“We’ll see what happens at the end of the year,” Carter said to TSN’s Josh Lewenberg. “I feel good… I’ll weigh my options when it’s done. I’d like to come back and play.”

Not every star gets to write the perfect storybook end to their story — even Michael Jordan spoiled his “last shot” by the comeback with the Wizards, and Kobe’s 60 came for a team far outside the playoff picture. For the next era, Vince Carter has been an example of persistence, and shown an ability to change with the circumstances of his own limitations. Whenever he hangs up his jersey, it seems likely that it will be on his own terms.

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