It’s that time of the NBA’s year, that nasty point past the season’s halfway mark yet still weeks away from the All-Star break. Usually, late January seems no fun to be around.
Vince Carter seems innately aware of that. He won’t retire soon as the best player to ever work pro ball, as he isn’t even the best prospect or probably even top small forward to come out of his 1998 draft class. Carter, however, just understands that you’re not to leave anyone alone in winter. Alone to be left with the bitter winds, Dee Brown playing point guard, Paul Pierce limiting his televised highlights to free throw line trips, all of that.
On a dreary Wednesday night in January, though, this is what Vince Carter gives us:
Vince Carter turned 40 years old a few hours after that, what, layup? Can we call that a layup? He’s 40 on Thursday, older than anyone else remaining from his draft class, older than anyone in the NBA at the moment, until the Cleveland Cavaliers use that open roster spot on Andre Miller.
He’s also, and we can say this without reflex, the hoppiest 40-year old NBA player in league history. Unless something happened at midnight on Thursday that took away all we’ve ever known about Vince Carter, VC is easily the most athletic 40-year old that the NBA has ever seen. Unless you thought Herb Williams was really killin’ it on the 1999 Knicks.
Those Knicks made the Finals that year, something Carter has never done. The closest VC came, in what could be fairly characterized as a career featuring far too many disappointments alongside the glory, was with an Orlando Magic team that should have played better than its five-game Eastern Conference finals flameout in 2010, back after Carter had just hit the backside of his fabulous peak.
Vince hasn’t started in 40 games this year with the Grizzlies, a delightful team starved for offense per usual, but still threatening in the West to the tune of a 27-20 record and No. 7 record in the conference. He averages 8.2 points, seventh on the team, and rarely pulls off the sort of midair brilliance that we saw on Wednesday night. He still shoots about as much around the rim as he did back in 2002-03 (though that was an outlier season) at age 26, though, and his True Shooting Percentage is right in line with his career marks as Vince (a 39 percent shooter this year) spends more and more of his time behind the three-point line.
He’s a contributor, to be sure, but once again somehow spotted between the cracks as Paul Pierce dad-jokes his way through a gig with the more notable Los Angeles Clippers. While Dirk Nowitzki keeps the league on edge with his musings on permanence, and with Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Miller and Elton Brand all having said goodbye to the NBA in the last nine months.
Despite all the highlight showcases, we still tend to forget about Vince. That’s a habit of ours.
This time in the proceedings 18 years ago, his alert wasn’t on high. Vince entered his 1999 rookie season with the chance at adding a “1998” to his career long gone, as the NBA had decided to lock out its players just after Vince was drafted by the Golden State Warriors and traded to the Toronto Raptors in a cash grab for the Raps (Golden State, picking fifth and a spot behind Toronto, never had a chance at Carter).
The labor impasse meant Carter’s rookie season wouldn’t start until what would usually be beyond the season’s midway point in early February, not only costing him four months and 32 games of play, but a chance to show off his wares at the NBA All-Star weekend that year, a weekend that was rumored to be returning its Slam Dunk Contest to the fold after a much-ridiculed year off in 1998.
Heading into that rookie year, though, Carter was third on the depth chart. Golden State’s Antawn Jamison, the former North Carolina teammate Vince Carter was dealt for, was assumed by many to be the league’s most NBA-ready Rookie of the Year candidate. A month into the season, it was the seasoned Paul Pierce (drafted into Boston after three years in Kansas, a rarity even by the fie de siècle) who roared to the ROY lead. Pierce averaged 20.3 points in his first 12 games as a Celtic, even slightly outplaying him in the first career game for both.
Vince would go on to take that Rookie trophy by the season’s end, averaging 18.3 points for the Raps. A year later, and especially around this time a year later in Y2K, Carter had developed into a revelation, dotting the months of January and February …
… with brilliance performances, hitting a game-winner (the first in Raptors franchise history) in March against the Clippers to cap a seven-game Raptors winning streak. Toronto was on its way to a playoff berth. This came after, of course, his century-saving work during the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest. And just prior to, of course, the time he turned all of us into early adapters in the internet’s bootleg video world, making Frederic Weis look like a prop during the 2000 Olympics.
Michael Jordan, Carter’s North Carolina predecessor, never dominated a dunk contest like that – and it wasn’t (with Tracy McGrady and Steve Francis throwing down 50s in 2000) as if Carter was working on an island. And though Jordan made Mel “Dinner Bell” Turpin look small once, he never dunked over a guy. Completely over him.
Vince Carter did, though. And we have the grainy video, downloaded at 56.6k, to prove it.
If that seems ever so long ago, it’s because it is.
Before Carter spent his final seasons in Toronto, starting with the desultory 2000-01 campaign, shying away from the paint, trying to prove that he was more than a dunker. Before he became downright treasonous – and that isn’t overstating things – with the 2004-05 Toronto Raptors before forcing a trade to New Jersey, while we angrily watched as his stats went from wildly disappointing to MVP-level in a week’s time.
Carter apparently knew what we needed during that season’s winter as well. A heel to mind, what with Canadian Steve Nash turning the league on its ear that season.
The Nets worked for Vince, and then they didn’t. Dealt to Orlando as the missing piece following that team’s 2009 Finals trip, that relationship flamed out as quickly as a springtime Sunday extinguishes itself. Phoenix, solid. Dallas, professional. Memphis? Old.
But still … that:
This man turns 40 tomorrow & is out here doing 360's. pic.twitter.com/qjrPGh8dWe
— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) January 26, 2017
You have to know that going baseline – the territory usually stalked by those that can still hit their elbows on the rim – is still an option at age 39 and 365 days. That attempting a reverse is still an option. That attempting to spin 360 degrees in midair, at the same age that some people sadly switch to caffeine-free Diet Coke, is somehow a good idea.
Jordan never tried that.
Here’s what Michael Jordan did, upon returning to the NBA in 2001 at age 38: in Washington he averaged 21.2 points on 43 percent shooting, with 5.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and a rather remarkable 1.5 steals a contest in his advanced years. He dropped 40 points seven times and, two months before his 39th birthday, dropped 51 on Baron Davis’ Charlotte Hornets.
In Jordan’s second game as 40-year old, he scored 43 and pulled in 11 rebounds in a win over the pre-Carter Nets, then on their way to a second straight Finals appearance. MJ would also top 30 points three other times and would only score in single-digits once (against Carter’s Raptors, of course) in 30 games as a 40-year old. Jordan’s legs, you’ll recall, even had the benefit of rest between 1993 and 1995, and again between 1998 and 2001. Vince kept churning along, with no retirements to name.
Vince Carter probably won’t drop 43 points against the Utah Jazz on Saturday, in his second game as a 40-year old. He hasn’t scored 30 in a game in nearly six years, and he’s topped 20 points just twice in two and a half seasons with the Grizzlies. The slide, for a player who scored 27.6 a night in 2000-01, is real. And understandable – the man is 40.
No man has ever 40’d like this in the NBA, though.
Yes, he’s achieved Jesse Orosco-status, screwballing his way toward contributing points in wily ways and with superior touch, but yet every so often he brings out a style of heat unrecognizable for players his own age. It’s true that Michael Jordan used to screwball his way toward 40-point games as a member of the Washington Wizards, but despite one obvious highlight he was hardly known for gliding through the air at that age.
And for good reason. He’s somewhat mortal, in spots.
Vince Carter doesn’t appear to have that, which is why rumors of an appearance in the 2017 Slam Dunk Contest weren’t immediately laughed off. Which is why this happens:
Look how happy Vince Carter is when he dunks. pic.twitter.com/tHCXXqgzX0
— ???? Uh ❄h Nic❄le ???? (@NicoleConlan) March 3, 2016
Which is why this exists:
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) September 30, 2015
Jordan couldn’t do that at 38, or 40. Dominique Wilkins had been retired for a year by age 40, after playing during Carter’s rookie season in 1999 with the Orlando Magic. Tracy McGrady hasn’t gotten rim for years. Kobe Bryant, the man who didn’t have the onions (to use the Toronto parlance of the day) to defend his 1997 Dunk Contest title in Carter’s presence, never got up this high during his final season. Dr. J. was a statesman at this point.
Vince Carter is something else entirely, as has been the case since the last century. The NBA will never again see a “40” like this.
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