Watching Vince Carter now, at age 37, one cannot help but flash back. He remains a solid reserve for the Dallas Mavericks, with the potential to drain a 3-pointer or streak for a finger-roll layup.
But it’s not Carter of yesteryear we’re watching. He is a reinvented player who has remained relevant in the league despite his age. Yet Carter’s amazing athletic ability, his eye-popping skills around the basket, his Baryshnikov-like midair acrobatics, once made him one of the game’s more entertaining players.
And each year around this time, when the NBA tries to resuscitate the sagging Slam Dunk contest, memories of Carter’s stellar performance at the then-Oakland Coliseum Arena 14 years ago comes to mind. At the tender age of 23, Carter set ablaze the NBA world with his spectacular series of dunks that revived what had been a dying event.
Carter looks back at that Saturday night in Oakland and he shakes his head, as stunned as everyone that he was actually that graceful, that brilliant once upon a time.
“Damn, that’s a long time ago,” he said, smiling. “I remember it like it was yesterday, but at the same time that was a long time ago.”
One of Carter’s signature dunks was an alley-oop from teammate Tracy McGrady in which Carter proceeded to whip the ball between his legs in midair and dunk in one motion. On another, Carter coasted for a one-handed dunk but allowed half of his arm to dangle inside the rim to emphasize the height of his leap.
After that, the result was merely academic. Carter won in a landslide.
“I just remember coming in there, going through the layup line,” he said. “Before the dunk contest, I was gauging how I was feeling. I was excited about the opportunity. That was my moment. That was my night. It was something I always wanted to be a part of. Once I got through that layup line, I said to myself, ‘This is my night. I’m going to enjoy it. The way my body was feeling, this is my night.’ I just wanted to put on a show and wow people, and it worked out.”
Carter has been maligned because he has never reached the NBA Finals in 15 years. His 22,822 points rank seventh among active players and 27th overall. Carter is going to get Hall of Fame consideration when he retires and his contributions to the game will be more appreciated once he is done.
Carter views himself as a versatile player and surprisingly he is sixth among active players in 3-pointers made with 1,742. He said once opposing teams were wary of his dunking abilities, they began to allow him to show other skills.
“It’s more a patience thing — once people started to see other things [in my game] — you knew the dunk was coming but there was also game-winners, the defensive play, the rebounding,” he said. “I remember coming to other teams and [new teammates would say], ‘Man, I didn’t know you could pass like that. I didn’t know you knew the game like that.’ I’m the same player but I’m just smarter about it. But at that time, I didn’t care about who was in the way, I was going to try to dunk on you.
“When other teams were helping early to take the dunk away or the drive, then I had to go to Plan B and people started to see the other things I could do.”
Carter has accepted his role as a reserve, having started just three games in the last two years. But he averages 11.3 points in just 24 minutes per game and there are flashes, brief flashes, of Vinsanity. But now he’ll finish with a layup instead of a thundering dunk. Age doesn’t discriminate.
“Some days I say that [it’s hard to believe] and some days I say, ‘Yeah, I’m 37,’ ” he said. “It takes a little practice and mental focus more than anything. Sometimes you have to will your body into doing the right thing. So taking the easy way out maybe on a play, but at the same time I pride myself on being the oldest guy but playing the most games. That’s just a personal thing more than anything — make sure I’m doing the right thing, extra lifting, ice tubs, you name it. I try to do it. Just so I can last.”
Carter was the fifth overall pick by the Golden State Warriors in the 1998 draft, traded to the Toronto Raptors on draft night for his North Carolina teammate, Antawn Jamison. Of the 29 first-round picks in the 1998 draft, six remain in the NBA — Carter, Jamison, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Al Harrington, and Nazr Mohammed.
“It happens, everybody is different, everybody approaches it different,” Carter said of aging. “Whether it’s during the season, a freak injury. It’s so many different things. You still compete, I just put my work in and make sure I understand the game. I’ve prided myself on understanding the game. I maybe can’t jump as high or can’t jump at all or not as fast, I’ll outsmart an opponent. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
“I look at some of the greats who were in it in their teen years. They were great athletes. The mental capacity and mental focus was above and beyond the average players. How to take advantage of somebody by cutting off angles. As those latter years started to come about, that’s what I wanted to do. And I’ve gained the respect of coaches and teams. It’s a great feeling when you come out here and the younger guys say, ‘Man, when I was in middle school, you were doing such and such, and now I’m playing against you and you’re still doing it.’ It’s a great feeling.”
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Cuban looks forward to dealing with Silver
Now that David Stern has moved on, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban can approach new commissioner Adam Silver with his bright ideas after spending 15 years tussling about officiating, and other league issues, with Stern.
And Cuban, one of the NBA’s more visible and popular owners, has no shortage of ideas of how to improve the product. Some of those thoughts are unusual and reflective of Cuban’s maverick style (sorry for the pun).
Cuban on whether to eliminate conferences and divisions, with the teams with the best 16 records advancing to the playoffs: “The minute you do that, the [balance of power] will flip-flop from [West to East]. I don’t think so, just because of travel. You play 50 against your own and 32 against the other conference and that would be tough to change a lot.
“Like we’re seeing this year, even when there’s a lot of teams [in the East] against the Western Conference that haven’t been so good. They still have to play each other, so somebody is going to have a good record. Not everybody is finishing 41-41. So you are starting to see how teams — they probably thought only to themselves would take a step backwards — because they are playing each other, are right in the playoff mix. Orlando beats Oklahoma City. Utah beats Miami. So you’ve still got to play the game. Things that happen in the beginning of the season don’t always play out the same way towards the end. I’m fine with it the way it is.
“Of course, I wish we were in the East.”
Cuban freely says that Silver is a more open-minded commissioner and their relationship will be amicable, not tenuous.
“I think Adam’s more consensus right now and learning, so he’s wide open to suggestions,” Cuban said. “You know me and the referees, I think in the past David’s attitude was, ‘One team wins, one team loses, doesn’t matter how they get there.’ And he doesn’t care. Adam recognizes if fans don’t perceive the officiating as being transparent or fair, then some fans turn off to the game, and I think it will have a positive impact when he starts increasing the transparency.”
Cuban on the current draft lottery system: “You could tweak it. I’ve suggested that teams with the worst three records are not eligible for the top pick or top three picks. Even if it’s the bottom two, you’re automatically eliminated and your first eligible pick is your third or fourth pick. I think that changes things very quickly so that you have to at least try.”
Dallas stalwart Dirk Nowitzki, the oldest All-Star this season, turns 36 in June and Cuban said he believes the potential Hall of Famer can play until he is 40. Former Maverick SteveNash, who has been battling a rash of injuries the past two years, played productively until age 38, winning two MVP awards after the Mavericks allowed him to sign with the Phoenix Suns at age 29. Cuban regrets that decision.
“Literally, we let him go because we thought he’d be too injured,” Cuban said. “Coaches were saying he’s not going to be able to play as many minutes. That was a real smart look on our side. I tell him he’s the same age now as when I bought the team.”
And finally, Cuban was asked whether the NBA is a better league when the Celtics, Lakers, and Knicks are thriving franchises. If the season ended today, none of the three would reach the postseason.
“To a certain extent. Look, when the Lakers and Boston play in the Finals, it’s got a certain cachet. Hopefully, a Mavs-Miami series will become [similar], but yeah, there’s something to it because they’re the biggest media markets. I don’t think it’s really related to their franchise per se, but it’s the size of the market.”
Bucks see their future with Antetokounmpo
It’s been an excruciating first season for Milwaukee coach Larry Drew, who is part of a rebuilding Bucks club that makes the Celtics’ reclamation project look advanced. Yet the highlight of the season has been the brimming potential of Greek rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 6-foot-9-inch forward who has the length to compete with centers and athleticism to play guard.
What’s intriguing about Antetokounmpo is that he just turned 19, giving the Bucks a potential cornerstone who requires extreme patience and guidance. He can defend, cover ground with his speed and length, and drain the occasional 3-pointer. He is a star in the making, but given he is the youngest player in the league, it will require development.
“He’s come a long way from the very beginning,” Drew said. “When you watch him play, I have to keep reminding myself this kid is just 19 years old. He’s got a ways to go as far as learning and developing, and he’s still going to make mistakes. Hopefully, he’ll pick it up and understand the ‘why’ to everything. Things happen so fast and he’s going to have to continue to allow his instincts to kick in on a lot of these things, but [he needs time] as far as understanding the NBA game and making sure that he understands what we’re doing.”
In 24 minutes per game, Antetokounmpo is averaging 6.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.7 assists.
There are stretches when he makes stunning defensive plays, the improbable steal, or the chase-down block as he did Monday against the Celtics’ Jeff Green, who was streaking for a breakaway layup until Antetokounmpo swatted his layup attempt.
“I said it before, we’re going to have to live with a lot of his mistakes,” Drew said. “And we’ve done that. But he’s come a long way. Certainly we see the potential in this kid and we’ll continue to work with him, develop him, and try to make him better.”
In past NBA generations, Antetokounmpo would have attended a Division 1 college, played two or three years, and then entered the draft as a more polished player. The Bucks drafted Antetokounmpo as an 18-year-old with impressive physical skills but little knowledge of the NBA game.
“We see what the potential is,” Drew said. “We see the potential in a guy who can really, really get out in the open court. His length to the basket, his ability to make other people better. That’s the thing that really intrigued me about him. He’s a willing passer. There’s a level of patience I have to have with him, along with his teammates.
“He has to understand the NBA and know he’s not going to be good every time he steps on the floor.
“The younger he is, the more we’re going to have him under a microscope on how well he does bounce back. Again, he has shown the potential of what he’s capable of doing. I know from a player’s standpoint, it’s just not enough guys to balance their offense and defense together. He certainly is capable of that. Guys who don’t have to score but can impact the game, those guys are very valuable players. He certainly has that potential.”
The marriage between the Bucks and O.J. Mayo has been unsavory so far. Mayo, who signed a three-year, $24 million deal in the offseason, hasn’t played since Jan. 25 because of poor conditioning. It is speculated that the Bucks want Mayo to lose 10 to 15 pounds before he hits the court again, and he has also been felled with flu-like symptoms recently. Of course, the worse the Bucks fare and the more quality players they hold out, the better their chances for the No. 1 overall pick to add to their young core. Mayo is averaging just 12.2 points per game and is shooting a career-worst 39.6 percent in 41 games for Milwaukee . . . While the Detroit Pistons may be seeking a permanent coach, look for the club to stick with interim coach John Loyer for the remainder of the season. The question is whether owner Tom Gores will retain president of basketball operations Joe Dumars and allow him to hire yet another coach, or hire another decision-maker and open a fresh coaching search. Lionel Hollins has been rumored to be a candidate but hasn’t been contacted by the club. Hollins is the top coaching candidate on the market with NBA experience and would appear to be a good fit with the undisciplined Pistons . . . The NBA didn’t waste any time with the promotion of Adam Silver to commissioner. At All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, all of the photos of the All-Stars littered around the hotels were airbrushed with players dribbling balls with Silver’s signature. Unless those photos were taken after Feb. 1, they were doctored . . . The Maine Red Claws of the NBADL signed former Brooklyn Net Tyshawn Taylor for the Celtics to get a closer look, but so far his numbers have been disappointing. Taylor is averaging 10.3 points, 2.6 assists, and 38 percent shooting through seven games for the Red Claws. Taylor is a point guard who filled in for the injured Deron Williams at various times for the Nets last season . . . The 76ers sent forward Arnett Moultrie to Delaware of the NBADL last week to improve his conditioning, much to his chagrin. Moultrie complained that he was fully recovered from ankle surgery and didn’t need the rehab assignment. Moultrie returned to action last week during the 76ers’ back-to-back 40-point losses to the Clippers and Warriors, and played in three games before the All-Star break, scoring 4 total points on 2-for-9 shooting. Moultrie was acquired by the 76ers from the Miami Heat last season and earned minutes as a valuable big man off the bench.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.