Vince Carter talks Sixth Man

Vince Carter on what winning the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award would mean to him, how he's embraced that role here in Dallas, the history and prestige of the award and more.

As basketball players age, they are faced with a challenging decision: either adapt their games and stick around, or simply fade away. This is especially true for players who were once superstars, the best on the planet at what they do.

One such player, Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki, has rightfully received lots of love from the NBA community for his stellar performance this season. The German is shooting up the all-time scoring list and has remained as efficient offensively as ever, even at 35 years old. But for all the pomp and circumstance revolving around Dirk’s prolific season, he’s not the only Maverick extending his career with grace and craft.

The man who replaces him midway through the first quarter every game, Vince Carter, has managed to do the same. Once considered a superhuman, but now only referring to himself as “Old Man, Occasionally Amazing,” Carter has voluntarily stepped out of the spotlight — and the starting lineup — in hopes of ending his career on a high note. It’s fitting that Carter, a player who has received little to no national attention this season, is the one substituted in for Nowitzki halfway through the first quarter every game. One superstar replaces another. He might not be able to be “the man” for 48 minutes, but this season he’s shown that, if only for 24 minutes a night, he can still occasionally amaze.

What matters to the 15-year veteran is not that he begins the game on the bench, but that he typically finishes games on the floor. He averages 6.8 minutes of playing time in fourth quarters this season, and it’s his veteran savvy and penchant for hitting big shots that earns him the minutes.

“It’s a different role, it’s a different mentality,” Carter said of coming off the bench. “As you’re growing up, people in the world in general put so much into being the starter. I think everyone grows up saying ‘I want to be a starter for my team’ instead of being a finisher, being a closer. When you break it down to them they’re like ‘ah, yeah, that makes sense.’ You could be a guy who starts and really doesn’t play anymore the rest of the game.”

Carter has worked as the Mavericks sixth man for two seasons now, after spending a majority of the 2011-12 season as a starter. But when longtime sixth man Jason Terry signed with the Boston Celtics that summer, Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said Carter was more than ready to take on the job.

“There’s got to be a willingness of the player to take on that kind of role,” Carlisle said. “The way it’s gone here, when (Jason) Terry left, we had a big void there, and Vince was proactive about it. He started talking about it right away, both publicly and with some of us internally. It made perfect sense … He can be an aggressive guy to score coming off the bench, and we need him to be solid defensively, too.”

The 37-year-old Carter is scoring 12.1 points per game for the Mavericks this season, adding 2.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game, but as with most reserves, the per-36-minute numbers are perhaps more telling than the traditional per-game averages. Although his minutes are down, when looking at those stats, it’s difficult to identify a drop-off. Per 36 minutes, the Sixth Man of the Year candidate is scoring nearly 18 points — right in line with his average since 2010-11 — grabbing 5.3 rebounds, his second-highest mark since 2007-08, and dishing out 3.9 assists, higher than both his career average and his output in any season since 2008-09. His game, once based on high-flying acrobatics and flashy finishes, is now founded upon his ability to knife his way into the lane and get to the rim.

“I’m a slasher, but crafty,” he said. “I’m just taking advantage of experience. I’ve just been around — I’ve learned a lot, seen a lot — it’s more technical.”

The swingman is still producing at a high level in the fewest minutes per game of his career, and he’s the main facilitator of Dallas’s increasingly effective bench. As great as Nowitzki still is, Carter is the true key to the unit. His pick-and-roll with Brandan Wright is one of the most unstoppable plays in the league, and his ability to create his own shot in a pinch is invaluable, as it gives Nowitzki the chance to spot up and occasionally “rest” during an offensive possession. Carter is perhaps the only Maverick aside from Nowitzki and Monta Ellis capable of consistently creating shots not only for himself, but also for others. Everything he does is an attempt to make someone else’s job easier, which is a far cry from the way most once-superstars play toward the end of their career.

As a whole, the five-man second unit of Devin Harris, Jae Crowder, Nowitzki, Wright, and Carter is scoring 117.4 points and allowing just 87.8 per 100 possessions this season, both elite marks. The unit’s 29.6 net rating — the difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions — is 5th-best in the NBA since Jan. 18 among lineups with at least 50 minutes played. (Jan. 18 was Harris’s season debut.) In addition, since the All-Star break, Carter is scoring 14.3 points per game. He’s at the helm of one of the best five-man groups in all of basketball. What’s the secret?

“Just knowing each other, being around long enough — I think that’s the biggest thing,” Carter said. “I’ve played with Devin before, Devin’s played here before with Dirk, B-Wright and I have developed a working relationship.”

Carter made a name for himself in the air, whirling and twirling and throwing down vicious dunks around the league. Many of today’s top stars were just kids when Carter and the Toronto Raptors were the must-see event of the year. Oklahoma City’s MVP candidate Kevin Durant, for example, was just 11 years old when Carter put on what was perhaps the greatest dunk contest performance ever in 2000.

But as perimeter players grow older, their athleticism gradually diminishes. Carter wasn’t going to be able to put on legendary in-game dunk shows forever, and he knew it. Instead of sticking to what he did best, he chose to reinvent himself. “Every year, you’re a little slower, but at the same time I can break the game down,” he said. “There might be a guy who’s faster than me, stronger than me, but that doesn’t mean he’s smarter than me.”

Perhaps the most unnoticed ways Carter has contributed to the Mavs’ success this season rests not in his scoring or playmaking ability, but in his level of effort when it matters most. For example, stats can’t measure how important this offensive rebound in a win against the Indiana Pacers was, or that this block clinched a win against Boston, or that his offensive board against Portland thwarted an epic Blazers comeback. Numbers can’t measure the worth of plays like these. But that’s the job of a sixth man.

“There’s a whole range of things that are required,” Carlisle said. “He’s one of the guys that have been willing to take charges, too. If you’re trying to put a percentage on guys in the NBA that are like that, I don’t know what it is. It’s not high.”

Let’s face it: in any awards race, whether it’s the Oscar for Best Picture or the Sixth Man of the Year, narrative matters as much or more than production or anything else. His coaching from the sideline and advice to younger players is something that cannot be measured with statistics. His willingness to avoid the spotlight, come off the bench, and play less minutes has turned the Mavericks second unit into one of the most efficient and effective offensive units in all of basketball. Carter might not “rev it up” as often as he used to, but even at 37 years old, he can still make the engine hum. And considering Carter was one of the faces of the league for 10 years, his seamless switch to the sixth-man role is as rare as it is impressive, but he’s only doing it to help his team.

“I know it’s a tough transition, tough for people to do and accept,” Carter said. “It’s all about winning for me at this point.”

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