In May 2010, Vince Carter was producing about 18 points per game for an Orlando team — his hometown team — that swept the first two rounds of the playoffs and looked like the best team in the league. He was the no. 2 option, a livelier and more polished version of Hedo Turkoglu, and the Magic were primed to win the title they lost to the Lakers the season before. But the aging Celtics stole Game 1 of the conference finals in Orlando and were hanging on late in Game 2, up 95-92 with 31 seconds left, when Carter stepped to the line for two must-have free throws. He missed both. Orlando lost the game and Carter disappeared for the rest of the series, averaging just 10 points per game on 33 percent shooting as Boston earned an improbable return trip to the Finals.
Carter was out of Orlando before Christmas the next season, sent to a mediocre Phoenix team in the megadeals that landed the Magic Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, and Hedo Turkoglu. Carter played listless ball in Phoenix, ceding the lane to others on offense and politely vacating it on defense when he had opportunities to take a charge. He was an inattentive defender away from the ball on the perimeter, shot just 42 percent from the floor, barely got to the line, and looked every bit the part of a broken, selfish gunner playing out the string on his last massive contract. Vince Carter had become irrelevant faster than nearly any Hall of Fame–level superstar in the history of the NBA.
And then something unexpected happened, and is still happening: Carter reinvented himself in Dallas as a solid two-way player willing to work on both ends of the floor and fill whatever role the Mavericks asked of him on offense. He busted it during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, but the results were uneven — 41 percent shooting and a 13.6 Player Efficiency Rating, both career lows. Carter's numbers have ticked back up this season, even as the Mavericks have shifted him almost full-time to small forward and asked him to occasionally work as the centerpiece of their offense in Dirk Nowitzki's absence. The Mavs signed Carter in 2011 with no idea whether he'd contribute at all, but tune into a Dallas game during crunch time this week and you'll likely see Carter running the pick-and-roll or using his beefed-up post game to draw a double-team, scan the floor, and find the open man.
The praise out of Dallas is unanimous, to the point that it doesn't seem possible the Mavs are talking about the same Vince Carter — the malingerer who exaggerates injuries, loafs on defense, and pouted his way out of Toronto, devastating a franchise and costing several higher-ups their jobs. "I can't say anything but great things about [Carter]," Mavs owner Mark Cuban says. "He brings it every night. He will take on any role coach asks of him. He is even taking a charge now and then."
Elton Brand laughs and clarifies that Carter leads the team in attempted charges. "I don't think he's actually got that many," Brand says with a laugh. "But he's throwing his body around down there." Brand and Carter are old Duke-Carolina rivals, but Brand didn't know Carter well before this season. He says he has been impressed so far by Carter's approach to the game. "He's one of the great superstars of his era, but he's coming off the bench here without complaint, working tirelessly, and being a really good teammate for the young guys," Brand says. "He's not out there trying to rock the boat, or saying he should be starting." Others in the Mavericks organization agree that Carter has taken on a key mentorship role, especially with Jae Crowder, the team's promising rookie combo forward.