By Evan Hall
One way of interpreting the startling triumph of the Dallas Mavericks in challenging the presumptive Western Conference champions is as a successful adaption against the Darwinian brutality of the NBA landscape.
No team has been more lauded for taking a roster of well-established misfits, such as Monta Ellis and DeJuan Blair, and turning it into a playoff contender. Unlike most of the teams in the West, the Mavericks did not bring one or two new players into a well-established machine and expect them to work as replacement parts. They adapted, redesigning the team's identity to maximize the unique talents of their offseason acquisitions.
Now suddenly and, perhaps shockingly, Ellis isn't the pariah of the analytics community. Jose Calderon is more than another sweet-shooting guard on a mediocre team struggling to make the playoffs. Blair has gone from a damaged goods big man to a rebound-hoarding Al Jefferson-lite.
I'm not sure any of them even changed much as players. Instead, the Mavericks, led by schematic genius Rick Carlisle, shapeshifted into the only kind of basketball team that could allow those players to be themselves and still get wins out of them.
No player on the Mavericks is more emblematic of the fluidity of a player's identity than Vince Carter. If you hadn't watched basketball in 10 years, you might recall Vince Carter as the first post-Jordan player to earn the Jordan comparisons the basketball world was so eager to lay on any young, athletic wing.
Vince Carter was definitely that -- the bright and hopeful heir to the throne. He was a prodigy and, for at least a period in the early 2000s, he was also one of the 10 best players in the NBA.
He was also, no joke, the best dunker of any generation. The 2000 dunk contest belonged to Vince Carter. It was not Twitter comedy material or a recreational showcase of athletic ability. It was, like the Vince Carter dunks that earned the contest its fame, an earth-shattering event, fractured apart from the grind of the regular season, where you saw what humanity could do, once its preconceived limits had been challenged. It felt like a glimpse into an impossible future, where automobiles flew at Mach speeds and personal robots cooked gourmet meals and human beings did stuff like this. And this. And this.
Maybe it wasn't easy to see then, but at the height of Vinsanity, basketball fans weren't witnessing the second coming of Michael Jordan. Carter was not nearly as complete a player as MJ, but he also existed outside of the "win championships at whatever cost" paradigm. He was an unparalleled spectacle, an aesthetic wonder who rewrote the previously bounded expectations of what we could see on a basketball court. We weren't fans so much as we were inconsequential mortals peering through our 40th-floor office windows as Superman weaved through our city skyscrapers. Carter did things we had never seen before. At the time, before LeBron James, Blake Griffin and John Wall, it was easy to wonder if we'd ever see it again.
So imagine that guy, the guy Kenny Smith once described as a combination of Jordan and Dominique Wilkins, as your 37-year-old dad, punking you on the driveway with his below-the-rim, gritty, old-man game.
That's where we are with Carter, whose stat line in Game 4 against the Spurs -- after hitting a game-winning three in Game 3 -- was grounded and blue-collar and totally highlight-less: eight points, five assists, three rebounds, two steals, a block and no dunks. The current Carter is a gap-filler, a scrappy get-stuff-done piece, who comes off the bench, plays defense, gets tough boards and knocks down open threes.
You know players like this -- they're the proverbial workhorses, the Demarre Carrolls and Udonis Haslems. They're useful players in a role every team who has ever won a championship needs filled. They're not former all-world athletic champions of the world. They are the guys on the posters getting dunked on, not the ones doing the dunking. You can't dig up grainy YouTube videos of guys like Marreese Speights hurdling 7-foot French Olympians. Birdman excluded, nobody is coining nicknames for players who body up bigger players in the post and only take shots when they're wide open.
That this is who Carter has become is a testament to his deftness in adapting his game as time and entropy wore down his once blindingly quick first step and towering vertical leap. When his skillset diminished, he rebranded and developed an alternative one. It may seem like a common capacity or at least one that we all must learn to have at some point -- it's aging, after all. But so few NBA players were once what Carter was, and none of them were ever able to become what he is now.
So Carter seems like an appropriate microcosm of the philosophical necessity to evolve along with the world around him, but that still seems like an inadequate expression of what has happened here. Of course he has evolved, and of course he's carved out a place in the NBA no one could have predicted at the height of his game. But there's more here than a man allowing life to happen to him and changing accordingly. There's a noble resilience here. Carter has defied something over the arc of his career -- not the relentless advancing of time, but the idea that even as it advanced, he wouldn't be able to graciously acquiesce to it.
Carter allowed time to wear him down, as we all must do, but he did something that comes difficult for everyone, athlete or not. He had the self-awareness to realize that time was winning, as it inevitably does, but that time's gain was not necessarily his loss. If anything, Carter has become a more effective player in the sense that he does not demand a cap-crippling contract by virtue of his All-Star skills. Carter can contribute now to a title-winning team in a way he never could have before. He no longer has to be MJ, only Horace Grant or Steve Kerr.
That's not to say the Mavs will win the title, or even this series. None of that really matters much to Carter's legacy anyway. We tend to credit stars for their championships only when they were stars when they won them. Gary Payton's title with the Heat means little in any discussion of Payton's place in NBA history, just like a championship ring wouldn't lastingly alter Carter's. Carter will be remembered as Air Canada, as one of the most iconic athletes of our time, whose brilliance faded until he became something else entirely. What he became, and what he is now, isn't brilliant, but it's a kind of good that doesn't need to be.
Carter at one time -- seemingly an eternity ago -- was considered the kind of superstar who gets you to the first round or the second round, but who will never win you a title. Now, when he's spoken of at all, it's as a third-tier contributor, and it's meant as a compliment. It's hard to tell he's the same player, and that's a compliment, too.
Unlike his current team, Carter did not adapt to changing circumstances. Carter merely aged. Time went on, and he graciously allowed it to. He had no choice, really, but he wasn't conceding a victory. In fact, he understood time best served him not as an opponent but as an ally.
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Evan Hall is a freelance writer from Boise, Idaho, who has written for the Classical and Salt City Hoops of the ESPN TrueHoop Network. You can find him on Twitter @the20thmaine.