Vince Carter stands on the right wing, elbow extended, just beyond the free-throw line. The Phoenix Suns' playoff hopes hinge upon this game against the Dallas Mavericks; a win keeps them alive, while a loss puts them three games behind eighth-place Memphis with just 10 to play. As Aaron Brooks surveys the defense from the top of the arc, with a live dribble, Carter remains stationary.
Brooks finally calls for Marcin Gortat to set a high screen for him. As Brooks dribbles to his left around Gortat, Carter cuts from his spot on the right wing directly to the left elbow. "Cut" might not be the best word, really; it's closer to a jog. Brooks continues to noodle around with his dribble, and Carter takes a few casual steps back to the three-point line. Shawn Marion, the defender closest to Vince, pays him no mind.
Now standing in the left short-corner, Brooks rifles a cross-court pass to Grant Hill, who cut from the right corner to the pinch-post to receive the past. The third ex-Magic player on the court for Phoenix short-rims a jumper after backing Jason Kidd up with a few dribbles. As the ball leaves Hill's hands, Carter trots into rebounding position and comes away with the offensive board just on the right side of the rim, on the baseline. Dallas center Tyson Chandler turns his head away from Gortat, his man, to apply some pressure to Carter. Vince recognizes Gortat is now open, but his bounce pass through traffic is too low for Gortat to catch. "Carter got the rebound and threw it away!" says ESPN play-by-play man Dave Pasch as Jason Terry scoops up the loose ball and busts tail up the court.
Brooks intentionally fouls Terry to halt the fast break. Steve Nash checks in for Carter immediately. The game is knotted at 79. Dallas goes on to win, 91-83, thanks to tight defense and timely three-point shooting by Jason Kidd.
On the broadcast, Jon Barry notes Kidd, who teamed with Carter in New Jersey to form a damn fearsome backcourt in the first decade of this millennium, has gradually developed into a reliable three-point shooter after being woeful from beyond the arc early in his career. I can only assume Barry omitted mentioning Kidd's nickname used to be "Ason"--as in "No J"--because it's so well known by now.
Over a year ago, Tom Ziller and Bethlehem Shaols demonstrated Carter's productivity has waned in comparison to Kobe Bryant's as the two have aged. "No player has as intelligently tinkered with his game, and re-learned his movements, as Bryant," writes Shoals. "That's why he remains well above star level to this day, while Carter trailed off several seasons ago."
Carter finishes the game, which is his first reserve appearance of the season and just the ninth of his 13-year career, with 3 points on 1-of-4 shooting, and 0-of-2 from the line. Suns coach Alvin Gentry benched Carter in order to make room for Jared Dudley in his starting group. Dudley scored 20 versus Dallas.
While it unfolds, the whole scene is surreal to me as I watch from the comfort of my couch. Less than two years ago, the Magic acquired Carter and Ryan Anderson for next to nothing (the expiring contracts of Rafer Alston and Tony Battie, plus the youthful Courtney Lee) in a critically acclaimed move designed to put them over the top in the championship hunt. Now, following a midseason trade and a rocky adjustment period, he's coming off the bench for a lottery team, and even then only to loiter on the weak side and wait for a kickout.
Perhaps the abrupt decline in productivity indicates the Magic were wrong to acquire Carter, and to subsequently sign-and-trade Hedo Turkoglu away in free agency. Perhaps it doesn't. It matters little now. Turkoglu is back in Orlando and delivering the ball to Dwight Howard in better position than anyone else ever has. The team has won five straight games, the second-longest active streak in the NBA, and has a chance to enter the postseason on a high note.
Carter will become a free agent this summer, as Phoenix is certain to waive him before June 30th, thus guaranteeing him $4 million of the $18 million he'd be owed if not waived by that date. He just turned 34, is fading fast, and has lost rotation minutes to the likes of Josh Childress. He rarely plays in fourth quarters anymore. He's developed poor habits on defense and doesn't always go full-speed on offense. There is a 13-minute film reel breaking down Carter's poor play, using footage from a single game, making the internet rounds.
It's unclear if any playoff-caliber team will have room in its rotation for Vince. He will likely have to settle for a portion of the mid-level exception, if such a thing even exists in the new collective bargaining agreement.
I am not used to watching Vince Carter loitering on the weakside to wait for a kickout, but I am growing used to watching him settle.
I do not enjoy it.