When your average fan thinks about Vince Carter, they think about Dunks. Beautiful, glorious, majestic Dunks. Capital "D" Dunks. When you type in "Vince C" on google, the first suggestion is "Vince Carter Dunk."
When Mavericks fans think about Vince Carter, though...they still think about Dunks. Like, maybe the greatest Dunk Contest Performance of all time:
Or maybe the Dunk that the French have dubbed, "The Dunk of Death":
Or maybe the greatest in-game alley-oop dunk of all time (HOLY CRAP, HALF MAN HALF AMAZING):
But when Mavericks fans aren't thinking about Vince's Dunks, they're thinking about how he's been a borderline Sixth Man of the Year candidate since joining this Dallas squad: how he's been a consummate professional in the locker room, a brilliant spot up shooter (when he chooses to actually spot up), and a functioning secondary ball handler and leader. All clichés both aside and intended, he has honestly done all that he can to win.
Vince Carter has gone through a complete reputation overhaul since coming to Dallas. It's hard to really get a good sense from the inside to what degree the new image of the respectful, motivated, grizzled, hard-working vet has reached fans elsewhere in the league, since most Dallas fans embrace (or, at least, respect) this new half to Half Man Half Amazing. To Mavericks fans, Vince Carter is no longer the über-talented but whiney and selfish superstar, but the old, wizened teacher; there to impart experience, and lead when necessary.
As hard as it is to figure out where, exactly, the league stands on VC now, it's hard to figure out when, exactly, he began his metamorphosis. It may seem odd, but it's enticing to tie in Vince's renaissance with the emergence of Brandan Wright.
You may be saying, "Hey MavsMoneyball! What are you on about?! I know that you guys all LOVE Brandan Wright, and I get that he's pretty good, but are you crazy?! How on Earth could you possibly suggest that Vince Carter suddenly became known as a consummate professional and a hard worker, given his prior reputation, because of Brandan Wright?! Are you crazy?!?!"
The answer is yes, I am crazy. Still, hear me out.
Vince's first year in Dallas - that horrible, horrible Lamar Odom year - was less than ideal. Vince played only slightly better than all his detractors thought he might. He barely shot above a 50% True Shooting Percentage, his PER was just above 13 (where 15 is league average), and he stagnated the offense with his ball domination every time that he took the court.
Every bad thing that had been said about Vince around his career seemed to be true. He didn't want to play with the team; he didn't want to do what the team needed to do. He was a talented, over-priced, bench relic.
Then last year came, and Vince became the most valuable player on the team for a 30 game stretch in the year. Suddenly everything was different. Carter became a steely eyed killer, the kind of player who stared you in the eye, challenged your manhood, and fired a shot in your eye, totally independent of how you responded to his challenge.
Why? What changed?
In the first game of last season, Vince played 26 minutes and was a +13 in what appeared to be a shocking win over the Lakers. Brandan Wright played 20 minutes and was +7. For the first time, really, the two were given significant minutes together after having a full training camp together. I would argue that this was the catalyst for Vince.
I know that it sounds stupid. I do. But it's totally impossible to deny the chemistry that those two players have together. They look so good, and did from the moment they started playing. I mean, for God's sake, watch this:
Last year, the best possible thing happened to Vince Carter: he became supremely likable. Seriously, from 2000-2005, can you imagine anything better than a likable Vince Carter? A likable Half Man, Half Amazing, in his prime? A highlight factory that you can earnestly and fanatically cheer for?
How amazing, that we'd been given a chance to look back on those highlights from Carter's prime, and not shake our head in lamentation of wasted skill, but glory in the reverence of one of the world's most incredible athletes - and one that we could feel good about revering. Last year, VC gave us a taste of that - a highly concentrated shot of wistful, revisionist nostalgia straight into the arm.
But if last year was the best possible thing for Vince, the beginning of this year was one of the worst. Vince imploded. Completely. For the first month of the season, Vince had a 48% True Shooting Percentage, and he was shooting over 5 pull up jumpers per game from the bench in only 20 minutes. That's more pull up jumpers than Dirk has been taking all season.
It felt like Carter's swan song was over - his renaissance stolen too soon - his athleticism had finally collapsed just as soon as his more mature, wizened mentality kicked in. Our one-year glimpse at how we might have been able to remember Vince was over.
And then, something weird happened. Brandan Wright returned from a shoulder injury. All of a sudden, Vince was doing this again:
And some of this:
And then, VINSANITY WAS BACK:
If last year was the reinvention of Vince Carter, the moment where everyone watched and said, "look at Old Man Vince, who finally figured out how to the leader that we all doubted he could be," then this year is the re-reinvention of Vince Carter.
Last year was him proving to the world that he is a workhorse, that he has a killer worth ethic, that he wants it. This year, he's proving that he is, in fact, still alive, and that all of what we thought Vince was bringing last year is very much still on the table.
But it also appears that he needs his own personal Fountain of Youth to keep him spry and steely. When you watch any of the Brandan Wright gifs, you see the teams on defense either completely doubling up on Vince or getting sucked into the paint by the slashing Wright.
The Vince-Wright pick and roll is so deadly because each player demands attention. Vince is borderline elite shooting off the dribble, and Wright is a borderline elite finisher around the basket. Wright closes in lanes around the basket, which frees Vince to do what he does best on the perimeter. Vince draws doubles on the perimeter, which frees Wright to do what he does best at the basket. They're a match made in basketball heaven.
So it's no wonder that Vince does exponentially better with Wright on the team. Wright has said that he and Vince are close personally, and you can imagine the kind of chemistry that transcends plane rides and find it's way onto the court, where lobs float gently into the air and are brought down with a ferocity that humbles even the highest of fliers.
It's hard not to see the parallels in Wright - all the things that Vince might see of himself. Brandan is a fellow Carolina grad, picked primarily for his freakish athleticism and length. Like Vince, he's made a living above the rim, and a reputation as a man who - first and foremost - finishes plays.
And yet, Wright might be the antithesis of Carter. Wright's never had a showman-y personality, and he's never been a franchise centerpiece despite having almost as high a PER as Carter's career best. In his prime, Vinsanity was the perfect showman; the perfect individual, who was always playing within and for himself first. Wright, though, might be an almost perfect teammate: excellent, but thriving almost entirely within the role prescribed to him.
I have to imagine that Carter just needed a little bit of Brandan Wright all along, as proof that a quietly brilliant player, a helper and a winner foremost, can be a showman, too. For all the legit strategic reasons that the two make a deadly combo, and there are many, Vince may have learned as much from his young protege as Wright has learned from the old superstar: how to be useful in short stretches, or how to kill quietly. The suggestion carries some hubris, but Carter may have even learned some humility.
In fact, perhaps in a few years, when Vince is reminiscing over the 2000 Dunk Contest from his couch just as we are doing now, maybe we'll see the ghost of Vince Carter flying through the paint in a Mavericks uniform.
Brandan Wright. The re-re-reinvention of Vince Carter.