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How Do You Play In Four Decades? Vince Carter Has The Formula.

Ageless Atlanta Hawks swingman Vince Carter made basketball history last weekend when he became the first player in NBA history to appear in a game in four different decades. Way back on Feb. 5, 1999, Carter made his NBA debut for the Toronto Raptors — scoring 16 points with three rebounds and two assists in 31 minutes. On Saturday, exactly 20 years, 10 months and 30 days later, he ushered in the 2020s by scoring 3 points with three rebounds and one assist in 18 minutes.

Carter joins a sports four-decade club that has 29 members in baseball (including Ken Griffey Jr. and Ted Williams, as well as FiveThirtyEight favorite Jamie Moyer), two members in football (kickers John Carney and George Blanda — apologies to Tom Brady, who debuted in November 2000, a year too late to represent the 1990s) and 14 in hockey (including three guys — Zdeno Chara, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau — who joined last week). Hockey also has Gordie Howe, who debuted at age 18 in 1946 and played an NHL game in five different decades, the last of which happened at age 52 (!!) in 1980.

But Carter’s long career is notable as much for the kind of player he once was — and the different one he is now — as it is about that four-decade milestone. Carter is an eight-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA player who finished 10th in MVP voting in 2000 and second overall in our RAPTOR wins above replacement metric in 2001. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Carter has a 95 percent chance of making the Basketball Hall of Fame — and I think that might be underselling his chances.

(He also gave us the greatest dunk contest performance in history, at All-Star Weekend in February 2000.)

When HOF-level players like Carter get older, they tend to keep trying to play like a star as long as possible. Those who can adapt to their reduced skills are the ones who manage to hang on the longest, but great players’ careers usually end after a few seasons when they try to do a version of what they have always done, but it becomes clear that it doesn’t “work” anymore. (Either that, or they don’t have the endurance or durability to do it over the grind of a full season anymore.)

For instance, in 2015, Peyton Manning tried to be the same quarterback who had thrown for 55 touchdowns a few years before … but it just didn’t work. When that became clear, he retired after Denver won the Super Bowl (despite his poor passing season). He wasn’t going to willingly turn into a clipboard-holder for whoever replaced him as starter. Likewise, once it became clear that Wizards-era Michael Jordan was a shadow of the player he used to be, he walked away from the game. MJ wasn’t going to hang around long enough to be a role player at the end of Washington’s bench, mentoring Kwame Brown.

But Carter is different. He was a star for a long time, but it’s also been a long time since he was a star. After leaving the New Jersey Nets in 2009, he’s bounced around among six different NBA franchises: the Magic, Suns, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Kings and now Hawks. He hasn’t ranked any better than 95th in RAPTOR WAR since 2014, and he hasn’t even averaged double figures in scoring over the past six seasons. Right now, he logs 16 minutes a night and scores 5 points per game, numbers that we wouldn’t have expected Carter to hang around for.

Carter hasn’t overstayed his NBA welcome too much, of course. He was still an above-average player (+0.5 points per 100 possessions) by RAPTOR as recently as 2018, carving out a useful niche as a wing who could do a little bit of everything (scoring, shooting, rebounding, etc.) for 15 to 20 minutes a night off the bench. Even now, he provides value as a locker-room mentor for young Hawks like Trae Young and John Collins.

But that’s also what makes Carter such an exception to the rule of NBA stardom: He has been willing to sublimate his ego in a way that we have basically never seen before in league history.

To investigate this, I looked back to the ABA-NBA merger and searched for players who had qualified seasons1 both with 20 or more points per game (after adjusting for pace)2 and fewer than 10 points per game. Carter has had 11 pace-adjusted seasons with 20 or more PPG, which is tied for the 15th-most of any player since 1976. But he also had five seasons under 10 PPG (and possibly a sixth this year, if he plays 10 more games). That’s easily the most single-digit PPG seasons by any player who also had at least 10 seasons of more than 20 PPG. (The only other player who’s really Carter-like in that regard is Gary Payton, who had four single-digit PPG seasons after being above 20 PPG nine times.)

Carter is unique among post-merger NBA stars

NBA players who had the most qualified seasons with at least 20 pace-adjusted points per game (PPG), along with their number of seasons of fewer than 10 points per game, 1976-2020

Qual. Seasons with…
Player Tot. Seasons PPG >= 20 PPG < 10
Karl Malone 19 17 0
LeBron James 17 16 0
Kobe Bryant 20 15 1
Hakeem Olajuwon 18 14 1
Carmelo Anthony 17 14 0
Shaquille O’Neal 19 14 0
Dirk Nowitzki 21 13 2
Paul Pierce 19 13 1
Allen Iverson 14 13 0
Michael Jordan 15 13 0
Tim Duncan 19 12 1
Patrick Ewing 17 12 1
Dwyane Wade 16 12 0
Dominique Wilkins 15 12 0
Vince Carter 22 11 5
Moses Malone 19 11 1
Mitch Richmond 14 11 1
Charles Barkley 16 11 0
Larry Bird 13 11 0
Kevin Durant 12 11 0
Reggie Miller 18 11 0
Kevin Garnett 21 10 2
Clyde Drexler 15 10 1
Antawn Jamison 16 10 1
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 13 10 0
LaMarcus Aldridge 14 10 0
Ray Allen 18 10 0
Adrian Dantley 15 10 0
Chris Webber 15 10 0

The pace adjustment is to 100 possessions per 48 minutes. To qualify, a player had to play at least 40 games in a season.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

(And if we flip it around and look for players who had at least five single-digit PPG seasons, nobody is even close to Carter’s 11 seasons of 20 or more PPG. Terry Cummings had seven seasons over 20 PPG and five under 10.)

So Carter is unique in the way he has been both a true star and a true role player — the latter largely by choice — in the same career. He told ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz last summer, “Nobody is bigger than the game.” Carter is living by that maxim by staying in the game as long as he has, morphing from a huge star to a secondary scorer to a role player … and then finally to a mentor who doesn’t play much and seldom scores.

That’s a great formula for sticking around to play in four decades. But we hardly ever see it, because few stars can rein in their ego enough to go through that full evolution. Carter did, and that in and of itself is as notable as the fact that he played in both the 1990s and the 2020s.

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Footnotes

  1. A minimum of 40 games.

  2. Specifically, I adjusted every season to a pace factor of 100 possessions per 48 minutes.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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