Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Vince Carter: Hall of Famer?

This title is meant to surprise you and, you know, make you want to read the rest of this post, but in reality it is a real possibility. Tonight, Vince Carter passed Larry Bird on the career points scored list and is #29 all-time. That's right, of all the players who have ever played in the NBA, Vince Carter has scored more points than all but 28. Carter isn't even done. He's actually had a solid season for Dallas (posting an above-average PER despite being 36 years old) and with his size and 3-point range, he figures to hang around at least a couple more years.

Vince Carter will certainly go down as one of the best -- if not the best -- dunkers of all time, but he was never a dominant player in the league. He made eight consecutive All-Star games between 2000-2007 (thanks in large part to his dunking prowess), but he only made one 2nd team All-NBA and one 3rd team All-NBA. Basically, Vince Carter in his prime resembled a Joe Johnson or a Danny Granger-- a second-tier star capable of getting you into the playoffs but no further (insert snarky joke by a non-Knicks fan about Melo here). However, as interesting as Vince's career has been, it raises an even better question in my mind: how do we measure the contributions of this current aging generation of late 90s draft picks historically?

Vince Carter was drafted in 1998 out of North Carolina, but he is basically the same age as the current generation of fading stars. These include, Dirk, Duncan, Kobe, KG, Kidd, Jamison, Pierce, Allen, Iverson (I'm still holding out hope that he comes back--I'm an idiot), and Nash. This group basically has been the face of the league or at least really good players for the past 15 plus years (Shaq and LeBron deserve mention here as well). The most amazing thing is that they are still relevant. Duncan, Dirk, Kobe, KG, and Pierce are all top-30 players now and Nash and Ray Allen aren't too far removed from those ranks themselves. 6 of the top 24 all-time points leaders (a Finals MVP rate!) are currently still in the league.

This generation's ability to outlast any other generation stems from our advancements in technology, better understanding of health, weight training, charter planes, etc., and isn't all that surprising. The bigger question is what to make of it. Grantland recently wrote about the swan songs for the ringless members of this elder generation of players positing that most of these guys have had their best chance at a ring, but it failed to look at them historically--so I'll try here.

Basketball is one of the easiest sports to look at era-by-era for a number of reasons. The rules have remained largely the same (the 3-point line being a huge exception), the league has been around for less time than baseball and football so there is footage of a higher percentage of guys, and the league didn't have to deal with racial integration to the same extent as baseball or a completely new strategy like in football with the ubiquity of passing. Era-by-era comparisons for football make little sense. For example, Favre, Marino, and Elway all sport career QB ratings in the 80s, or Sam Bradfordville as it is known today. Baseball can be split up into several periods: the high mound era, the pre-Jackie Robinson era, the PED era, etc., so that Sammy Sosa's 600+ home runs don't make him a better player than Mickey Mantle.

This isn't the case in the NBA. The best players typically score between 25-30 points, the best rebounders typically get over 10 a game, and careers tend to last 12-16 years for the best players.  This is an oversimplification, but I think more so than in other sports, a guy like Kareem or Magic could come in and have a similar level of success in today's game as they did in their time. However, this generation of players is  changing this norm, and all of a sudden we have to figure out how to rank these guys historically. This generation isn't an anomaly, but the start of a new normal for longevity and record-breaking.

Vince Carter will likely crack the top 25 before his playing career is over, but no one would argue that he is a top-25 player of all time. Points per game is obviously a lousy metric alone to measure a player's historical rank, but where do we rank Vince? Is he a top-50 player ever? Top-100? The guy made 2 All-NBA teams but stuck around long enough to outscore dozens of NBA Hall of Famers. 111 guys have made 3 or more All-NBA teams (a metric I keep using because it gives a better sense of who were the best players at each position season by season). Basically, with the counting stats achieved by Vince (sort of like a Craig Biggio in baseball) and other players of this generation, we have to throw out all-time records and start to look at players more and more based on how they performed in their era.

Obligatory in all Vince Carter-related writing

I don't really have a good answer about what to make of Vince Carter's achievement tonight and what it means about his career. He might be in Springfield some day, but I'll remember him as an incredible dunker who got fat and McNabb'ed a neard, but, you know, was also a really good player. The same can be said for Nash and Ray Allen and Paul Pierce (the really good player part not the neard thing). These really good but not superstar players will have hung around long enough to eviscerate the records of many other, better players. Maybe their longevity makes them better, I don't know. But I'm sure we'll be talking about it for a long time.

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