There comes a time in the life cycle of an NBA player when his role begins to change. Whether due to age, injury, diminished skills, or a combination of the three, it happens with nearly all of them, usually as they reach their mid-to-late 30s. Some of them remain starters while merely shouldering lighter minute burdens and carrying slightly lower usage rates, others make a permanent move to the bench and become supplementary players, and still others vanish from the league entirely.
Maybe the finest example of the second type of player is Vince Carter. After 13 seasons as a full-blown superstar or high-level starter, Carter shifted to the bench full-time at the tail end of his age-35 season, when he was with the Dallas Mavericks. Five years and one move to the Memphis Grizzlies later, he's the oldest active player in the NBA, and one of just six players age 35 or older playing at least 20 minutes a night off the bench.
"It's super rare," Grizzlies coach David Fizdale says of Carter's late-career transformation. "Most superstars, when they're not gonna be a starter anymore, that's usually the time you see most stars hang it up. They usually walk away from the game at that point. You didn't see Jordan coming off the bench much, you know—you just don't see that stuff. For [Carter] to be able to adapt and put his ego to the side because he just wants to continue to be able to play and compete and have a chance to win a title, it says a lot about him."
At his peak, Carter was one of the most acrobatic, high-flying players the league has ever known. He'd break out dunk-contest dunks in the middle of the game, and nearly every foray to the rim ended with him attempting some sort of ridiculous finish. His athleticism wasn't limited to how high he could jump, though; his pull-up jumper was one of the deadliest in the league because of how quickly he could decelerate and come to a full stop before rising up to shoot over the top of his man. Old Vince, by contrast, is a three-and-D guy who mostly plays below the rim but occasionally ramps things back up to 11 with a throwback slam or a spinning, twisting lay-in.
The fact that Carter has been able to remain a useful player even with diminished athleticism doesn't shock Fizdale at all. Rather, it's the way he's been willing to subjugate his game that's the surprise.
"The part that's most phenomenal about it is his ability to adapt from an ego standpoint," Fizdale says. "You know, physically, I'm not surprised. Because we always see a player drop off that was maybe an above-average athlete. Well, Vince was way above average when it comes to athleticism. So, his drop-off, I didn't think, athletically would be that bad. The fact that he takes care of himself just adds to it, but the fact from an ego standpoint that he can say, 'You know what, I can come off the bench, when I was a superstar and a future Hall of Famer'—that's the part that's amazing to me."
That Carter had already made the transition from star to bench player made it all the easier for Fizdale to sell the same move to Zach Randolph.
Z-Bo had been a mainstay in the Memphis starting lineup for the entirety of the Grit N' Grind Era, whether under Lionel Hollins or Dave Joerger (Joerger did briefly move him to the bench midway through last season, but the experiment lasted all of 30 days). After taking over the head-coaching job last July, Fizdale felt that in order to get the most out of his three star players—Randolph, Mike Conley, and Marc Gasol—he had to shake things up.
"It's adapt or die in this league. That's where it's at," he says. "I just knew that the only way I was gonna be able to maximize Mike Conley is if I opened up the floor. So, one, moving Z-Bo to the bench away from Marc for a stretch helped that. And then asking Marc to step away farther from the rim, knowing that he was already a great 20-foot shooter anyway, why not develop a player at his 30s to do something even better?"
Randolph was initially reticent about moving to the bench, but he says he got comfortable with it by the time the season started. Conversations with Carter during the off-season and training camp helped him get to that place.
"When it first happened, I conversated with [Carter] a lot about the transition because when he was my age—35, in [Dallas]—that's when a coach wanted him to come off the bench. So, we kind of were in the same situation. So I talked to him a lot," Randolph says. "The negatives and the positives with the things he went through and the things I was going through and how to handle it. He helped me out a lot. He really did."
Randolph quickly came to realize that his actual role on the floor wouldn't change much; he'd just be on the court at different times, with some different combinations of players. He doesn't play nearly as many minutes with Gasol anymore, per Fizdale's plan—an attempt to mitigate the alarming trend where the duo's per-possession point differential had dropped each of the last four years.
Randolph has adapted to the new system. "I'm very comfortable right now," he says. "I'm just doing it at different times, different spots in the game. Coach has been giving me more minutes the last few weeks. I've just been picking and choosing, man, and doing whatever I can do—the best to help the team."
Fizdale is quick to point out that Randolph's usage rate is actually higher this season than at any time in the last few years, and it is: Z-Bo is using 28.8 percent of the Grizzlies' possessions while on the floor, his highest mark since the 2006-07 season (his final year in Portland) and tied for the second-highest of his career. His shooting efficiency has dipped a bit under the heavier burden, but playing fewer minutes has allowed him to hit the glass like a man possessed. He's working on the highest defensive rebound rate and second-highest total rebound rate of his career. (Told about his career-best rebounding numbers, Randolph quickly asked, "Really? I always averaged ten rebounds," before realizing, "Oh, it's per-minutes or percentage.")
Fizdale is thrilled with the effect the two old heads have had on his team's bench performance. "They give us stability," he says. "They don't panic." Their contributions aren't limited to the floor, either. Both veterans have played key roles in the maturity and development of the Grizzlies' young players. Carter let rookie Deyonta Davis have a room at his house this season, for example. Davis can just come over whenever he wants. "Here's a 20-year-old kid that doesn't know anything," Fizdale says. "Vince Carter, he's invaluable to me as a leader."
As for Randolph, he took replacement starter JaMychal Green under his wing immediately after hearing that Green would be assuming his spot in the lineup. "The first person he went to was J-Mike and said, 'Hey, do a great job. Play hard. Compete every night. Set the tone for the game.' And I think that really loosened J-Mike up to go out and do the job," Fizdale notes.
Fifty-seven games into the season, everything's working out pretty much as the Grizzlies imagined. They're on pace for 49 wins and a top-six seed in the Western Conference despite extended absences from Conley, Randolph, and off-season acquisition Chandler Parsons. They're once again cleaning up in close games and once again outperforming their point differential. Gasol is an All-Star, Conley probably should have been one, Z-Bo has adjusted as well as can be expected to his new role, and Fizdale is pleased with the team's progress on pretty much all fronts. The Grizz are an old-head team led by old-head players, but this season has shown that it's not too late for them to learn some new tricks.
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