Vince Carter likely on his way out after showing his age in the desert

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PHOENIX — Vince Carter wouldn’t be such a bad player if he didn’t used to be Vince Carter.

You remember him, the guy who jumped over a seven-footer, delivered an all-time dunk contest performance and prompted Suns head coach Alvin Gentry to describe him as perhaps the most athletic performer to ever grace a basketball court in his prime.

But Vince Carter most certainly wasn’t that Vince Carter for the Phoenix Suns.

This Vince Carter could score you 30 every once in a while, but things weren’t pretty when he wasn’t hot and he even when he was Carter often shot himself out of his hot streak.

That’s why Vinsanity, as he used to be called, shot just 42.2 percent from the floor (his worst percentage since Toronto) to go with a 52.8 true shooting percentage, his lowest such mark since 2003-04.

All that led to Carter’s PER dropping just below the 15.00 average mark at 14.89 for the first time since John Hollinger began tracking it on ESPN.com in 2002-03. Before last year’s 17.11 he had never been below 18.9.

Although Carter was the only Sun without an MVP trophy to finish with a positive adjusted plus/minus rating (just barely at 0.58), it’s safe to say Carter’s decline is in full bloom.

The Suns acquired Carter to replace Jason Richardson’s team-leading scoring, and on the nights he did that they were a handful. But Carter took far too many bad shots, was allergic to the rim (only 21.1 percent of his shots came at the tin, a certifiable decrease from his past few years) and overall looked like a shell of his former All-Star self.

Still, Gentry said, “I think that it was about what we anticipated from the standpoint of there was going to be highs and lows with him. … It can happen and he can do it, I just don’t think we can count on him being that guy night in and night out.”

Looking ahead to next season the Suns have an easy decision on their hands as things pertain to Carter. They can either pay him his $18.3 million salary or pay just the $4 million of the salary that is guaranteed by June 30 and waive him (the guaranteed $4 mil will count against the Suns’ 2011-12 cap regardless).

KTAR’s Bryan Gibberman has made the argument that the Suns could try to use Carter as a massive expiring contract, but this is 2012, not 2010, so it’s doubtful a team with Knicks-level desperation will come along.

With the likely salary restrictions brought along by the new CBA the Suns would be severely hamstrung in making other moves, and that’s not worth the possibility that some team will make you a monster offer for his expiring deal.

What that means is barring the biggest surprise since Denver beat Seattle in ‘94, Vince Carter has played his last game as a member of the Phoenix Suns.

“He understands that his contract presents a challenge for us, and we’re going to be open and honest with him,” Lon Babby said.

Said Carter: “After 13 years in the league you just say ‘whatever happens, happens.’ I can’t worry about it. I’d love to come back. I love the friendship here with each one of these guys. I feel comfortable knowing what’s going on and what’s expected. Hopefully it works out. I hope you’re not thinking you’re going to get much more out of that from me than that.”

Even if Babby were Carter’s former agent (which he is not), Vince must understand the economics of a situation in which the Suns cannot pay an exorbitant salary to a player who is middling at best and only getting worse.

Considering the inevitable that this month will mark Carter’s last as a member of the organization, the question now is what kind of team would he fit with.

Perhaps the toughest transition in the league is that from superstar to role player, and it’s one that Carter must embrace if he wants to continue his career in the NBA. He need not look too far down the Suns’ clubhouse to see Grant Hill, a player who barely resembles the superstar of Fila/Sprite vintage but is still very effective.

However, based on his play last season I question what kind of contender would find a spot for him. Streaky, inefficient scoring is not generally the kind of thing a contender needs, but perhaps he can find a squad in need of some veteran scoring punch off the bench.

Otherwise I wonder if he will sign somewhere irrelevant like Iverson in Memphis (we all know how well that went) or T-Mac in Detroit.

As much as Suns fans criticized Carter this season, he did what a 34-year-old Vince Carter would be expected to do.

Sure, it would be great if he appeared to care more often (in more than his cliché-filled interviews), but it was always wishful thinking to expect Carter to just be rejuvenated by the desert and Nash and turn into a bonafide go-to player, a role the Suns never ended up filling.

Instead he was an inconsistent, inefficient gunner who did not resemble Vince Carter often enough.

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