Saturday, April 24, 2010

Vince Carter: Savior or Zero?

Vince Carter is no longer part of the elite group of NBA players. He is not a great scorer, not a great defender and no longer the finisher he was once. Vince Carter is basically no longer a franchise player. And yet, the Magic will count on him in the next few weeks to help them win the NBA title. Kanye West has a song in which the chorus goes: "Everything I'm not made me everything I am." Vince Carter has had an intriguing NBA career to say the least. For the past few years, we have all openly wondered: "how comes he doesn't get it?" No one can grasp why such a talented  player does so little. As a result, he has had several shots taken at him over the course of his career. Earlier this week, Orlando Pinstriped did a feature on him giving some insights on his playoff performances with the New Jersey Nets. The feature was prompted by an article that ESPN's Bill Simmons wrote about Vince's inability to be counted on in big moments. As a result, naysayers will tell you that the Magic cannot win an NBA championship with Vince Carter as the main perimeter scoring threat. Is that statement entirely accurate? Not quite.

Before we tackle that, let's look back at Vince Carter's career in the NBA. Back in 1998, I recall seeing VC play in his first NBA game with the Toronto Raptors (during the lockout year) and I knew then and there that he would be a star. He had all the gifts: good scorer, good ball handler, decent passing game, could not be guarded one on one, outrageous athletic ability, fearless when attacking the basket, finished with authority and understood when to defer to his teammates. With that said though, Carter's biggest accomplishment in his rookie season was that he made Canadians care. As a Canadian resident, believe me when I say this: Canada revolves around hockey. If you're trying to broker a deal with someone and they are being stubborn about it and keep low balling you, just talk about hockey and your odds automatically improve. In other words, hockey is the Canadian currency.

And yet, things changed after 1998. You see, general NBA fans thank Vince Carter because he brought back the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest (admit it, some of you forgot that the NBA had decided to no longer have the dunk contest and then changed their mind after seeing Vince dunk on people in NBA games). What most fans fail to realize is that Carter made NBA basketball cool in Canada. Once Carter made a big splash in the league, people were now being envied for having Raptors tickets and all of a sudden hockey wasn't the only sport that Canadians paid attention to. In fact, Carter's ascension in the NBA led to sports channels in Canada finally displaying actual basketball highlights on their sports recap shows (in case you were wondering, they used to just show the scores of the previous night's NBA games). As far as illustrations go, Carter was like the first ever cocaine dealer to hit the streets of Miami; so in other words, he completely changed the culture all by himself. Truth be told, some Raptors fans might not want to hear it, but Carter essentially made the NBA a viable product in Canada.

Keep in mind though, Carter's success wasn't limited to gravity defying dunks. Vince Carter was actually an elite NBA player. He led his team to the playoffs a few times and was part of an epic second round seven game series with the Philadelphia 76ers. After getting eliminated by the Sixers, the general consensus at the time was that the team wasn't ready for primetime but that with a few additions they would be able to compete for the Eastern Conference crown.  

Unfortunately for Raptors fans, that would be the farthest that the former Tar Heel would bring them. His following seasons are barely remembered because of all the games missed due to injuries and the team's inability to be successful in the absence of their star player. By 2005, things had reached the point of no return.  Carter was no longer known as "Half Man, Half Amazing"; instead fans and sports journalists playfully began calling him "Half Man, Half a Season" because of his inability to suit up for games.  Carter in turn became unhappy during the offseason because the franchise failed to grant an interview to Julius Erving for the vacant general manager's position (Carter wanted the Raps to at least consider Dr. J. and they failed to do so); and he requested to be traded. By the time the season started, Carter was still Raptor and he seemed completely disinterested with the team. He failed to attack the basket, drifted on the perimeter (seriously, Carter stood at the three point line like a homeless person waiting for change) and refused to take games over in the fourth quarter. For about a month and half with the Raptors, Carter averaged 30.4 minutes per game; here's what he produced:

15.9 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.1 APG, 41.1 FG%, 3.6 FTAG (free throw attempts per game).

By December 2005, Carter finally got his wish and was traded away to New Jersey where he got the opportunity to play alongside Jason Kidd. All of a sudden, Vince Carter cared again. Look at his averages after the trade (his playing time went up to 38.9 minutes per game):

27.5 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 4.7 APG, 46.2 FG%, 6.8 FTAG

So the numbers increased in Jersey but so did the playing time, so is it really fair to say that he cared more? Look at the free throw attempts, they nearly doubled. Carter was no longer floating around the perimeter and firing away jump shots; instead Carter became the highflyer that everyone had fallen in love with in the years before. He was attacking the basket and once again accepted the burden of being the team's go to scorer. At this point, Vince Carter became the most hated man in Canada. Fans clearly saw that Vince tried harder in New Jersey and that he wanted to be there. To add insult to injury, that same season Carter had an interview with TNT's John Thompson in which he basically said that he had stopped trying in Toronto. The most forgiving of fans could no longer root for Carter and that's when he became our very own basketball version of Tony Montana; everybody's favorite bad guy (well, he was probably second to some random NBA player that was accused of rape in Eagle, Colorado).

Some NBA fans still rooted for VC and cheered him on every time he made an amazing play; however they weren't sure how long this Carter version would last. They kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Indeed, after a career full of injuries, we all waited for Carter to get that one injury that would cripple him. But here's the odd thing, it never happened. Look at the amount of games he appeared in while playing for the Nets (the 2004-05 season, Carter played 20 games with the Raptors and 57 with the Nets):

Games played

Although we view the 2000 dunk champ as a frail player with less street credibility than Spongebob Squarepants (seriously, if you had to pick the winner of a fight involving Vince Carter and Chris Brown, you'd pick the young dancing R&B singer that was viewed by some to be the next Michael Jackson right?), Carter has been able to play in most of his team's games in the past few seasons. The problem is no longer his availability to play, it's rather his level commitment to his teams.

Indeed, in his last two seasons in the swamp, Carter's scoring, field goal and free throw attempts gradually decreased. Mind you, we do not really need a CSI to analyze the evidence: the dip in Vince's stats coincides with the departure of Jason Kidd from the Nets. And keep in mind, the word around town was that Kidd could no longer play with Carter because he routinely gave less than 100%. Once the former Nets point guard moved on to Dallas, Carter's production took a hit. Carter had no one to push him, so he seemingly stopped giving his maximum effort.

 Knowing all this, why did a team that made the NBA Finals last year take a chance by trading for Vince Carter? They figured they could probably motivate him to play at an elite level for at least one postseason, and that it would help them win a title. But what can Carter do to help the Magic win a title? The obvious answer is score. But we might need to dig a bit deeper. Have a look at Vince Carter's points per game and free throws attempted per game in wins versus the top three seeds in both conferences:

PPG in Wins
FTAG in Wins

Nothing that jumps out. Let's now have a look at the same statistics in losses versus the top three seeds in each conference:

PPG in Losses
FTAG in Lossess

The scoring is just about the same, however there is a difference in the free throw shooting. Carter shot twice as many free throws in wins as he did in losses. What that tells me is that when Carter comes out aggressive, his team tends to follow suit. But if he comes out bombing three pointers, the rest of the squad follows. Keep in mind, I'm well aware that 5.6 free throws per game is not a big amount of free throws, but it's matter of team mindset. Don't believe me? The Magic have defeated the Charlotte Bobcats three times in the playoffs so far and Vince Carter is averaging six free throw attempts per game.

With that said, can the player formerly known as Air Canada do it for four straight playoff rounds? Recent history seems to point towards the negative. In his last playoff series back in the 2006-2007 season; Carter seemingly wore down as the postseason went along.  Look at what Carter did in the first eight Nets playoff games that season:


Good production from the former UNC player, but look at what he did in his last four games:


Carter was able to get to the line more but his scoring as well as field goal percentage went down as the games wore on him. Considering that Orlando needs to win 16 games (and could potentially play 28 playoff games if every round were to go to seven games) to get the title, why did they bring Carter aboard?

That's the dirty little secret that Otis Smith does not want you to know. He wants you to take his team lightly and underestimate them. But the truth is this: Vince Carter does not have to carry the Magic. The Magic have to carry him. Orlando already has a franchise center (last I checked, those are the guys that win titles and they are pretty rare) to carry the team; and they have tons of firepower on offense. Between Mickel Pietrus, Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis, there's plenty of shots to go around. All Orlando needs from Vince is 16 & 5. Not 30, 25 or even 20 points; just 16 points and five free throw attempts. Before you completely dismiss that notion, just remember it worked for Boston two years ago when Pierce and Ray Allen actually shared the scoring burden in crunch time on their way to a title. If the Magic can make Carter care just enough, they're may be a parade in Orlando come June.

Photo by: Streeter Lecka/ Getty Images
From: ESPN
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