Putting the "Vince-Carter-vs.-Hedo-Turkoglu-in-Crunch-Time" Debate to Rest

Like Bethlehem Shoals, I'm flabbergasted that NBA fans and analysts continue to debate whether or not the Orlando Magic improved by adding Vince Carter and losing Hedo Turkoglu. We've written on this topic several times, so I apologize in advance if there's redundancy here, but there are apparently more facts that need clarifying. The sooner we end this debate, the better.

Anyway, the Magic's decision to trade for Carter essentially indicated that they would let the free-agent-to-be Turkoglu pack his bags; as NetsDaily reported recently, the Magic stepped up their efforts to land Carter from New Jersey when Turkoglu rejected an informal contract offer over the previous weekend. Although technically the final swap the Magic made with the Nets was Rafer Alston, Tony Battie, and Courtney Lee for Ryan Anderson and Carter, it's fair to say Turkoglu left in that deal as well, as it made clear the Magic did not intend to re-sign him.

So yes, it's reasonably accurate to say that the Magic expect Carter to fill almost, but not all, of the roles Turkoglu held over the last two seasons, under coach Stan Van Gundy, where he became more of a playmaker and less of a spot-up shooter. (The most notable exception is inbounds passing, where Matt Barnes will take over for Hedo). Plenty of NBA writers, most recently ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan, have expressed their opinion that Carter cannot duplicate Turkoglu's crunch-time production. Turk came up big in big moments for Orlando in the last 2 seasons--I count two game-winning shots in the regular season, one in the postseason, the Game Of His Life (25 points, 5 boards, 12 assists, 91.6% eFG%) when the Magic eliminated the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season. High-profile heroics aside, readily available data show that Carter is the superior clutch performer.

Here, we're using 82games.com's highly esteemed definition of "clutch," which reads as follows:

4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points

To get a better idea of both players' clutch statistics, I surveyed 82games' data for the two most recent seasons; 2007/08 is available here, and 2008/09 is available here. I've presented what I believe to be the most relevant statistics in this table:

Crunch Time Per-48-minute Productivity and Shooting Percentages for Vince Carter and Hedo Turkoglu, 2007/08 and 2008/09 NBA Seasons
Player Season Pts FG% 3FG% FT% Asts TOs
Carter 2007/08 33.8 44.2 40.9 89 6.0 2.7
Turkoglu " 38.2 40.2 39.4 81 4.9 3.7
Carter 2008/09 34.3 50.0 50.0 85 4.3 3.4
Turkoglu " 26.7 35.7 20.0 88 3.6 1.4

Indeed, the statistics illustrate Carter's higher efficiency in both seasons, as he shot better from the field and from three-point range both times, and markedly so most recently. He's also the better playmaker, with significantly more assists in both years, although his turnovers more than doubled Turkoglu's last year.

What's quite jarring about these data is just how far off Turkoglu dropped last year. His three-point accuracy in crunch time dropped in half, and his overall shooting by one-eighth. And although it's not included in the table, Turk's 38.2 points-per-48-minutes of crunch time in 2007/08 is an astounding 50.4% increase over his entire per-48-minute scoring output that year. Unsurprisingly, he did not sustain that increase last season, as his per-48-minute output increase in crunch time was a less impressive 20.4%. In fairness to him, it's still an increase.

But Carter's scoring improvement, on a percentage-increase basis? 28.5% in 2007/08, and 26.6% last year, which suggests that we can reasonably expect him to improve his scoring in crunch time by roughly one-quarter. Turk's inconsistency in that metric, by contrast, makes him far less predictable, and reliable, as a crunch-time performer.

For readers who dispute 82games' definition of clutch, who believe that only playoff performance matters, and thus maintain that Turkoglu's postseason buckets trump anything Carter's done lately, we respond: fair. After all, Carter's Nets have failed to play postseason basketball in each of the last two years--coincidentally, when Turkoglu really gained national attention--and in Carter's last playoff apperance he did not play especially well: 22.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game we like, but 39.6% shooting from the field and 3.2 turnovers... not so much. My counter is that Carter is, barring a catastrophic injury or combination of injuries to key Magic players, assured of a playoff chance this year. And if his recent regular-season clutch ability holds up in the postseason, the Magic are inarguably better off with him than with Turkoglu.

I don't mean to sound like I'm bashing Turk here; that's not what this post is about, and I actually quite like him. It's just that he is, on the whole, a less efficient, and less reliable, crunch-time performer than Carter is. The data--just a few keystrokes away on any computer with internet access--reflect that, which is why it puzzles me that some NBA scribes are hammering the notion that Turk is superior into our heads. He played well in some nationally televised games, and played poorly in many others; through the first 3 games of the Philadelphia series he shot 23.3% from the field and averaged 11 points per game. Is all that enough to trump Carter's longer track record of higher efficiency? If some benighted NBA analysts are to be believed, the answer is "yes." The facts, however, say otherwise.

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