Considering Context in Otis Smith's Prior Words and Vince Carter's Prior Actions

Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith certainly has a way with words. He's not the type of guy who tries to speak in sound-bites, but almost everything he says winds up quoted somewhere, because it just sounds good. Indiana Pacers executive Larry Bird is the same way.

He's also famous for obfuscation, as many other GMs and basketball executives are. Just a few days before sending the expiring deals of Rafer Alston and Tony Battie, along with talented rookie Courtney Lee, to the New Jersey Nets for Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson, he downplayed the value of expiring contracts in today's trading market. Kyle Hightower of the Orlando Sentinel has the paraphrase (and if anyone can find the actual quote, please pass it along):

Smith contends that the expiring contracts of players [...] aren't as valuable as they would have been in previous years, though.

And some comments he made a few years ago about Carter have circulated around the internet, as the internet enables such things to do. Dave D'Alessandro of The Star Ledger refreshed everyone's memory last night. Here's Smith, in 2007, explaining why he didn't acquire Carter when he could have had him for Hedo Turkoglu, Darko Milicic, and J.J. Redick:

"I'm not going to take a step back and fall for what I call fool's gold," Smith said then. "It shines and it glitters, but it just doesn't stick or pass the test."

In response to that quote, Andrea Adelson of the Orlando Sentinel wrote this column panning Thursday's deal. Her sentiments seem to echo those of many Magic fans, who haven't yet come around on the trade. Here's an excerpt from Adelson on which I'd like to focus:

So if Carter was fool's gold then, has he somehow polished himself up and turned into solid gold now despite two more years of wear and tear on his body?

NBA pundits have praised the Magic for going all in with the blockbuster deal Thursday because it proves how serious they are about winning a title. But it was just two weeks ago the Magic were actually playing for said championship.

This squad was not the Knicks. They were not the Clippers. The last two weeks may have felt interminable, but the Magic did finish second in the entire league, right?

Yet management felt the need to nuke the roster in its attempt to win now. So it got rid of a promising player in Courtney Lee and help for Dwight Howard in Tony Battie, all for an aging former all-star who has a history of injuries.

These are valid points. Two years ago, Carter was "fool's gold." Now the Magic have dumped 40% of their starting lineup in the NBA Finals for him and Anderson, a number which will increase to 60% once Hedo Turkoglu departs, as is more-or-less inevitable.

But there's something missing here. Let's remember context. At the 2007 trading deadline, the Magic's record stood at 27-28. Acquiring Carter for Turkoglu, a solid starter at small forward, although not nearly the player he became under Stan Van Gundy the following season; Milicic, the prize of the 2006 deadline and a free-agent-to-be whom they hoped to re-sign; and Redick, a rookie whom the Magic drafted in the lottery in June; would have been a lateral move at the very best. They wouldn't have finished much better than 40-42; wouldn't have won more than 1 playoff game; and wouldn't have been able to sign Rashard Lewis in the offseason, as they wound up doing. They'd probably want to commit long-term money to Carter, or at least to Milicic. Let me put it this way: it's one thing for a mediocre team to trade all its assets for a 30-year-old All-Star. It smacks of "just being happy to be there," of just wanting to please the hometown fans with a crowd-favorite, even if it means the team won't actually improve.

This is the key difference: it's quite another thing for a championship contender to do the same thing for the same player, albeit 2 years older. Say what you will about Vince's age--he's 2 years older than Turkoglu is now, and he'll take over his role as the secondary ball-handler and primary perimeter scoring option--but it's irrefutable that he's a better player than Turk, and a likely Hall-of-Famer. I didn't ask Otis this question directly, so maybe I'm mistaken, but to me, the "fool's gold" remark meant that Carter was fools' gold for a borderline lottery team, as the Magic were when he made that comment. But for a championship contender? Not pyrite. The real thing.

Think of it this way: the San Antonio Spurs have angled for Carter since at least this year's trading deadline, and only settled for Richard Jefferson, his former Nets teammate and an inferior player, earlier this week when the Nets made it clear they wanted more than just expiring deals for him. The Spurs have one of the best and brightest front offices in all the NBA, if not all of professional sports. If they're targeting a guy, especially a perimeter guy to surround a franchise center, then there's a damn good reason for it. If he's good enough for the Spurs, he's definitely good enough for anyone else. Surely some Magic fans on the proverbial fence regarding Carter can acknowledge that much.

More commentary on the Carter trade follows the jump.

Adelson's second point, that media praise of the Carter deal rings hollow because Carter doesn't actually improve the team, just doesn't sit right with me. As we've explained in prior posts, Carter is an upgrade over Turkoglu; ditto with Anderson and Battie. Throw in the fact that Mickael Pietrus is better than, just not as consistent as, Lee; and the fact that management will go into the luxury-tax to pay for the right players; and every indication is that the team will likely be even better than the version that went to the Finals. There's no guarantee that Turkoglu would have returned before the Carter trade. Even if he had, there's no guarantee the Magic would have been any better off. Marc Stein said it better than I ever could:

In a step up from what Atlanta did with its deal for Jamal Crawford -- which should allow the Hawks to cope just fine if re-signing Mike Bibby gets too pricey -- Orlando didn't just protect itself against Turkoglu's departure. The Magic have potentially upgraded even if he leaves.

I've always believed Turkoglu is supremely underrated in terms of his importance to the Magic, but Carter's arrival [...] gives them an accomplished driver and defender whose homecoming to central Florida will enable Stan Van Gundy to flank Dwight Howard with three All-Stars (Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson and Carter) and defensive specialist Mickael Pietrus. Orlando can focus its free-agent business on hanging onto Marcin Gortat, which also is bound to be a bidding war but on a more palatable scale.

Think of this NBA offseason as a bizarre baseball game in which three teams compete. The Magic are 2 runs up on the Boston Celtics and 3 up on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Trading for Carter and Anderson while letting Turk walk could be, in baseball parlance, an "insurance run" tacked on. Two prominent NBA writers have, however, used more glowing terms to describe it. ESPN.com analyst Chad Ford called it "a home run," while Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo! Sports specified the length of said jimmy-jack, saying it's "a 450-foot" shot.

Enough garbled metaphors (3-team baseball game? what?), though. There's one more point to address, one which Adelson has mentioned and many others have echoed, essentially that Carter is past-his-prime and a quitter.

I can't say that I blame a fanbase of being wary of its team dealing a 24-year old rookie in order to replace him with a 32-year-old veteran, even a Hall-of-Famer, who used to be noted for his astonishing athleticism. I also can't fault Magic fans for being wary of Carter's decision to quit on the Toronto Raptors five years ago, when he tanked the first 20 games of their season by shooting 41.1% and scoring only 15.9 points per game--a year after averaging 24.5--in order to force a trade. Carter's cousin, Tracy McGrady, sulked through a similar season in Orlando the year prior. Once bitten, twice shy, etc. But again, let's remember context. It's never excusable to quit on a team, so don't misconstrue my comments as trying to let Carter off the hook for what amounts to giving the finger to his team and its fans. With that said, he had grown tired of the Raptors' empty promises to surround him with winning talent. He was sick of being The Man on a crappy team.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Carter, the millionaire athlete, and his first-world problems. Woe is him. But at 28, the prime of his career, he got fed up with losing. I'm sure he's not proud of that experience now, especially since it resulted in a few futile years with the Nets in which he had better teammates, but hardly any playoff success.

But let's contrast that situation--prime of his career, crappy team, sick of not having help--to his present one in Orlando. He's near the end of the line; near his hometown; playing for a contending team, as likely its second offensive option; with three other All-Stars, including the first reliable center with whom he's played in his 11 professional seasons. That's a stark difference in fortune. Could there be a better situation for him in the entire league than the one he's in now? And could there have been much worse of one than in Toronto in 2004? Again, I don't mean to make excuses for the man. Shareef Abdur-Rahim played his heart out in each of his 28,882 minutes in the NBA, and for awful teams. He didn't reach the playoffs until 2005/2006, his 10th season, managing all of 126 minutes before his Sacramento Kings bowed out against the Spurs. That's how one is meant to handle adversity in professional sports, not by forcing a trade, as Carter did. With that said, he's in an ideal situation here in Orlando. Once you consider the context, there is quite literally no rational reason for Magic fans to question his effort.

Before concluding, an admission by way of an aside: I was not a Carter fan in 2007, when the Magic could have pursued him in free agency, and deemed him the team's fifth-best option, behind Mo Williams, Chauncey Billups, Gerald Wallace, and Lewis. Here are excerpts from my appraisal of Carter, dated June 25th, 2007... or two years to the day before the Magic traded for him:

Vince Carter is overrated.

[....]

Once joining the Nets in a trade in December 2004, Carter's scoring, shooting, rebounding, and assists totals increased. Although it's true he played more minutes, the nature of the comments he made makes one question whether he just "flipped a switch" and decided to play hard. That has to trouble Carter's potential suitors because it demonstrates that Carter is capable of holding himself back considerably and to the detriment of the team.

His ability to play well in clutch situations should also be in question, especially after last season's mental lapses in the Nets' playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers [....]

[....]

[....] Carter's age makes him less than ideal as a free-agent, at least as far as the Magic are concerned.

[....]

Maybe I'm being too harsh in my assessment of Carter. He has been an All-Star in each of the past eight seasons and is one of the league's premier scorers. But he distinguished himself not with stellar play during games, but with jaw-dropping dunks during one of the league's more memorable All-Star Weekends. And that's not something I can get over.

[....]

Would I be sad to see Vince Carter in a Magic uniform? No, because he's still talented. However, I would be disappointed knowing that the Magic could have done better.

Additionally, I expressed satisfaction ("It's just as well [....] Carter's age and attitude would have made him a questionable choice") when Carter agreed to re-sign with the Nets. Orlando is now on the hook for that contract. Funny.

I mention these quotes not to undermine my own argument in this post, on this date--although that might be an ancillary result--but only in the interest of full disclosure. I was as against the Magic signing Carter then as many fans are about trading for him now. And I thought it was important, in the interests of my own credibility, to acknowledge as much in this post lest I face accusations of hypocrisy down the line. Hey, if I rail against people for the attitude/age issue now, it's not fair for me to try to sweep my own past criticism of Carter--on the same grounds, no less--under the rug.

And so what began as an exercise in how to read Smith ends reading more like an exhaustive defense of the man for whom he traded two days ago. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I suppose. The takeaways are, in whichever order you choose: that GMs are secretive by nature, and that we must consider context when ripping Carter--or anyone--for his past mistakes. With those factors accounted for, we can better understand Smith's prior comments on Carter, and why this deal looks like a better one than many Magic fans are willing to believe.

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