Fairly or unfairly, it seems to me that Vince Carter has become, for whatever reason, the prime example of what's wrong with the Orlando Magic. Carter's popularity among the league's fans has waned in recent years as he's aged and become a less impressive player, which makes sense, I suppose, but I also feel like he shoulders an undue portion of the blame whenever Orlando struggles, and doesn't receive nearly enough credit when it thrives. Since the Magic have lost four straight for just the second time in four years, the former situation is in effect. I don't mean to pile on, but it's true that Carter has cooled off after a very strong start to the season. What's wrong?
To be clear, I don't think Carter's having a horrible year by any means. He's puting up 15 points, 4.1 boards, and 3 assists per game and has never scored more efficiently with a True Shooting mark of 55.9 percent. Given his fairly limited role, he's performing about as well as one might expect.
But that's just the problem. The biggest issue with Carter's play, as I see it, has nothing to do with Carter himself but rather the way Orlando's deployed him. On a per-game basis, he barely ranks ahead of point guard Jameer Nelson in shooting possessions used, at 13.5; Dwight Howard has a huge edge on the field, using 18.3 per game. Recall that shooting possessions estimates offensive involvement by adding field-goal attempts to free-throw attempts, while using a coefficient of 0.44 ahead of the foul shots to adjust for the fact that they tend to come in twos. In any case, Carter's shooting possession usage is down from even last season, when he used 15.3 such possessions per game.
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy has tried limiting Carter to around 30 minutes per game this season in order to keep him fresh for the playoffs, which makes sense, given that Carter turns 34 next month. But when he is in the game, I fear he isn't involved enough. The Magic run a pretty steady diet of high pick-and-rolls for him, and he executes those well, but I'd like to see the Magic give him more varied chances.
For example, let's turn to Hedo Turkoglu, who, during the 2007/08 campaign, submitted the best season yet by a Magic perimeter player in the Van Gundy. In theory filling the same role Carter does now, as the secondary offensive facilitator and primary perimeter scoring threat, Turkoglu got 24.6 percent of his offense in the pick-and-roll, 23.6 percent of it as a spot-up shooter, 15.1 percent in isolation, and 11.5 percent in transition, according to Synergy Sports Technology. This year, Carter has skewed dramatically toward the pick-and-roll, as it accounts for 37.1 percent of his offense. Spot-up chances count for 20.1 percent, and transition counts for 8.4 percent. Quick: what's missing?
Yup. Isolation touches.
In 20 games, and counting his two assists in such situations, Carter has gone one-on-one just 26 times. On any other team, he'd probably double that number. Part of the beauty of Orlando's offense is that it doesn't require much freelancing; when the Magic are at their best, the ball moves in and out, and side to side, with beautiful crispness and precision. They don't need to clear out to let a scorer go one-on-one, because doing to tends to produce inefficient shots. Van Gundy, whose aversion to the mid-range jumper is so well-known it made the in-game commentary track for NBA 2K11, knows as much.
An upshot to going into isolation mode--and we've seen this situation play out with the hyper-efficient Atlanta Hawks and Portland Trail Blazers in recent years--is that it rarely produces turnovers. Atlanta's "Iso-Joe," as in "Johnson," look ain't pretty, but it almost always results in a solid scorer getting off what is, for him, a decent shot. Going back to Carter's final season as a New Jersey Net, he ranked 22nd in isolation possessions per game, but only two of the players ahead of him turned the ball over less often in those situations. Why not empower Carter a bit by trusting him more with the ball and the entire strong side of the floor to himself and a defender?
What we're seeing here is a compelling conflict between a crucial player's style and the team's overall philosophy. Even if one accepts that Van Gundy prefers to use Carter primarily in pick-and-rolls--and he's effective there, producing 1.057 points per possession, counting assists--that still doesn't account for the fact that Turkoglu got plenty of one-on-one opportunities working within the very same offense. I'd like to see Carter used in a similar way. Though his relatively limited minutes will suppress his per-game numbers in comparison to Turkoglu's, I believe he'll become a more dynamic and important player.