If you're an Orlando Magic fan who's down on Vince Carter, I can't say that I blame you. Your lasting memory of him in a Magic uniform, to date, is likely his missing two clutch free throws in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics; had he sank them, the Magic would have trailed by a single point with 34.7 seconds remaining. Instead, they had to make an incredible defensive stand just to save their season--a stand they ultimately made--but they fell short. Two games later, with the Magic facing elimination, he scored 3 points on 1-of-9 shooting, and found himself benched in Matt Barnes' favor for 2:16 of the fourth quarter in a tight game which Orlando wound up winning. And overall, Carter didn't make a huge postseason impact, scoring 15.5 points per game on 50.6% True Shooting. Again, I can't blame you if you aren't impressed.
But at the same time, I feel like we might have lost sight of the good Carter can do for the Magic. Coach Stan Van Gundy's offense requires a versatile, playmaking wing to function best, a role which Dwyane Wade filled during Van Gundy's tenure with the Heat, and which Hedo Turkoglu took on during Van Gundy's first two years patrolling the Magic's sideline. Pick-and-roll proficiency; jump-shooting off the dribble and off the catch; and the ability to create for oneself and for one's teammates are, in no particular order, the specific tasks this wing needs to perform. Carter? He has demonstrated he can fit the bill, even in his seemingly mediocre first year with the Magic.
To get an idea of where Carter stands relative to other players of his approximate position and role, I turned to Synergy Sports Technology and HoopData.com. The results indicate a player whose best days are clearly behind him, but also one lethal enough offensively to inflict serious damage in a variety of situations.
Carter used 1473 possessions last year, including assists, according to Synergy, and produced 1.23 points per possession-plus-assist. That ranks in the 79th percentile of all NBA players. And discounting his poor transition numbers--Orlando, as a team, is a weak fast-break team--Carter looks better, ranking in the 84th percentile in halfcourt offense. He's more efficient in the halfcourt than five of six NBA players, in other words. For comparison, Kobe Bryant scored 1.13 points per possession-plus-assist (61st percentile) in the halfcourt.
So how is Carter so useful in the halfcourt? He's a deft ballhandler and, even at 33, has enough athleticism to get his own shot off the bounce. That sword cuts two ways, as he sometimes settles for bad shots when he could instead force the issue and get a higher-percentage look, but it's still a valuable skill overall.
For example: Carter produced 1.029 points per possession in pick-and-rolls, when counting his passes, which ranks in the 85th percentile in the league. That's good for 8th among the 21 players who ran at least 700 pick-and-rolls.
As a jump-shooter? He scored 0.891 points per shot off the dribble (80th percentile, 7th among 27 players with at least 250 such shots) and 1.106 points per shot off the catch (80th percentile, 23rd among the 66 players with at least 240 such shots). Again, versatility.
But here's what surprised me most of all, when consulting Carter's Synergy data: he's an elite player when asked to score in isolation settings. Granted, isolation sets accounted for only 12.3% of his total offense, but he proved reliable when given the opportunity here. How reliable? To the tune of 1.124 points per possession, counting his passes, which were infrequent; 89.4% of his isolations resulted in his looking for his own shot, while the other 10.6% went to teammates. In any case, Carter rated tops in the league in isolation scoring, among the 80 players with a minimum of 150 isolation possessions. And despite his reputation for settling for ill-advised shots, Carter proved more aggressive than usual in isolation settings, driving the ball 66.2% of the time and drawing a shooting foul 8.6% of the time.
Let's switch gears and look at what HoopData says. To make sure we're making a fair comparison, I filtered HoopData's stats only to include swingmen--understood to include shooting guards and small forwards--who appeared in at least 40 games and averaged at least 30 minutes per game. 42 players qualify for consideration under those terms. For the sake of clarity, I'll refer to these players as "starting-caliber swingmen" through the rest of this post.
The average starting-caliber swingman, then, was assisted on 57.1% of his baskets. Carter, however, was assisted on just 37.8%, the fifth-lowest figure among the 42 players.
His True Shooting mark of 54.1% is just off the positional average of 54.9%, and Carter's includes his truly miserable January, in which he posted a 38.7% True Shooting figure. For the rest of the season? An above-average 56.6% True Shooting.
As I mentioned earlier, Carter carries a heavy offensive load, and his team-high usage rate of 25.2% reflects that. Only three starting-caliber swingmen used more possessions with better efficiency (as marked by True Shooting) and less help (as measured by the percentage of their field goals on which they were assisted). You're on a one-name basis with each of those players: LeBron, Roy, and Wade. While I acknowledge that I may have just presented too many endpoints, I also believe those endpoints accurately reflect Carter's role on this Magic team: to score efficiently, eat possessions, and get his own shot in a variety of situations.
Speaking strictly in the team context, that is to say not in relation to his positional peers, Advanced Statistical Plus-Minus data show that Carter was the Magic's second-best player last season, well behind Dwight Howard yet comfortably ahead of Rashard Lewis.
Will Carter be able to avoid a drop-off in his second Magic season? I think so; though he'll never be a slashing, foul-drawing machine again, he has a strong enough handle and soft enough shooting touch that he can still be effective without the athleticism that made him a megastar over a decade ago. Remember, he played like an All-Star after his seriously disconcerting January swoon, though that overlooked marvelous stretch--which, probably not coincidentally, included better passing and fewer shot attempts--fails to explain his disappearance in the playoffs.
If nothing else, this post should serve as a reminder that as disappointing as Carter was last year--commenters here roasted me for giving him a B- in my year-end evaluation--he showed signs that he can contribute in ways few other players at his position can.
With that said, if I were Van Gundy, I'd still consider reducing Carter's role in the offense a bit. He's too good at running the pick-and-roll to limit him to corner three-pointer duty, but I do think the focus needs to shift more to Howard inside. Lewis needs more touches as well. But if Carter can manage 57% True Shooting, with usage in the 21% range, he could be more efficient, and still be the Magic's late-game, go-to scorer if they need him. And, should they grow dissatisfied with him and/or have the opportunity to upgrade their roster at the trading deadline, he has a sort-of-expiring contract worth over $17 million they can dangle.
All told, Carter will likely be a big asset for the Magic this season, be it on the court or in the trade market. The time for holding a grudge against him for the postseason has passed.