A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Deconstructing a myth: Vince Carter having “Michael Jordan potential”

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Vince Carter playing with the Orlando Magic

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If you’re like me, you like to rag on both Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady for the drive they didn’t have. Both had a tremendous mix of athleticism, size and skill and a frustrating ambivalence about their legacy, winning and team’s success.

Putting Tracy McGrady aside who perhaps really did have historic talent and touched on that legendary potential for a season (2002-2003), what I have never understood is the narrative that Vince Carter could have been Michael Jordan and just didn’t care enough to . This is false for a number of reasons.

The first thing that should be noted is that as athletic as Vince Carter was, Michael Jordan he was not. Young Carter had Jordan’s vertical talent, but Jordan’s first step and explosiveness was at another level than his, or anyone else’s size in NBA history. Explosiveness on the ground is more important than explosiveness vertically – If you can break through into the paint, this forces the defense inward and opens a myriad of possibilities for your team offensively. Vertical explosiveness simply helps you finish at the rim more, which is valuable but not as much as penetrations. Furthermore, most high end athletes who are less vertically talented than Carter, are strong enough finishers in their own right. Thus the marginal benefit of Carter’s all time vertical ability from that point is comparatively small. But the marginal benefit between a high end penetrator and one of the best penetrators of all time is much higher. It’s why Dwyane Wade is a better offensive player than Vince Carter has ever been, despite lacking Vince’s vertical lift and strength. Wade slicing up the defense like this takes him to another level breaking opposing defensive sets. Jordan of is course essentially Vince Carter in the air and in body, with Dwyane Wade’s explosiveness on the ground . Carter was not as physically talented as Jordan. I wouldn’t even call him as physically talented as Wade. The aesthetic flashiness of vertical ability and strength caused people to call Carter one of the most athletic players ever, which may be true, but his dominant athleticism was not the kind most suited for basketball success compared to Jordan and Wade’s type.

Furthermore, basketball intelligence absolutely should be considered a part of talent – And Vince was not on Jordan’s level in that area. Vince generally had good vision on the court which helped him be a high end passer, but Jordan was a significantly more cerebral reader of the court and space and angles on the court, on both ends.

The second point I’d make is that when criticizing Vince Carter’s work ethic, it’s worth it to ask “If Vince worked on his game harder, what could he have added?”. The answer is not that much. This is what people miss with the Vince Carter criticism. Even if Vince didn’t spend as much time in the gym as he should’ve, he still developed one of the best jumpshooters, ballhandlers and passers at the SG position in the league. It is not as if Vince had another gear to hit *if only* he could polish his skill game, the way many people feel about Lebron James and Dwight Howard’s games. Despite his apparant lack of drive, Vince’s skill game was just about as polished as you can get – with the exception of a polished post game, which most perimeter players don’t develop (sans workout freaks like Jordan and Kobe) develop anyways. Could Vince have played much harder in games and improved his production for this reason alone? Could he have added that post game? Of course. But I don’t buy he could be the best player in the league and just took too many quarters off to do it. The impression I get from most frustrating players effort-wise, is it’s not their offensive statistics that suffer. The drive to put up the best statistics in the league, to get the glory and financial rewards of being an MVP, to have the glory of the media is there for them. Where their lack of effort comes is on the defensive and other non statistical contributions such as cutting hard off the ball to give a teammate a better shot. This is true of Carter, McGrady and other frustrating stars like Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Monta Ellis, Baron Davis and so forth. I believe we saw close to Carter’s ceiling in offensive statistics, which was still not in the league as a Jordan – and the biggest thing that would have been added with a better approach to the game is on the defensive end where Jordan excelled.

Thirdly, the turning point of Vince Carter’s career is a knee surgery a few years into his career. This is when Carter turned from a player who attacked the rim as much as people wanted and who averaged a 28, 5.5, and 4 in 2001, to the ambivalent skilled jumpshooter most throw verbal stones at. Carter kept putting up star statistics because of his skill game replacing much of his rim attacking. If you asked me what stopped Vince Carter from reaching his potential, I’d be more inclined to mention the surgery much before his mentality. Perhaps Carter with the skill he had in his late 20s but the athletic ability he had in his early 20s could have came close to Kobe Bryant’s best seasons.

In all, do I think Vince Carter deserves a lot of the criticism for how he approached his career? Yes. When a player with his weakness in mental intensity is in the lead, it permeates through the whole team. You can see the way last year’s Chicago Bulls played harder than any of Vince’s teams did – the way Derrick Rose played brought them to this identity. While the Orlando Magic last season played like Vince, in a bad way. He was as good as his talent level and no more.

But is Vince’s lack of drive responsible for why he didn’t become Michael Jordan? Without question, no.

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Written by jr.

November 5, 2011 at 3:57 pm

2 Responses

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  1. This is an interesting post. I debate this portion:

    “The second point I’d make is that when criticizing Vince Carter’s work ethic, it’s worth it to ask “If Vince worked on his game harder, what could he have added?”. The answer is not that much. This is what people miss with the Vince Carter criticism. Even if Vince didn’t spend as much time in the gym as he should’ve, he still developed one of the best jumpshooters, ballhandlers and passers at the SG position in the league. It is not as if Vince had another gear to hit *if only* he could polish his skill game, the way many people feel about Lebron James and Dwight Howard’s games. ”

    He fades too much on all of his jumpers, even open ones. His FT% could have improved noticeably, the consistency of his 3s too, and as you note, his post game. You dismiss it as a rare development, but that’s kind of silly given that we’re talking about his ultimate potential next to a player who did precisely that. He also could have put a lot more effort and intensity into defense, which is an area of his game where he fell laughably short of someone like Michael Jordan, and which you didn’t touch upon at all (though in mentioning it, I support your point).

    The point about his speed versus MJ’s (or Wade’s) is a very good one, but that particular paragraph misses a few areas. His scoring game definitely could have been better. His mentality, particularly his assertiveness, could have been better (especially following the 2000 season). He was straight nasty and aggressive, not just in attacking the rim but in demanding the ball in 2000 and 2001, and then that tailed off, right along with his aggression and passion in general. Vince has always needed someone to pump him up and to beat on him whenever he got soft. That’s why Brendan Malone and Charles Oakley were so good for him, because he never had that kind of internal aggression and nastiness. He needs to have it brought out in him; supporting your overall point again, that’s something else that separated him from Jordan (or Kobe, for that matter).

    But again, the scoring game could have been refined a lot further. Apart from his full season in Orlando, he’s been a noticeably less effective FT shooter than Kobe or MJ. Not bad, but definitely not as good, and he did NOT turn himself into one of the best 3pt shooters in the league, on balance. He had a couple of hot seasons, and then cooled off into mediocrity. And from what we’ve seen of the data on his long 2pt jumper, it was pretty good, but not top-tier. There was a lot of room for him to have improved his game. Especially in comparison with the two other players primarily discussed here, yeah, he definitely had room for improvement.

    Tyler

    November 6, 2011 at 2:02 pm

  2. Excuse me, Butch Carter.

    Tyler

    November 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm


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