Vince Carter and the Incredible Shrinking Legacy
Four of those appearances have come in 2010.
Most notably, in an elimination game in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, Carter was held to three points on 1-of-9 shooting, two assists, two steals, and three turnovers in 31 minutes. There's failure, there's epic failure, there's colossal playoff failure and then there's Vince Carter.
Carter is a fairly divisive figure in the NBA. His memorable dunks have carried him to a high position in NBA folklore. He's dropped a 50 in the playoffs before, and his playoff career average is 23 points. There are ample reasons to believe he really was one of the greater players of the last decade. The whole resume's there on paper, except for the ring, and the same can be said for many players including Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, and others. So why is Carter different?
Well, a popular sentiment is that he's not. That he's unfairly criticized for working over Toronto like the girlfriend you're cheating on while continuously asking her for money to go to the movies. That his greatness deserves no less acknowledgment just because it always seemed to appear in the most inconsequential of moments. That he gets a bad rap.
But while that sentiment may be part of a basketball subculture that continuously seems at odds with itself over players' legacies like a pit of piranhas fighting over themselves, this series seems more and more like the defining chapter. It is this series, where Carter at 33 appears to be wholly outmatched by his opponent not just in skill and determination, but in focus, intensity and in all aspects of not being, well, Vince Carter.
Ray Allen, at 34, is still an onion tree, knocking down clutch shots, even taking players off the dribble. He's a vital asset. Carter dribbles aimlessly around the perimeter before either driving into traffic and having it blocked or stolen, or passing the ball off and drifting unto parts unknown in the offense, never to be heard from in the course of the possession. Carter was torched by Paul Pierce last night, routinely and efficiently, and since Game 1 where he shot 50 percent from the field scoring 23 points has not only been a no-show for the Magic, but an outright liability.
But if we're looking for the real reason Carter has failed to live up to his contract, his legend, or his potential in this series, the truth is that the problem is more complicated than just "stepping up." The problem is why Carter was brought in, what he's trying to be, what he actually is, and what the Magic need.
After the Finals, the Magic saw a golden opportunity. "Let's take a player who played well for us, Hedo Turkoglu, and whose contract is expiring, and let's upgrade to an even better player at a similar, though not identical position!" And so, Vince Carter was brought in, and Courtney Lee and Hedo Turkoglu sacrificed. The plan seemed ingenious. After all, Carter is a better player than Turkoglu, and with all the extra size Orlando brought in with Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat, many said the Magic were the best roster Nos. 1-10 in the league. They certainly looked like it through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
But things change when the defenses intensify, when the style becomes more grinding, more physical, when the separation is a matter of inches and not feet. And what the Magic did not count on was that Carter's height and athleticism would not translate to a good pick and roll partner. Instead of adapting the remaining abilities he has left in the tank, they attempted to slot him in, assuming he could do the same work as Turkoglu. But the pick and roll normally takes a lot of feel to run, knowing teammate tendencies and positioning. It also takes a solid passing ability, a skill where Carter has never been tremendously strong. Against the Celtics, it takes poise, composure, and a willingness to be physical. Not really Carter strong suits, especially not at 33 years old.
The playoffs have been somewhat of an exercise in confirming long-held beliefs. Defense wins championships. Experience matters. The Lakers and Celtics are good. Vince Carter's failures in tough, important situations is just another in a long line of arguments we would like to add some nuance to dispel, but find ourselves accepting like death, taxes, and the salary cap.