Be Vince or Be Gone Time for Carter
They still could stamp him "return to sender.''
Carter arrived in a trade last summer billed as the final piece to a championship team, then painfully became the package of damaged goods, leaving the Orlando Magic without the consistent perimeter star they needed for the playoffs.
He was thrilled to be back near his hometown of Daytona Beach, but he rarely played like it, looking more like a burden than a blessing when he wilted in the Eastern Conference finals against Boston, leading to an embarrassing end for a team with such high expectations.
"I expect him now to be Vince Carter, and last season he wasn't,'' said Magic general manager Otis Smith. "We expect more from him.''
Carter, 33, is facing a pivotal season, beginning the final guaranteed year ($17.3 million) of his contract. Unless Carter plays well early and the Magic look like serious contenders against Miami and Boston, they will try and unload his potentially expiring contract before the trade deadline in February. And if they can't, they already have decided not to pick up the team option on an extra year, leaving him on the open market next summer.
"I just play and let my game speak for itself,'' Carter said. "And hopefully, that's good enough at the end of the year.''
Carter is coming off the worst season of his career, averaging just 16.6 points and 3.9 rebounds, statistics that would be fine for an average player, but not for an eight-time All-Star and one of the highest-paid players in the NBA.
His scoring average dipped to 15.5 points in the playoffs and dipped even more, to 13.7 points against Boston. In two of the six games against the Celtics, he failed to reach double-figure scoring.
"You never really get over something like that – until the opportunity comes to get back in that situation again,'' Carter said after practice Tuesday. "I was shocked. We fought so hard to have the second best record (behind Cleveland), then just not get it done in that series. Now there's an opportunity to do something about it.''
Carter bristles at the mention that age has taken its toll, and that he's not physically able to dominate a game like he once did.
His problem, both he and Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said, was his concern with fitting into an already established team instead of starring like he always did before. And both believe he won't make that mistake again.
"Everybody here just wants him to play the game the way he's played it throughout his career -- attacking the basket,'' Van Gundy said after the first of two practices Tuesday. "You look around the East with all the great perimeter players: Boston has Pierce and Allen, Cleveland has James and Wade. Atlanta has Joe Johnson. Vince is our guy who can create shots for himself and other people. He's still capable of doing that.''
Carter arrived for training camp in considerably better condition than he did a year ago. His body fat was three percent lower. There was more spring in his legs. He looked stronger in the opening practice. There was no learning-the-system tone to his voice anymore.
"Just bring it. It's time to be me (again),'' he said confidently Tuesday. "I accept that. I understand that. It's been on my mind all summer. And I don't have problem with it.''
Until arriving in Orlando, Carter never had played before with a dominating center like Dwight Howard, and he admittedly was uncomfortable with the fit last season, often unsure of his role. They often frustrated each other offensively. His let's-get-along personality was not what Smith and Van Gundy wanted. They don't want him deferring to Howard offensively.
They want more of the games like his 48-point outburst against New Orleans in February, than games like he had in January, when he averaged just 8.5 points for the month. They want the 20-point playoff games like he had against Charlotte and Atlanta in the first two rounds and not those 8 or 3-point clunkers against Boston.
"I'm just going to play my game again, do what I've been able to do for many years – that's put the ball in the basket and make plays for other guys,'' he said. "It (40-point games) is still in me. I know how to do it. Being aggressive doesn't mean I need 25-30 shots. Not with this team. But 30 (points) in a dominating way is what is being asked.''
Carter hurt himself last season with early injuries, first a left ankle sprain and then a left shoulder sprain. It only made his lack of conditioning worse, causing doubts in his own mind.
But that shouldn't be an issue this season – not in his eyes.
"Mentally and physically, I'm ready for this challenge,'' he said. "I'm not learning the offense now. I know the offense. I know what's expected, and what everyone wants. That makes a difference.''