by Kevin Lipe
I come not to bury Vince Carter but to praise him. Arguably the first true superstar ever to wear a Memphis Grizzlies uniform, the acquisition of Carter in the offseason after Dallas went and paid big money to Chandler Parsons was one of the Grizzlies’ best moves this offseason, replacing Mike Miller with a player who was a slightly poorer shooter but was better at everything else.
Then he went and had ankle surgery over the summer.
In preseason, Carter could barely run, moving like a broken robot when he tried. There was (and still is) a visible hitch in his gait, and he spends much of his time on the bench with a heat pack wrapped around the ankle while it heals. Now, understandably, the signing of Carter wasn’t so much about November and December as it was about April and May (and dare I say June?). But watching Vince Carter run around on one foot and shoot 3–11 has not been as exciting as I was expecting it to be.
Let’s start with the shooting percentages. According to Basketball Reference, Carter is a career 44.1% shooter, and 37.7% from three. In three seasons with Dallas, his FG% overall was slightly below that average, but two of his three seasons, his 3P% was slightly higher, topping 40% in the 2012–13 season. A fifth of the way through the 2014–15 Grizzlies season, Carter is shooting 33.3% from the field, and only 29.1% from long range, even though he’s averaging three fewer field goal attempts per game.
If you look at the slightly more obscure numbers at 82games.com, the story is even worse, with the offense averaging 9.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with Carter on the floor (defense is slightly negative, as well, but by less than 1 point per 100 possessions.) Carter is just not helping the team as much as Grizzlies fans thought he would on a nightly basis. Sure, he has his moments—his great defense on Rudy Gay and his excellent inbounds passing (seriously) won the Grizzlies the first Sacramento game, and he’s gotten hot and hit some big shots a couple of times—but overall, Carter’s numbers just don’t add up to “the wing that will solve all of the Grizzlies’ problems” in terms of shooting, floor spacing, and second-unit defense.
Regardless of whether Carter will be in peak form by the end of the season, the Grizzlies (even though they have the best record in the league at the moment) could use his help now, and writing off Carter’s struggles as “Oh well, he’ll be better later in the season” without a second thought seems a bit naïve at this point. The last year that Carter shot below 30% from three was his 1998–99 season in Toronto: his rookie year. He doesn’t look like he’s integrated into the offensive schemes yet, for the most part, and he’s just chucking shots in the middle of the shot clock (62% of his attempts come between 11 and 20 seconds) and hoping they go in. And, much as I hate to say it, they aren’t.
There’s every reason to believe that this is all about injury, a lack of conditioning and training camp time, and a lack of comfort with a new group of players after playing with Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki for three years—after which playing with anybody else is going to be a huge adjustment. It’s totally possible that as the season goes on, Carter’s percentages will rise and he’ll start to get more attempts in the flow of the offense, and I’ll look stupid for worrying about this in December.
But it’s equally possible that this is the Vince Carter the Grizzlies are going to get this year. A great player with a greatly diminished skillset going out and doing whatever he can to contribute even though his body has finally betrayed him. His shooting numbers are atrocious, and they haven’t gotten much better recently.
Carter, not Courtney Lee, was supposed to be the player who carried a large portion of the offensive production at the wing spot, and when Lee inevitably starts to come back to earth—which he will; the dude just isn’t going to shoot 52% from 3 all year long—having more guys who can pick up some of that scoring load is the only way the Grizzlies are going to be able to keep winning at an 80% rate. If Vince Carter in Grizzlies form turns out to be only 33.3% Amazing, and if what you see is what you get from Carter this year, that burden may prove too much to carry, and the Grizzlies are going to be right back in the “looking for a scoring wing” camp. Jordan Adams probably isn’t going to be able to step up into that role this year. Quincy Pondexter can do it some of the time, sure, but hasn’t proven yet that he can be consistent. Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince have skillsets, but “shooting” is not a part of either.
The Grizzlies need Vince Carter to be better than this, and despite all of the optimism coming from the team about his recovery, I think it’s fair to question whether he’s going to get there this season.