Considered as a shooter, Vince Carter presents a good case study in the ways that multiple vectors can influence a player’s shot selection. There are the player’s own natural tendencies and inherent shooting abilities, themselves influenced by years of coaching and playing. Then there are the demands of role, which for Vince Carter went from exciting rookie to nascent superstar in Toronto to go-to scorer in New Jersey to quasi-journeyman in Orlando and Phoenix and eventually to spark-off-the-bench sixth man in Dallas. (His role with new team Memphis remains to be seen, but will likely hew toward the kind of role he occupied in Dallas.) Then there is the inexorable tidal pull of age as a player must adjust his game to match new physical limitations.
Vince Carter’s shot chart from his rookie year (1998-99) is a profile in an athletic finisher. He scored 44% of his points in the paint and 22.4% of them from the line, leaving 27.4% from midrange and a paltry 6.2% from 3-point range, which is shocking given the kind of player he became. The surplus of midrange shots is not all that surprising, particularly in an era where the midrange game was still a dominant paradigm and for a rookie largely accustomed to thriving at the rim.
By the 2000-01 season, Carter’s shot selection had shifted considerably. Although he was still a strong finisher around the rim (yes, the dots are blue but 57% and 61% are still decent), he was working less in the paint, scoring 29.5% of his points there. Points from the free throw line stayed relatively constant at 18.9% and he still made 28.5% of his points from the midrange, but 3-point shots accounted for a much more robust 23.5% of his points, largely coming at the wings.
The good news about his midrange game is that his field goal percentage improved considerably over his first couple years in the league. In 2000-01 he shot 42.3% on midrange jumpers after only making 37.4% his rookie season. The only real flat spot on the chart is that zone a couple steps inside the arc on the right side.
But then, something goes really wrong with Carter in his last full season in Toronto in 2003-04. His true shooting percentage craters (comparatively) at 50.1%, the worst of his career and nearly 4 points worse than his career average.
The shot chart doesn’t paint a rosy picture, either. Just a year removed from a positively assassinous season from midrange, particularly on the right side of the court where he went 39-for-80 (48.8%), his productivity just evaporates. He made 36.6% from midrange, worse even than his rookie season, and the chart is a picture of inconsistency. The arc is spotty, save for an intense spread of red and red-orange in the left corner, which — in spite of the corner 3’s reputation as the Holy Grail of NBA shooting — is actually worrying. The corner is a place for spot-up shooters camping on drive and kicks, not for primary offensive options.
Maybe part of the cause was the left knee injury that led to surgery in 2002 and whose effects lingered into a 2002-03 season where he missed 39 games. Maybe it was losing head coach Lenny Wilkens after that season in favor of Kevin McNeill, who lasted just one year. Maybe Carter — who admitted that he had not pushed himself during his final years in Toronto — was grappling with the letdown of injuries and not doing a particularly good job at it.
Whatever the cause, once he got to New Jersey, his shot selection began to shift away from the baseline midrange and more toward the wings and especially towards the arc in those areas. This is significant because it marks his transition away from athletic finishing — he was never really the same after the leg issues began to crop up — and toward being a shooter, although he would still throw down his share of dunks.
This more even distribution of shots persists through his time in New Jersey with the Nets and beyond to Orlando; he’s essentially scoring from all over the floor with fluctuating efficiency depending on the year. But in 2010-11, when he’s traded from Orlando to Phoenix after playing 22 games for the Magic, the midrange attempts begin to bleed out of his game.
By the time he joins the Mavericks in 2011-12, the transformation is complete, along with a shift to the small forward position. In 2010-11, he played 90% of his minutes at SG and just 10%. In 2011-12 he spends 58% of his time at SF and 42% at SG. By the next year, it’s 77% at SF and 20% at SG. (The remaining 3% is at PF.)
His shot chart in 2012-13 is a near work of art.
2013-14 is nearly as good. His role is very clearly defined, with the vast majority of his shots coming from the left and right wings beyond the arc, where he shot considerably better than the league average. He also maintains average finishing near the rim, which is impressive for a well-traveled player — very impressive for a 36- and 37-year-old player. The midrange is a an abandoned industrial section of town, peppered by occasional jumpers like renovated loft spaces.
On the night I’m writing this, I sat in a bar with some good basketball minds and in the context of a freewheeling discussion of which NBA players we’d compare our Little League careers to, one of them casually dropped the idea that while Tracy McGrady was stuck behind Vince Carter in Toronto, McGrady eventually became the better player. But did he? McGrady might have had a higher peak, but as a body of work, Carter’s career has been quietly remarkable.
Carter’s ascent to superstardom was cut off and he never became the go-to guy on a championship contender. But he was an integral part of several teams that went beyond the first round of the playoffs and he’s settled into a role as a crucial sixth man in Dallas, a role he looks to continue for the Memphis Grizzlies next season.
I would argue that while Vince Carter never became the amazing player we thought or wished he would be when he was posterizing players left and right in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, he’s more or less expertly pieced together a long career as a shooter while navigating treacherous injuries and ever-shifting roles on different teams. As legacies go, it’s at least half-amazing.