How Good Was Vince Carter in His Prime: The Definitive Analysis

This 2020-21 NBA season will be the first one without Vince Carter since he was drafted in 1998 which would make his career the longest in NBA history (if you go only by years). Depending on when you were born or who you cheered for, Vince Carter probably means something different to you. Maybe you first think of the Dunk of Death – the greatest in-game dunk in professional basketball history. Maybe his 2000 dunk contest performance inspired you to buy The Vertical Jump Bible. Perhaps you’re a perpetually salty Raptors fan. Perhaps you caught his stint with Jason Kidd in New Jersey. Maybe you only know him as the end-of-the-bench veteran presence who ended his ringless career in Atlanta. Regardless, you definitely watched this somewhat grainy video…a lot.

While each one of those narratives and moments are worthy of their own book, this article isn’t meant to interrogate any of them. In fact, I plan on analyzing one specific question: just how good was Vince Carter during his 2000-2001 season with the Toronto Raptors? I aim to answer that question through a combination of an extensive film study and a statistical analysis.

Vince Carter on Offense

Statistically, Carter seems to have peaked in his third year in the league especially on offense. Because of their similar scoring profile, Carter was often compared to his contemporary Kobe Bryant. Carter was easily the better shooter, but Kobe was superior at drawing fouls and crafting his own shot. In the post-Jordan NBA, both had perfected the contested post fade. Notice how dramatically Carter fades in the second clip. Combing that backwards movement with his hang time made this a nearly impossible shot to contest.

Like Kobe

He was able to extend this shot much further though. Like Carmelo Anthony, another midrange maestro, Carter loved launching these contested fades from 15+ feet after being fed an entry pass.

Carter took 29% of his field goals from 16 feet to the three-point line: the highest percentage of any zone. However, like Kobe, Carter stood out as being one of the best tough shot makers in history. Even with defenses draped over him, he quickly fired these shots off with reasonable efficiency. His off-the-dribble midrange game wasn’t near Kobe’s level, but he still reached into that bag of tricks once in a while.

A Modern Shooter

Carter was a devastating off-ball threat because of his modern inclination towards shooting threes. While his 5.3 attempts per game look paltry by today’s standards, his three-point volume made up a full 34% of his team’s attempts which matches Stephen Curry’s share of the Warriors’ threes back in 2016, and is a full 7 percentage points higher than Harden’s share during his history leading 1,028 attempts in 2019.

In the half court, he excelled at stationing himself in the corner to stretch the defense.

Some of his transition three-point attempts looked like I plucked them straight from the bubble.

Although he wasn’t near the all-time off-ball runners like Miller, Curry, or Bird, he still made use of explosive cuts to create space.

When creating for himself, he was much more comfortable firing pull-up jumpers than taking driving in for a layup or foul (a topic I’ll discuss soon). These attempts may seem pedestrian compared to Harden’s mystical step-back. Nevertheless, they were audacious for 2001, and Carter buried them with dangerous consistency.

Carter’s jumper was feared enough that I found at least one instance of a team doubling him 35 feet from the basket.

Overall, Carter was easily one of the best shooters in the NBA, and if he played in today’s NBA, his shooting prowess would translate perfectly. It’s only fitting that his last shot as a pro was a three-pointer.

Creating Value Without the Ball

Along with his shooting, Carter was adept at being a valuable offensive threat without the ball. He was adept at finding seams in the defense where he could cut to the basket. Sometimes that translated to him being a step ahead of his own teammates as you can see in this cut. You can see him jumping because he’s expecting the lob pass.

Speaking of lob passes, Carter’s ridiculous vertical leap and wingspan (listed at 6′ 11″ according to this site) made him an all-time alley oop finisher at the guard and small forward position. Regardless of the direction he was facing, he had a knack for rising above the defense and guiding the ball through the hoop.

Carter employed that athleticism to post a very solid offensive rebounding percentage of 6.5%: a mark that placed him 66th that season. While this isn’t the sort of number that requires strategical shifts from the defense, it is high enough that Carter added value through his ability to score on put-backs. This first play shows him pursuing the rebound after missing a tip slam while the other shows Carter in his element: tipping the rebound out to himself for a quick corner 3.

A Poor Handle

It’s almost impossible to hold a conversation around the NBA without discussing the explosion of the three-point shot. However, not nearly as much time is spent on the equally incredible improvements in dribbling. For instance, go watch a player like Kyrie, Steph, or Harden fluidly handle the ball now. Then go watch literally any game from the early 2000s. I promise you that the difference in skill is jarring. Even Iverson, the man who did as much for dribbling as Curry did for shooting, acknowledged that Steph and Kyrie have a better handle.

Even with that context in mind, Carter’s ability to self-create off the dribble was shockingly bad. He had a few moments where he found his rhythm and was able to beat his man off the dribble, but by and large, his mechanics were terrible. In the following montage, you can see multiple plays where he picks his dribble up too early, jumps off the wrong foot, loses balance, and just settles for bad shots.

Being unable to consistently self-create in the half-court hamstrung his ability to vault himself into the highest tier of offensive megastars. Between his self-confidence, incredible shot-making, and willingness to shot, Carter possessed the typical skills to be a supernova on offense, but that ignores the one development that’s nearly impossible to capture in a box score: ballhandling.

Incredible Finishing Touch

When Carter was able to get to the rim, he showcased an impressive finishing touch. Obviously Carter is most known for his dunks, and he definitely exploded to the rim for some gravity-defying jams from time to time.

Despite his reputation, Carter only dunked 44 times in the 2001 season: well below averaging a dunk a contest. (To be fair, he maxed out at 131 dunks the previous season, but his second highest was 87 back in 2006). Instead, he displayed a penchant for acrobat and show-stopping finishes around the rim.

These types of finishes weren’t the norm, however. Instead, he opted to throw his body into defenders to absorb contact. The first play shows a solid handle that allows him to set-up the shot, and the second is an attack from a quick post-up.

Passing

Just as I emphasized in the scoring section for Vince Carter, he was a better secondary passer than primary creator. Especially on the move, he had the wherewithal to catch, make a quick read, and find an open teammate. This made him a fantastic secondary player in transition, but it also unlocked more out of his team when he would make cuts in the half court.

Even at a standstill, he had a Ginobili-like instinct to know where he was passing before the ball landed in his hands. (Note: he is nowhere near Ginobili’s passing ability, but he displayed a similar propensity to make quick extra reads). You can see this sort of quick processing in this play.

This bullet pass was something of a signature move for Carter especially from a stand still. His aggression in throwing this pass unlocked easy baskets for his teammates.

Nevertheless, his inability to consistently create off the dribble significantly hampered his passing potential. Notice how all of the above passes occur on the move, on the catch, or after picking up his dribble. By my count, he didn’t have a single high-leverage assist where he dribbled more than once on an attack. The closes that I can think of is this dump-off pass for a foul, but again, it’s off a cut, and he only dribbles once.

A Statistical Look at Vince Carter’s Offense

During his 2001 season, Vince Carter averaged 27.5 points/75 possessions on a true shooting percentage 3.3 points better than league average. To put that into context, 2018 Lillard scored 27.5 on +3.8 TS%, and 2011 Carmelo Anthony scored 27.4 on +3.4 TS%. (For further context, peak 1991 Michael Jordan scored 32 on +7.1, 2013 LeBron scored 28.1 on +10.5, and 2016 Curry scored 31.9 on an astounding +12.8).

In that same season, his OBPM of +7.56 ranked first in the league, and his PIPM of +4.41 ranked 4th (behind Shaq, Ray Allen, and John Stockton). By all accounts, Carter’s 2001 season was an offensive tour-de-force.

However, team-level numbers complicate that story. Between 2000-2002, Carter missed a total of 29 games. During those games, the Raptors were only 3.36 points/100 possessions worse on offense. In the games he played, their offensive rating of 105.6 was only 1.87 points better than league average which would rank in the 80th percentile from 1990-2020. Those are only the games in which he actually played.

In fact, during the 12 years that he either played with the Raptors or Nets, only 3 of his teams had a positive relative offensive rating while 8 were negative (1 was league average). None of his Nets team had a positive relative offensive rating.

At face value, a player with that scoring and passing ability should be, at minimum, the heart of a league average offense. What is going on?

Offensive Conclusion on Vince Carter

Vince Carter is a clear example of what we call a wrong initiator: an offensive centerpiece that is miscast in that role. (If it hasn’t been released yet, stay tuned fore episode #1 of the Sense and Scalability podcast). On tape and in the numbers, his passing and scoring look great, but he simply can’t self-generate offense in the half-court.

It’s unfortunate that he played at the same time as the likes of Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson because they both could do precisely what Carter couldn’t: dribble. Saying it so bluntly feels offensive to an offensive player, but it’s the truth. Despite being a clearly better shooter than both of them while possibly matching them in hitting ridiculous, contested shots from the mid-range, he couldn’t buoy a strong offense on his own. Jason Kidd may have seemed like the perfect complement to Carter’s game, however Kidd’s offensive game was maybe not as impactful as his passing illustrates.

Ultimately, Carter needed another creator next to him that could set both him and other teammates up which makes sense considering his best team offense came next to Mark Jackson.

Vince Carter on Defense

Vince Carter’s physical build and athleticism make him look like the ideal wing defender. He’s long, quick, and able to quickly jump to contest shots. At times, his lateral quickness was nothing short of tremendous. Here he is picking up Sam Cassell in the backcourt and completely hounding him as he drives.

In the couple of plays he switched onto Iverson, he showcased nothing less than All-NBA defense in shutting him down. Look at how quickly he moves laterally while staying disciplined on the shot.

Unfortunately, that effort and tenacity was not common for Carter. Moreover, I found his defense to be bereft of effort on most plays as summed up in this defensive montage where he lazily dies on a screen, allows Kobe to get a step on a cut, and just seems disinterested in shutting Kobe down.

Clearly the issue wasn’t slow feet because he pretty capably stood in front of Iverson. You can see in these next two plays – including being burned by Stojakovic – that he simply didn’t have the same mentality as those Iverson clips.

Screens

In my above Twitter video, the 6’3″ Penberthy stops Carter in his tracks with a screen. Sadly, this sort of pick dodging was the norm for Carter especially when chasing players off ball. In both plays, he’s the defender guarding the shooter.

Contests

As a backline defender, Carter didn’t offer much as a rim protector. In these couple of plays, Carter actively avoids the driver being funneled towards him instead of trying to draw a charge or meet him at the rim.

However, when given a runway before contesting a shot, Carter turned into a nightmare for the offensive player. Here he starts near the free-throw line before recovering for what I consider to be a high-level defensive stop.

Again, here is he hounding Iverson for a couple of hustle blocks in transition (maybe Iverson just brings the best out of him!).

This swooping and contesting version of Carter showed his defensive strengths and potential. Even in some defensive circumstances, he showed great awareness and hustle to make every shot difficult.

Nevertheless, I can’t stress enough how every one of these phenomenal defensive plays was countered by an equally disgusting dud. This stunt and subsequent lack of help ranks in my all-time terrible defensive hustle folder.

A Statistical Look at Vince Carter’s Defense

In his first four out of five seasons, Carter averaged more than a block and a steal a game, numbers that point to him being somewhat of a disruptive force. While he wasn’t swiping balls from players, he used his length and athleticism to end and protect possessions at a solid rate for a swingman.

Impact and advanced metrics seem to have a similar view of his defense. Goldstein’s D-PIPM scores him out at +0.91, Basketball Reference’s DBPM gives him a 0.1, and Ben Taylor’s DBPM assigns him a 0.1. In fact, Carter’s DBPM never went above 0.8 or -0.8 in his first 12 seasons which points to a consistently mediocre defender.

In the 29 games that he missed between 2000-2002, the Raptors’ defense actually improved: a marginal 0.36 points per 100 possessions. This is a negligible enough shift that I’d feel confident lumping it in with the evidence pointing towards him being average.

Defensive Conclusion on Vince Carter

My conclusion actually ties into some thoughts I’ve been having about impact and advanced metrics: impact doesn’t remain consistent throughout games. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s necessary to understand Carter’s true defensive value.

I think that Carter is overall a mediocre defender who probably adds some value over a replacement defender, but he vacillates being terrible and fantastic. For instance, Basketball Reference provides game-level BPM along with their full season valuations. During game 3 of the Raptors/Sixers series (the game from which I clipped Carter switching onto Iverson), Carter’s game-level DBPM was a Wallace-esque 7.4. Conversely, he registered a -5.9 DBPM against the Bucks on December 15th, 2000. I haven’t tried to quantify his defensive fluctuation, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s more volatile than other players.

I could see a possible world in which Carter landed on a strong defensive team where he took a consistently disciplined approach to defense. In this case, he could be a strong defensive wing, but there’s just no evidence of that happening on a regular basis.

Final Conclusion on Vince Carter

Vince Carter’s peak was marked with consistent excitement and comparisons. Is he the next Jordan? Would you take Carter or Kobe? Is he the greatest dunker of all time? Does he have a killer instinct?

Unfortunately, I think those very narratives meant to build him up hurt his career. Looking at the numbers, Carter clearly had a successful NBA tenure, but he spent all of his prime miscast as a wrong initiator. On offense, he was one of the most deadly shooters of his time, a force cutting to the basket, and a smart extra passer. However, he didn’t have the self-generating ability necessary to take the reins as an offensive supernova. Contemporaries like Kobe and Iverson did, so instead of blazing his own trail, he was compared to an ideal Vince Carter that didn’t match reality.

Defensively, Carter showed flashes of All-Defensive abilities including quick lateral feet, quick court-mapping, and great timing on his blocks. Nevertheless, he lacked a consistent motor that would make him a significant impact defender on a game-to-game basis. This manifested in players often blowing by him, getting caught on screens from much smaller players, and completing losing his man.

Perhaps this might seem sacrilegious, but I see his best modern comp as a supercharged Zach LaVine (with significantly better defensive instincts). Both are best optimized next to another primary creator who can set them up for secondary action. At this point, Carter still was a better and more efficient shooter, and I don’t see LaVine ever being as defensively impactful as Carter.

Where Should I Draft Vince Carter in an All-Time Draft?

Based on my conclusion about his offensive role, he should definitely fall far enough that you can pick up a strong primary creator first. He’d be a great offensive threat next to the mega-creators like LeBron, Nash, or Magic. However, I still wouldn’t jump on him until at minimum the 4th round. At that point, you should already have your main offensive and defensive players established. Carter would fill the need as a damaging off-ball threat who won’t consistently hurt your defense.

Final Grades (A+ to F) for Vince Carter

ScoringB
PlaymakingC+
DefenseC
ReboundingC+
PortabilityB+
Ideal RoleO2D4

Cody Houdek is a writer for Premium Hoops. He also assists with videos for the Thinking Basketball YouTube channel. You can find all of his work (articlesvideos, and podcastshere.

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