The Vince Carter era in Memphis has gotten off to a rough start. The Grizzlies' marquee offseason signing has kicked off the season with shooting percentages of .342 from the field and .289 from three, a far cry from his respective marks of .419 and .392 over the last three seasons with the Dallas Mavericks.
This might've been the team's worst nightmare from when they signed him coming to fruition. Here's a guy who's 37 years old and playing on a new team under a new coach that is nowhere near Rick Carlisle's level of genius. And I like Dave Joerger! But Carter doesn't look at all like the guy the Grizzlies thought they were getting when they inked him to that three-year, $12 million deal back in July. He's already hit a low point of a DNP-CD, coming in early November against the Milwaukee Bucks, and his season-high in points is 11 – the only time he's cracked double digits.
Worth noting: Carter had offseason ankle surgery, and is reportedly still working to get healthy. That makes sense, and it's probably affected him to some degree as he's worked out the cobwebs early in the season. But still: Carter hasn't looked himself at all, and the reasons to be concerned still hang around.
Let's take a dive into some numbers. First of all, Carter's usage percentage has remained similar to what it was during his Mavericks tenure. He currently ends 22.4% of possessions while on the court, close to the 22.3% ratio he posted with the Mavs. So the problem here definitely isn't an increased workload, a good thing since a change in usage is usually the first warning sign for a change in efficiency.
But that doesn't rule out the possibility that Carter's current workload is too much for him, and that possibility leaves room for the scary chance of age biting away at VC's game. To check that, I wanted to see exactly where the drop-off was coming from in his field goal percentage, and to see how moving to Memphis has influenced his shot location and efficiency. (Data via Basketball-Reference; stats from last night's game against the Toronto Raptors haven't been included yet.)
The amount of long twos that Carter attempts are up marginally, and three-pointers are up significantly – this season they make up about 75% of Carter's shots, compared to about 60% last season. Long twos have actually overtaken the shot within three feet for Carter, which is no good considering the natural efficiency difference between the two. But to throw in another Basketball-Reference stat, Carter's overall field goal percentage on twos is almost unchanged from last year: .418 last season to .414 this season. So in the end, that hasn't been the problem.
In fact, the difference has really come down to one simple thing: three-pointers. Carter's shooting more of them, which probably isn't something you'll see me complain about often. Go three-pointers! The problem for Carter has simply been that his three-point percentage, for one reason or another, has fallen by about ten percent. That's huge, given that they make up more than half of his field goal attempts.
SportVU data tells us that opposing defenses haven't been the problem plaguing Carter (frequency percentages computed to total 100%, as opposed to a percentage of something else):
If anything, Carter's been more open on threes. Almost all of his threes this season have been taken with a defender at least four feet away – he's just been missing those ones. Last season, Carter shot .390 on 'open' threes, .450 on 'wide open' threes, and .292 on 'tight' threes. This season, he's made .320 of 'open threes' and .273 of 'wide open' threes.
Maybe the difference is in how Carter's producing his threes. This time, the comparison will be between catch-and-shoots and pull-ups. (Heads up: for some reason, Datawrapper decided to put the 2013-14 column ahead of the 2014-15 one for this chart after having it in the opposite order in the other ones.)
Again, Carter's had better looks this season. He actually converted pull-up threes at a decent rate last season (.350), but naturally, that still lagged behind his efficiency on catch-and-shoot threes (.402) where he can get his feet set. This season, Carter hasn't made a single pull-up three, and he's only hitting .323 of his catch-and-shoot threes.
There's a lot of information on this page, and it might be overwhelming. But what it comes down to is that Carter's sudden decline in three-point shooting ability has been the biggest problem in what has been a slow start out of the gate, and it appears to be random luck as his looks actually improved over last year.
Unless Carter's three-point shot has suddenly and entirely disappeared on him (unlikely – a shooting stroke is one of the few things that can weather Father Time), it just means he isn't making the shots that he knocked down last year. For that, we can probably blame things like the lingering injury and potentially the unquantifiable stuff like confidence and luck, too. That stuff should come around.
And we can even find a bit of good in this start, although the sample size is small. Carter's looks have actually improved over last year (I'd hazard a guess to say that the Grizzlies are using him less as a pick-and-roll ball-handler than the Mavericks did – having Synergy to confirm this would be nice). He's shooting more three-pointers, more of them are open, and more of them are clean catch-and-shoot looks. Those are all good things for his efficiency.
The only thing to complain about, in terms of Carter's efficiency, is actually unrelated to his field goal percentage. His free throw rate (ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts) is waaay down, from .242 last season to .082 this season. Carter's only taken six free throws in the first 11 games of the season, which is no fun for a career .799 free throw shooter. The drop in free throw attempts is probably related to the reduced amount of shots at the rim – you generally draw fouls by attacking the rim. I wouldn't complain with Carter swapping some long twos for more drives to the rim, although that may be more taxing on him physically.
But long story short: Carter looks fine, long-term. When he gets over this cold streak and the nagging ankle injury, his efficiency should turn around if all else stays the same. Rest easy – this slump looks more like a valley than a cliff.