Now that the Hall of Fame has corrected its most grievous sin of omission and elected the great Artis Gilmore, we’ll have a short break before the next intense debate over the qualifications of a true superstar-level player — or at least a guy perceived as a true superstar-level player. That debate will come in earnest when Vince Carter becomes eligible, though it has already been going on for a while.
Even figuring conservatively, Carter is going to finish with a career point total in at least the 22,000 range, and when you get up that high, you’re dealing with nothing but Hall of Famers and future shoo-ins. He’ll probably settle in somewhere between Larry Bird (No. 32) and Elgin Baylor (No. 27) on the all-time scoring list, ahead of Hall of Famers Hal Greer, Bob Pettit, Walt Bellamy, Scottie Pippen, Earl Monroe, David Robinson, Magic Johnson, Dennis Johnson, John Stockton, Chris Mullin, Dave Bing, Lenny Wilkens, Kevin McHale, Dennis Rodman and others.
Carter figures to end up right there on the scoring list with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, two contemporaries almost certain to get in. If Carter doesn’t make it, he’ll hold the title for at least a long while of Highest ABA/NBA Scorer Not in the Hall of Fame.
The election of Chris Mullin in the Class of 2011 holds promise for Carter’s candidacy. Of the previously mentioned Hall of Famers who have fewer career points than Carter, almost all of them were very good at something other than scoring. Included are some of the best point guards of all-time, a bunch of ace rebounders and a few defensive studs. Carter, like Mullin, is mostly a scorer who provides passing as a secondary skill. He puts up decent assist numbers for a shooting guard, but his passing mostly involves kicking the ball out when defenses loaded up on him to contain his scoring. That’s an important skill for a scorer, but it’s not as if Carter has ever pulled off passing with a high degree of difficultly or facilitating like Jason Kidd.
But don’t overlook how incredible Carter was as a scorer. Go through his stats on 82games.com, and you’ll see his teams consistently score nearly 10 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. This happened every season, even on the post-Tracy McGrady Raptors, and even when Richard Jefferson missed significant time for the Nets in 2006-07. Sure, the crummy benches in Jersey and Toronto provided a bit of a boost to those on-court/off-court numbers, but those are huge numbers, and few players produce them year after year, regardless of context. In his prime, Carter helped his team’s offense a ton. Rodman just got in based on monster career achievements found mostly at the defensive end; isn’t Carter the opposite sort of candidate? What’s the difference between Carter and Mullin?
(It is here that I should note that the Hall of Fame is, of course, not an NBA-only Hall of Fame and can thus take into account a candidate’s play in college and elsewhere. That obviously helps Mullin quite a bit, given his outstanding record at St. John’s and his place on the original Dream Team.)
Mullin was perhaps a more clever and natural passer, but his and Carter’s assist numbers are similar (about four per 36 minute), and Carter assists on a higher percentage of his team’s baskets. Neither is much of a rebounder or defender. They are in the Hall of Fame conversation, basically, because they score at an elite level. Neither has much of a playoff resume. Carter had never been to a conference final before last season, when he played some of the worst ball of his career against the Celtics and bricked two crucial free throws in Orlando’s series-turning home loss in Game 2. Mullin made back-to-back conference finals with the Pacers in the late 1990s, though he played a much smaller role in the second of those series – in 1999, against the Knicks.
Both have baggage, though Carter’s might be the sort that is fatal to a Hall of Fame candidacy. Mullin struggled with alcoholism, but he was a gym rat who worked tirelessly at his game, played hard for his team and used basketball as an escape from everything else. Carter indisputably quit on the Raptors in 2004-05 after becoming fed up with the front office, only to suddenly play like his old self upon a mid-season trade to New Jersey. It is almost inconceivable that this Toronto roster could ever score nearly 10 fewer points per 100 possessions with Carter on the court before the Raptors surrendered and dealt him to the Nets. But that actually happened, and Carter’s blatant tank job will rightfully taint his legacy.
So will the perception that he has failed, repeatedly, in the clutch. That perception doesn’t quite stand up when you broaden the definition of clutch (as the site 82games.com has) to include the last five minutes of games in which the scoring margin was within five points. Carter fares quite well by this measure, but I’d wager most fans would consider postseason performance to be more important than what a player does in the last five minutes of a game in March.
And it is there that Carter falls short. He was decent for the Raptors in the 2000-01 playoffs, though one miss at the end of Game 7 against the Sixers has overshadowed everything else he did during that brief run. And he was fantastic for the Nets in 2005-06. Beyond that? Carter has shot 41.5 percent overall in the playoffs and 31.5 percent from deep, down from 44.5/37.4 in the regular season. His performance against Boston in the biggest series of his life: 13.7 points on 36.7 percent shooting from the field and those two ultra-costly free-throw misses.
Carter has a couple of intangibles going his way: He’s perhaps the best dunker ever (and that matters in a pop culture sense), and he made the Raptors successful when it was unclear whether they would sustain in Toronto. Those things wouldn’t matter to me if I were voting, but this Hall of Fame’s selection process has been hard to figure for years.
My guess is that Carter – barring a late-career resurgence – is in serious danger of being left out of Springfield. And that strikes me now as a fair resolution.