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Carter looks to vindicate poor playoff performance

If Vince Carter didn't have enough incentive to redeem his poor performance in the Eastern Conference finals, the message came through loud and clear from his Orlando Magic teammates during a meeting at the start of training camp.

Simply put, they said, he must be better.

"Vince is easy at saying all of the right things, but I don't particularly care what he says," Magic president of basketball operations Otis Smith said. "I'm more interested in what he does once the games start, and his teammates told him the same thing."

Motivation shouldn't be the problem for Carter this season.

He turns 34 in January. The $18 million team option on the final year of his contract will almost certainly not be picked up next season. So if he struggles early this year, that expiring deal could be a hot commodity on the trade market for franchises looking to clear salary-cap space.

Translation: this may very well be Carter's best shot left at a championship.

"You said it like something's wrong, like my contract could be voided in the coming weeks or something," Carter said matter-of-factly when asked about his contract situation. "I just play. I'm going to let my game speak for itself."

Then Carter might want to speak up.

Otherwise, the longtime Orlando resident and native of nearby Daytona Beach will have his homecoming end shorter and sadder than he could've ever envisioned.

Carter's first season with the Magic was the worst of his career, averaging 16.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. Perfectly productive numbers by most NBA standards — just not for an eight-time All-Star, one of the league's highest-paid players and Orlando's only real perimeter playmaker.

"Everybody here just wants him to play the game the way he's played it throughout his career — attacking the basket," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "You look around the East with all the great perimeter players: Boston has (Paul) Pierce and (Ray) Allen, Miami has (LeBron) James and (Dwyane) Wade. Atlanta has Joe Johnson.

"Vince is our guy who can create shots for himself and other people. He's still capable of doing that."

Nothing highlighted Carter's struggles more last season than the conference finals against Boston.

Carter scored just 28 points combined in the first three games of the series, the Magic went down 3-0 and were eventually eliminated in six games. Carter, who finished with an average of 13.6 points per game in the series, even saw his playing time diminish in favor of backup J.J. Redick.

Not exactly what the Magic were hoping for when they parted ways with Hedo Turkoglu after the 2008-09 season and traded for Carter, reconstructing the makeup of their starting lineup.

One of the main points of emphasis during Orlando's nearly 3½-hour preseason team meeting earlier this week was to push Carter to be more aggressive.

"I expect him to be Vince Carter and last year he wasn't," Smith said. "He fell into the trap of trying to fit in. We expect more from him like being aggressive and making plays for himself and others. He has another year under Stan and to get used to our guys, and everyone who has come here has done well in their second year."

Even when he was with New Jersey or Toronto, Carter spent most of his offseason at his Orlando home. The only vacation he's taken in 12 NBA seasons, he said, was a quick trip to the Bahamas.

But even this summer was a stretch.

Carter, who usually takes a month or two off in the summer, was back in the gym and working on his game only a few weeks after the Magic were eliminated and was a constant presence around the NBA's Orlando summer league. He dropped about 3 percent body fat and is in better condition than he was a year ago, all the time thinking about how to vindicate his playoff performance.

"You never really get over something like that until the opportunity comes to get back in that situation again. I was shocked," Carter said.

That time is coming soon.

Carter no longer has the vertical leap and awesome athleticism that made him a dunk-contest star and earned him the nickname "half man, half amazing." But he still has big nights in him, such as when he had 48 points in an electrifying regular-season win over Charlotte last season that was Vintage Vince.

Nobody in Orlando is expecting that kind of performance nightly.

They just want to see the same aggressiveness from Carter. Otherwise, it could be an early exit for Orlando.

"I accept that. I understand that and it's something that has been in my mind all summer," Carter said. "I know it's time for me to be me and I don't have a problem with that."