DeMarre Carroll is the wing Toronto Raptors fans have been waiting for.
Since the departure of Tracy McGrady, the Raptors' small forward slot has consistently been a position of worry. Sure, there have been bright spots: Anthony Parker was a crucial part of the mid-2000s team that made a couple first round appearances, and it was neat when Terrence Ross, for a time, looked like the second coming of Paul George.
But for every fun and useful Raptors small forward, there have been multiple horrendous ones. Joey Graham, Landry Fields, Linas Kleiza, last year's Terrence Ross: these are the kinds of guys Toronto fans are used to watching patrol the wings. The position's simply been a black hole for much of the franchise's existence.
So when Masai Ujiri went out and dropped $58 million in Carroll's lap this off-season, you could understand the excitement among those who follow the team. Carroll does a little bit of everything. He's a willing and skilled passer, can bury outside shots and will instantly be a defensive boon for a team that fell from being top-ten to bottom-ten in the course of a year. Given what he excels at most, it's entirely reasonable to think Carroll could be the antidote to much of what ailed the Raptors in the second half of last year.
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Trying to pinpoint the most troublesome issue the Raptors faced last season is tricky. A lot of aspects of the team were tremendously flawed. But more than the wonky defensive scheme or poor shot selection, it was probably Toronto's blatant inability to stop dribble penetration that dragged the entire operation down.
Between the injured Kyle Lowry, the not-so-fleet of foot Greivis Vasquez, Terrence Ross' and Lou Williams' lack of size and the surprisingly slow DeMar DeRozan, it's no wonder Toronto was regularly victimized by fast, attacking point guards and wings last year. There was just nobody on the roster who could dependably stop drivers from slicing open the defense. Against a relentless point guard like John Wall in the playoffs, it was a weak point that was to easily exploited, leading to an ugly post-season exit.
Now, let's not go crazy over Carroll's defensive prowess. His impact on that end of the floor might be a tad overstated. He's not on the level of a Kawhi Leonard or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (pour one out for Charlotte). He's not even as stout as guys like Khris Middleton or Trevor Ariza.
With Atlanta last year, the 29-year-old Carroll gave up some ugly defensive field-goal percentages against opponents shooting two pointers against him. That's not particularly surprising - he's a perimeter oriented-player who was never asked to be an interior defensive presence. But his trouble stopping the seven two-point attempts he defended per game last year is an indicator that he's not on the same plain as the players we consider to be the league's top lock-down threes.
|Player||2PT FG Defended/Game||DEF 2PT FG %|
Those numbers might give you pause, especially considering all of the chatter about Carroll likely playing the four in spurts this season. But Carroll's difficulty with defending shots inside the arc doesn't mean he's a bad defender. Where Carroll excels is defending out to the three point line. In 2014-15, he limited opponents to a measly 30.8 percent clip on threes, roughly eight percentage points better than what Leonard and Kidd-Gilchrist achieved.
Altogether, Carroll grades out as a league average-ish stopper. ESPN's Defensive Real Plus/Minus ranked Carroll 35th out of 75 qualified small forward in terms of defensive impact per game last year, having him down as a just-about neutral defender with a -0.38 DRPM.
That's exactly why Carroll's so valuable to his new team.
It's already been mentioned here, and has been drilled into the brains of Raptors supporters for months: Toronto's perimeter defense last year was the equivalent of Enes Kanter's rim-protection - it stunk. And it probably won't surprise you to find out that the man who ranked dead last last on the ESPN list of small forwards was Terrence Ross, with a hilariously bad -3.77 DRPM.
Defensively speaking, inserting Carroll into Ross' starting spot is the equivalent of replacing 38-year-old Paul Pierce with Kidd-Gilchrist. It's a significant upgrade that will have trickle down effects for the rest of the Raptors' defense.
With Carroll now in the mix, everyone is going to be bumped down on the ladder of responsibility. Carroll, unlike Ross and DeRozan, has the skills and physical dimensions to be the team's number one wing defender. Lowry is slimmer and faster, and should finally be able to stay in front of his man with more regularity this coming year. Suddenly, DeRozan is probably third-best perimeter defender in the Raptors starting line-up - a completely suitable role for a defender of DeRozan's ilk to handle.
Ross, meanwhile, will be insulated on the second unit, facing weaker opponents and playing alongside ball hawks like Cory Joseph and James Johnson. Up and down the roster, guys will be defending their position, and taking on manageable duties on the defensive side of the ball. The Raptors will have Carroll to thank for that.
While Carroll will surely help slow the flow of opposing offenses, he should have the exact inverse effect at the other end of the floor for Toronto.
Thanks to being among the league leaders in free throws and three-pointers made, the Raptors managed to have the third-most efficient offense in the NBA last season. But man alive, was it ever ugly to behold at times. A perplexing mixture of contested DeRozan mid-range hoists, Lou Williams end-of-quarter step-back threes and the league's second-lowest assist rate made for a maddening final product on most nights. And a January to April drop off of six points per 100 possessions for the Raptors spoke to the instability of Toronto's congested, ball-stopping offense.
Most disappointingly was that last year, the pieces were in place for a much more aesthetically pleasing and sustainable offense that the one we were exposed to. With a collection of solid catch-and-shoot players including Vasquez, Ross and Patrick Patterson, a post-scoring monster in Jonas Valanciunas and powerful drivers like Lowry and DeRozan, a little bit of ball movement could have opened up all kinds of possibilities.
Passing, as it so happens, is something Carroll is familiar with after spending the last two years in Mike Budenholzer's Spursian system. He moves the ball in ways that were completely foreign to last year's team.
In transition, he's always surveying, looking for the open three. He and Kyle Korver formed a murderous duo when running the floor last season:
He's well-versed in playing hot potato too, and has that whole "pass up a good shot to great a great shot" cliché locked down:
And on top of those simple principles of team basketball, Carroll is also a solid slasher who can dump the ball to a big man with ease, or kick it out for a three point try:
Carroll averaged just under two assists a night last year, but his presence will snake the Raptors' formerly clogged offensive set up thanks to his propensity for dishing smart passes. And as opposed to his ball-dominant teammates Lowry and DeRozan, Carroll doesn't need a ton of touches to be productive. His 2014-15 line of 12.6 points, 5.3 boards and 1.7 assists last year was compiled with a dinky 1.6 minutes of possession per game.
Carroll won't be invasive when sharing the court with Toronto's All-Star back-court combo; Lowry and DeRozan will still get their touches. Carroll will just be there to provide an added driving threat, and act as a reliable safety valve who can keep the offense flowing when the guards' attacks break down.
Everything about DeMarre Carroll's game is going to be a welcome sight for Dwane Casey and his staff this season. Too often were Toronto's bigs left to mop up the spills of the team's perimeter defenders during last year's up-and-down campaign. Carroll's inclusion will strengthen the Raptors' outer wall, and help alleviate the pressure on the rest of the roster. Guys won't be asked to play above their abilities anymore, and it should allow Casey's players to work much more in step with one another.
On the flip side, Carroll may be the key to unlocking a less-plodding, more beautiful style of offense that embraces the extra pass instead of stifling it.
After last year's playoff loss that saw the Wizards snuff out the Raptors' hero-ball offense and tear their plush defense to shreds, it became painfully clear that a full-scale change was needed in Toronto's style of play. And Carroll, the biggest free agent get in franchise history, has the skills to facilitate it.
Seriously, Raptors fans are going to love this guy.