The Spurs needed perimeter defense and three-point shooting going into the offseason and got it early on in free agency by signing DeMarre Carroll. The veteran forward has a reputation as a classic 3-and-D type, which is ostensibly what San Antonio needs next to their ball-dominant guards.
But before assuming Carroll will be a perfect fit, it would be wise to remember how he performed in past stops and how arguably the pre-eminent 3-and-D wing in the league, Danny Green, struggled in his last year in San Antonio. In recent seasons, the Spurs just haven’t been a snug fit for spot up shooters who can’t do much else.
We’ve already covered in detail why Green was simply not as effective in his last few seasons as a Spur. Essentially, the offense stopped creating as many open corner looks for him while Green stopped being as effective from above the break in part because of shot selection. In his last three seasons as a Spur, Green shot 36 percent from beyond the arc, 38 percent from the field and was at best a neutral presence on offense. Not even his stellar defense was enough to hide the fact that he wasn’t fitting.
As soon as he got to Toronto and started playing in a system better suited for his talents, Green went back to being an elite shooter and valuable offensive piece. Toronto moved the ball when Kawhi Leonard wasn’t holding it and prioritized corner threes. In his new home, Green got a lot more outside looks from his preferred spot and a lot more assisted two-point buckets. He got the type of shots he needed created for him and wasn’t asked to do much dribbling. As a result, he returned to elite role player status.
What do Green’s ups-and-downs have to do with Carroll? Well, both have had similar success in perimeter-oriented teams that moved the ball and created corner looks for them and struggled on slower ones in which a couple of players controlled the ball.
Carroll broke out with Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks team that thrived by sharing the ball and firing at will from beyond the arc. Those Atlanta squads found clever ways to set up shooters for corner looks and made up for lack of elite perimeter creators with a ton of off-ball movement in an equal opportunity offense. It was a perfect fit for Carroll.
After that, Carroll joined the DeMar DeRozan-led Raptors as a big free agent addition but disappointed. Part of it had to do with health issues, but part of it was caused by playing in a system that didn’t fit him, at least in his estimation. Carroll didn’t mince words about his time as a Raptor after being traded when talking to The Toronto Sun’s Ryan Wolstat:
“I wasn’t happy, my agent, we thought the style of ball was going to be different, it was going to be more team-oriented, but I guess it was still ISO (isolation), so I thought they would have moved me last year, but that didn’t happen.”
The Raptors were successful during Carroll’s time in Toronto, but he was clearly never comfortable. In his first year as a Raptor, he saw the number of his threes coming from the corners decrease significantly, and his two-point percentage dipped. Carroll’s individual numbers were still decent, and he played solid defense, but he was a net negative for a franchise that envisioned him as a key role player. Then he joined a team with a system that was better suited for his talents in Brooklyn and bounced back, just like Green.
The challenge for the Spurs now will be to make sure they avoid the mistake the Raptors made and put Carroll’s skill set to good use, just like the Hawks and the Nets did. Fortunately, they are in a good position to do just that.
Last season, Carroll proved that he can still be useful when his shot isn’t falling at a high clip, provided he shares the court with players who share his mindset. It should be fairly easy to give him the same opportunity in San Antonio by playing him with the more dynamic bench units instead of the starters. He’s not expected to be as big a part of the rotation with the Spurs as he was in Toronto, so Popovich could simply use him in combinations that work instead of trying to slot him into a restrictive role in lineups not suited to his skills.
If his defense is needed with the starters, the Spurs could find ways to make him comfortable. Carroll was at his best with the Nets when he served as one of the forwards in small units, something Green simply didn’t have the size to do in San Antonio. If the Spurs brought Carroll in to play a similar role, the floor should be more open than it was in Toronto, where he was slotted as a wing in traditional units. If the sole big man in those lineups is LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs could even play five out, just like the Hawks did under Budenholzer.
Just like Green before him, Carroll could really struggle in San Antonio if he’s used as a prototypical 3-and-D wing in traditional units in a slow, iso-heavy system. But no one will force the Spurs to do that. There are ways to maximize Carroll’s skills that don’t require drastic changes to Gregg Popovich’s system, so time will tell how he is utilized.