How long has it’s been since you were watching a Spurs game and thought DeMarre Carroll could realistically sub in? Probably a while, which is understandable. Even in Friday’s loss to the Hawks, with Rudy Gay out, the news that Carroll was in street clothes just felt normal.
The Spurs’ biggest offseason addition has become an afterthought after never really getting a chance to crack the rotation, which is really unusual, weirdly fascinating, and more than a little disappointing.
It’s hard to overstate how much of a non-factor Carroll has been for the Spurs, but the signs that he was not going to be a featured player were there from the start. He averaged 16 minutes a night in four preseason appearances, the 12th most on the team. It was easy to dismiss those games because it seemed safe to assume that, as a veteran and an expensive addition, Carroll had a spot in the rotation secured already. Alas, it turns out those performances apparently mattered. He wasn’t exceptionally bad in those few games, but clearly didn’t do enough to convince the coaching staff that he deserved playing time to start the season. Carroll got DNP-CDs in the four first matchups the Spurs played.
From then on Carroll has mostly played in blowouts. Out of his total 135 minutes on the court only 73 came in the first three quarters of the game and he has logged just four minutes in the clutch, as defined as the last five minutes of a game in which either team had a lead of five points or fewer. The closest he got to getting consistent playing time came in a five-game stretch in November, but after getting double digit minutes in four of those matchups he went back to not subbing in at all when it mattered. In December and January Carroll has been on the court in just six games for a total of 35 minutes. He’s firmly out of the rotation and wasn’t even an option at a time in which Gregg Popovich was trying out new things.
No one is clamoring for more playing time for Carroll, for good reasons. He didn’t stand out when he suited up, Trey Lyles has been providing good minutes at power forward and Lonnie Walker IV should get all the backup small forward minutes that are up for grabs. But Carroll’s situation is so unusual for this franchise that it’s hard to ignore it. Simply put, the Spurs just don’t bring in pricey veterans they don’t intend to play. The last five established veteran free agents the Spurs signed to a sizable contracts in the offseason (Antonio McDyess, Marco Belinelli, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay) played at least 1,200 minutes in their first season in San Antonio. Expensive vets get playing time when the Spurs add them.
Which brings us to the actual reason why Carroll’s lack of playing time is so interesting: situations like his are simply not supposed to happen to the Spurs because of their organizational power structure. It’s not rare for general managers to add players their coaches have no interest in playing, but since Gregg Popovich is not only the team’s coach but also has traditionally had a great deal of influence in personnel decisions, San Antonio has avoided that type of conflict. The costly additions they’ve made always seemed to come pre-approved and as such typically became important parts of the rotation. One of the good things about the tricky dual role Pop has held for years is that it makes it harder to waste resources on guys that end up sitting from the start. At least that was the case until this year.
So what makes this situation different? It’s hard to say. It’s always possible that the problem is as simple as the Spurs realizing that Carroll is not as good as they thought he was when they decided to acquire him, but that doesn’t really exonerate PATFO from blame. Carroll has been around for a long time and logged 1,700 minutes last season. He’s a known commodity. He was also 33 years old, had limited athleticism even in his prime and had been salary-dumped by a good team two years before the Spurs signed him.
It’s also possible San Antonio was more interested in his veteran leadership and locker room impact than his on court value, but spending the equivalent of the mid-level exception on such a player feels incredibly wasteful for a team that had pressing needs. It’s one thing to sign Quincy Pondexter to a minimum deal for a year to cheer from the bench and another to pay someone $15 million over three seasons to do so while being razor thin at the center position.
There’s really no explanation as to why the Spurs signed DeMarre Carroll to an onerous deal (only to give up on him almost immediately) that is even remotely satisfying. If he’s actually done as a player, they should have realized it before bringing him in. If the coaching staff wanted a veteran leader, there were cheaper ones available. If the front office somehow didn’t get Pop’s approval before going after him, then something has changed dramatically — and for the worse — within the franchise.
Carroll’s addition might not be the main reason why the Spurs are a worse team than last season, but it is the latest sign that a brain trust that had earned the benefit of the doubt in the past now deserves every bit of scrutiny and criticism it gets, and perhaps even more.