It was hard to see this coming, since the Spurs typically don’t like to pay players to go away, but it’s an eerily appropriate ending to a partnership that never made a lot of sense.
The Spurs added Carroll after re-signing Rudy Gay and with Davis Bertans still on the roster, which was curious even at the time. With a glut of guards vying for minutes and DeMar DeRozan entrenched at the small forward spot, Carroll seemed like a good luxury to have off the bench to guard big wings and play power forward in small lineups, but didn’t really fill a need with Gay around. The reasoning behind the move seemed to be that since Bertans had been played off the floor in the playoffs by the Nuggets, getting a more physical and defensive-minded option was smart. Clearly Carroll wasn’t the answer they thought he would be, but in the inexplicable rush to sign him, the Spurs used their best free agency tool before a better target appeared.
It’s tempting to just blame a very confusing offseason on Marcus Morris for backing out of an agreed deal, but the entire Morris debacle could have been avoided if instead of inking Carroll, the Spurs would have waited to see if a better player would become available. The only reason San Antonio didn’t have the mid-level exception on hand and had to trade Bertans to accommodate Morris is because someone in the front office — it doesn’t matter much if it was new General Manager Bryan Wright or CEO RC Buford — decided that agreeing to terms with a 32-year-old journeyman who did not move the needle to an onerous deal early in free agency was too good an opportunity to pass up.
It could have all worked out if they simply made Carroll a priority because both the front office and the coaching staff concluded that he should have been one — but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Gregg Popovich apparently never was all that sold on Carroll, going by the fact that he never really gave him a chance to crack the rotation. That’s the biggest issue here. I don’t want to speculate too much, but it seems clear that there was some sort of breakdown in communication between Pop and the front office. Why use the only resource the franchise had to make a meaningful addition in free agency on a player the coach didn’t want? It’s the question that remains unanswered and the most concerning one.
(The fact that the Spurs actually found someone who Pop was more willing to play than Carroll later on in free agency and for a fraction of the price only makes it more obvious that something went awry.)
Then there’s Bertans. While there’s a case to be made that he was traded only to make room for Morris, the fact remains that the only thing the Spurs got back for him was Carroll on a deal that now seems laughable. I understand that some fans can find comfort in rightfully pointing out that Davis would not have become a 15-point a game scorer, League Pass darling and trade target worth multiple picks had he stayed in San Antonio, but he didn’t have to become that player to be valuable to the Spurs. We know that because the old version was still immensely helpful in the 2018/19 regular season, where he posted the best net rating on the team by a significant margin. If it seems like losing him for five months of Carroll DNPs and the possibility to sign Morris hurts, that’s because it should.
There is just no way to spin last offseason as anything other than a serious blunder. Not anymore, not after knowing for sure that Carroll won’t help the Spurs in any way, shape or form, on the court or as salary ballast in a trade. He might be good with the Rockets, in which case we’ll all be mad because Pop was wrong not to play him. He might be bad, in which case we’ll only have confirmation that the front office was wrong to sign him in the first place.
As far mistakes go, wasting the mid-level exception doesn’t rank too high, not in a league in which two teams passed on Luka Doncic and eight-figure contracts were handed out to the likes of Evan Turner and Ian Mahinmi not long ago. The biggest reason why the Carroll signing seems like a meaningful misstep is because, as Spurs fans, we have been spoiled by a ridiculously extended time of competency at the front office level. I get that. But it’s important to remember that things have changed now. There’s no Big Three or Kawhi Leonard around to mask any lapses in judgement. The details matter when you have such a small margin of error and lately, the Spurs seem to be getting them wrong.
The Carroll signing and subsequent buyout is not the reason why the Spurs will likely miss the playoffs for the first time in over two decades, but it is perfect reminder that the organizational proficiency that made that success possible should no longer be assumed.