For the first time since they brought in Hedo Turkoglu in 2009 the Toronto Raptors made a splash in free agency this offseason when they landed then-Atlanta Hawk DeMarre Carroll, supposedly the hard-nosed and ultra-efficient wing that the team lacked. The move was met with widespread praise because it seemed like a perfect fit: a team that had a noticeable lack of players who could both shoot from outside and defend brought in someone who has been great at both for the last two seasons and is in his physical prime. The move wasn’t met with universal praise, with some acknowledging that Carroll’s effectiveness would be heavily dependent on how the Raptors offense adjusted to use his particular talents, with Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry noting that going from the team leading the NBA in three point assists to a team near the bottom might have a significant impact on Carroll’s numbers.
It’s early, but so far that has come to fruition. His defense has been impactful in spurts but his offense seems mostly lost, with the Raptors offensive system requiring much more ball-handling and creating from Carroll, who previously made his living off of cuts and spot up jump shots:
We see significant decreases in his open shots with corresponding increases in the amount of shots he takes after 2 or more dribbles which, along with the injuries he’s suffered from thus far, explains why his efficiency has fallen off so hard this year.
The good folks at Nylon Calculus have come up with something to help us visualize exactly what those differences mean, because on the surface having to dribble once or twice before shooting might not seem like a huge problem. You’ll have to visit the site to get all of the specifics but they’ve attempted to quantify pace, ball movement, player movement and shot selection and then graph them to give an easy way to compare how different teams choose to attack on the offensive end. The Hawks offense looks like this:
The Raptors offense looks like this:
It’s a significant difference. The Raptors really don’t rate highly in any of those categories, and that could be a problem. Overall they’re still a top offensive team but with that offense being heavily dependent on isolation play and getting to the free throw line it’s not one that a player like Carroll is likely to be successful in as it stands right now. To their credit they’re clearly trying to keep things moving on offense but there is still too much standing around and too much dribbling for a player like Carroll to truly fit in.
This doesn’t mean the signing was bad; he’s only 18 games into his time with the Raptors and there is plenty of time to implement changes that would bolster his effectiveness. Carroll’s situation brings to mind the Houstons Rockets 2009 signing of Trevor Ariza, fresh off an NBA title run with the LA Lakers as an efficient low-usage roleplayer. Like Carroll, Ariza was given more responsibility on offense after signing his big contract and floundered, seeing a very significant decrease in his scoring efficiency as he struggled to create his own looks off the dribble. He just wasn’t capable of doing what was asked of him – he needed to be able to pick his spots and find openings off the ball to be at his most effective and the pre-James Harden Rockets and post-Chris Paul Hornets were not places where that was likely to happen.
Fortunately for the Raptors we saw Ariza’s story took a positive turn when he ended up in Washington, playing for a Wizards team which took full advantage of point guard John Wall’s ability to hit shooters in rhythm, particularly in the corners, Ariza’s efficiency went back up, exceeding that of his Laker days, and he was once again a sought after commodity in the 2014 free agent market.
Ariza’s career holds a valuable lesson for the Raptors as they try to integrate Carroll: don’t spend big money on players if you’re going to take them out of their comfort zone. If you bring in someone who doesn’t have a well-rounded skillset but is elite at the skills he does possess like DeMarre Carroll it’s on you as an organization to ensure that he is put in a position to succeed, in the case of the Raptors that means shifting the offense away from a slow-paced and deliberate isolation-heavy offense to one based on ball and player movement which gives him open looks from outside with his feet set and distracted defenders to punish with smart cuts. Hopefully a move toward this kind of offense happens sooner than later because the hardworking Carroll deserves a chance to show that he’s worth the money that the Raptors have invested in him.