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The challenge of helping DeMarre Carroll fit in before the playoffs

carroll dribbling

My fingers are crossed Carroll and the Raptors figure this thing out in time.

The Toronto Raptors, now 48-21 on the season after defeating the Orlando Magic last night, look to be one of the best teams in the NBA this season. They’re a well-oiled offensive machine capable of great spurts of defensive play when they care enough to commit to it, and aside from a handful of teams –– the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and maybe, depending on who you talk to, the Cleveland Cavaliers –– the Raptors are clearly in a tier of their own, at least when they’re focused.

This is interesting because the Raptors’ core is essentially the same as it was last season, which suggests that most of the team’s improvement came from within. Yes, general manager Masai Ujiri brought in a few peripheral pieces, including Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo, and Luis Scola, but for the most part the team is the same as it was last year.

With one exception: DeMarre Carroll.

The Raptors signed a 28-year-old Carroll to a four-year, $58 million contract last summer after he blossomed into a consummate 3-and-D player with the Atlanta Hawks the previous year. On paper, the signing made a lot of sense. Carroll came from a pass-happy squad in Georgia that didn’t require many plays to be run for him to maximize his effectiveness, and there was no question he was a phenomenal defensive player in terms of both system play and man-to-man defense. That’s exactly what the Raptors’ guard-heavy offense required to take a step forward.

Unfortunately, a series of injuries has limited Carroll to playing in just 23 of the Raptors’ 69 games this season. And even in the games Carroll did play, he was out of place or straight up rusty. It appears Carroll may have been rushed back from injury back in January, so it’s possible that factored into his subpar play, in addition to having few opportunities to mesh with his teammates in game situations. There’s no doubt that losing your marquee signing to injury isn’t great, but Carroll’s absence did allow for Terrence Ross to rediscover his shot and double down on defense. Plus, the team performing well without him lends credence to the idea that most of the team’s improvement has come from within. Y’know, if you’re into that optimism stuff.

Carroll’s targeted a vague “late March” return, with the Raptors confirming they’d like to see him playing the last 10 or so games of the season to integrate him into the rotations and schemes the team is running before the playoffs roll around. That’s a fine goal, especially considering that the Raptors and Carroll appear to have been more patient with his injury this time around. My guess is that his chance for re-injury is much lower now than it was back in January.

The question is, how do head coach Dwane Casey and the Raptors slide Carroll into the rotation?

There’s a platitude that says good players will always figure it out. There’s some truth to that, as generally speaking good players tend to understand the game on a deeper level than their peers, and that they therefore see how they fit into an already-moving machine. Carroll’s undoubtedly a good player, but reducing this situation to a cliché serves no one well and dismisses the thought and effort required to re-integrate a player of Carroll’s stature.

First, let’s take a quick look at what Carroll’s done for the Raptors this season and how that compares to what he did for the Hawks.

Carroll’s shooting a career-low 39.6 percent from the field on 2-point field goal attempts this season. That includes shots at the rim, where Carroll’s shooting a fine 60 percent, suggesting that much of his poor shooting can be attributed to, well, poor shooting. If we look a bit deeper, we can see that Carroll shoots 27.3 percent from 3-10 feet, 26.7 percent from 10-16 feet, and 26.3 percent between 16 feet and the 3-point line. That wouldn’t be much of a problem if Carroll wasn’t taking many shots from those locations, but they account for over a third of all of his field goal attempts. With the Hawks, just 22.7 percent of Carroll’s field goal attempts were in that dreaded 3 feet to the 3-point line range, and he shot a considerably better percentage from there.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, given that a third of his shot attempts come from within the arc but away from the rim, that he’s attempting the fewest field goals of his career at the rim. In turn, his free throw rate (18.8) is also the third-lowest mark in his seven-year career, and the lowest since 2012.

So what changed?

It’s a multifaceted issue, but injuries have played a role. Playing hurt is never ideal, and foot and leg injuries in particular are known to wreak havoc on a player’s jump shot. Carroll noted that he didn’t trust his motions back in January. That conscious thought about the present takes a player out of rhythm and what sport psychologists like to call “flow.” And on top of that, if there’s any feeling of pain, well, expect a missed shot. Your balance comes from your lower body, and balance is crucial to a sound jumper (probably more than anything above the waist, including shooting form, but we’ll save that talk for another day).

Still, that doesn’t explain the change in his tendencies. Yes, he’s making fewer shots inside the arc, but he’s also taking more of them.

To figure this out, I went a bit deeper. According to NBA.com, a hair under 60 percent of Carroll’s field goal attempts come without a single dribble. In other words, with him spotting up. He’s shooting a respectable 53.1 percent from inside the arc on those attempts. With one dribble, his field goal percentage plummets to 23 percent. With two or more dribbles, it bounces back up to 33 percent,  which while better, still isn’t very good. This is just adding gravity to what we already know: Carroll’s a fine spot-up shooter, but he’s not someone you should expect to create his own shot consistently. That’s simply not part of his game. The problem is, he’s creating his own shot about 40 percent of the time. In Atlanta, that figure was about 30 percent.

Early in the season, the Raptors’ offense was clearly a continuation of last year’s, which included far too many isolation plays and pick and rolls without purpose. As the season progressed, however, we’ve seen Casey, Kyle Lowry, and DeMar DeRozan, figure out how to include the rest of the team in the offense. Unfortunately for Carroll, he wasn’t a part of that change, and was treated a bit like a third wheel early in the year. He was expected to make open shots without the ball and create offense for himself and others with it, much like Lowry and DeRozan do. Again, that’s not exactly Carroll’s game, so he struggled a bit.

The numbers back this up. Carroll has posted a career-low assist percentage with the Raptors, as well as a career-high usage rate. He’s holding the ball longer than he did in Atlanta, too; this season, he’s holding the ball for two or fewer seconds 68.6 percent of the time. With Atlanta, that figure was 75 percent.

The goal, then, should be to put Carroll in more situations where he’s able to shoot right away without the need to break down his defender. To accomplish that, the Raptors could focus on using him as a spot-up shooter, but limiting Carroll to spotting up alone strips him of his offensive versatility. They could also try to include more backdoor cuts and misdirection plays in their offense to get Carroll moving toward the rim with momentum. About 6.2 percent of the Raptors’ plays qualify as “cuts,” per NBA.com. That’s near the bottom of the league (which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, it’s a style thing), though they’re about average in terms of converting on them.

Basically, whatever the Raptors can do to get Carroll focused on converting shots instead of creating them should benefit both Carroll and the team as a whole. If Carroll’s legitimately healthy and feels confident in his body this time around, chances are he’ll find a way to fit in and raise his shooting percentages, but the Raptors can still alter their offense to speed up his integration and make it more seamless. However, the playoffs are creeping closer and closer every day, and there’s not much time to get Carroll acclimated to what the team’s doing. A big, sudden change could throw off the Raptors’ chemistry, and ignoring Carroll altogether’s not a wise decision, either, as he’s far too valuable on defense to warrant sitting out.

Make no mistake, the Raptors are in a tricky position. The longer Carroll sits out, the less time they have to figure out how he fits. If they rush him back, they risk the chance of re-injury. Finding the right time to bring him back, and changing the system just enough to fit him in without uprooting the whole thing is a challenge, but one they’re capable of. And let’s give Carroll some credit; he’s a selfless, smart guy. Unfortunately, time waits for no one and the clock is ticking.

My fingers are crossed Carroll and the Raptors figure this thing out in time.

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