DeMarre Carroll's Defensive Impact Will Be Felt First for the Toronto Raptors

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistJuly 24, 2015

TORONTO, CANADA - JULY 9:  DeMarre Carroll #5 of the Toronto Raptors signs during a press conferences on July 9, 2015 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ron Turenne/Getty Images

Almost solely based off his majestic individual run to the Eastern Conference Finals, DeMarre Carroll deserves every cent of the four-year, $60 million contract that the Toronto Raptors offered him the second free agency’s light turned green.

A grimy swingman who elevated his game to new heights last season by shooting nearly 40.0 percent from behind the three-point line and posting a true shooting percentage of 60.3 (15th highest among all who played at least 1,000 minutes), Carroll’s offensive improvement nearly eclipsed his longstanding defensive prowess—the characteristic Toronto covets the most.

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

He helped boost the Atlanta Hawks to their gaudy top-seed status and proved more integral than most thought he ever could be in the postseason, when Atlanta’s ball-hopping attack evaporated whenever Carroll hit the bench.

Carroll’s general skill set is en vogue, and there wasn’t any way he’d receive less than an eight-figure annual contract from someone this summer. His offensive explosion in the playoffs was an exclamation point—after a two-point stinker in Game 2 of the first round, Carroll ran off six straight games with at least 20 points.

In Round 2, he scored 25 points (on 14 shots) and grabbed 10 rebounds in Atlanta’s series-clinching Game 6 victory against the Washington Wizards. The role player had blossomed into more. But the Raptors now face an interesting question.

Everyone knows Carroll will bring it on defense at both forward positions, but what happens after he’s removed from the safe confines of an environment that highlighted his strengths and blotted out his weaknesses?

TORONTO, CANADA - JULY 9:  Masai Ujiri, GM of the Toronto Raptors, introduces DeMarre Carroll during a press conference on July 9, 2015 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
Ron Turenne/Getty Images

Last year, the Hawks didn’t isolate often. They relied on ball and player movement, timely passing and a system that forged several pieces into a whole more powerful than the sum of its individual talents. Atlanta led the league in assist percentage (67.6) and bought into the least selfish basketball philosophy found east of the Mississippi.

Now Carroll finds himself in a different setting. Only three teams isolated more often than Toronto last year. One of them had LeBron James. Another had Anthony Davis.

The Raptors rely on DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to score or create for others. Jonas Valanciunas is still an ornament but slowly learning how to do consistent damage in the post.

They also had Lou Williams, who’s now on the Los Angeles Lakers (third on last year’s list of teams that love to isolate), off the bench to provide instant offense via conscious-free threes and sneaky trips to the free-throw line.

It’s difficult to see how Carroll fits or if he’ll be able to. The Raptors will play him a ton at power forward, and being a twitchy cutter around the perimeter can help when he matches up against against bigger, slower defenders. But $60 million for a guy who won’t have the ball often is tough to swallow, even if he’s upgrading the defense with above-average toughness and versatility.

According to Synergy, Carroll isolated only 20 times last season. It made up 2.5 percent of his offensive contributions. He ran fewer than one pick-and-roll that led to a shot, foul or turnover per game.

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 26:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against DeMarre Carroll #5 of the Atlanta Hawks in the first quarter during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Here’s a stat: Carroll appeared in 70 games last year, and in 18 of them, he never attempted a shot after dribbling more than two times. That’s incredible. It’s also with good reason.

Carroll’s effective field-goal percentage was 62.3 when he caught the ball and immediately shot. When one dribble preceded the shot, his accuracy dropped to 56.6 percent. Two dribbles: 52.4 percent. Any more, and things fell off a cliff.

He doesn’t drive to the basket often, either. 

But here’s an important question: How much does all this matter? So what if the Raptors didn’t pass the ball all that much last season? Their offense was still better than that of everyone else except the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers!

Defense was where they struggled, with constant leaks sprouting up from the perimeter. The Raptors ended the regular season ranked 23rd in defensive rating (104.8). It’s on this end of the floor where Carroll's rough edges will cut the deepest.

John BAzemore/Associated Press

Carroll, who turns 29 on July 27, will have growing pains fitting into Toronto’s offense, but he’ll also be the third or fourth option. The team's methodology may not be conducive to the skills we watched grow in a different setting down in Atlanta, but Carroll plays like a survivor; he's adaptable, and there's little reason to doubt he can make the most of his new situation, especially as a stretch 4, playing fast and free.

Atlanta’s offense isn’t the easiest thing to master. It takes trust and time and a willingness to forget about statistics and glory. Carroll made it look like a 10-piece puzzle, and now he’s on to a different phase and a new challenge.

It’s up to him, massive contract and all, to play within himself, stay in his lane, space the floor, crash the glass, cut into open space and knock down shots when guys like Lowry and DeRozan suck defenders in on drives to the basket. It’s tough to envision Carroll maintaining his high efficiency level in a system that won’t afford as many open shots or simple decisions, but so long as the Raptors don't get swept in the first round again, none of that matters.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

Michael Pina is an NBA writer who lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.