The thing is, DeMarre Carroll had a point when the former Raptor put the team he used to play for on blast on his way out the door last summer.
He was dead right, actually.
The Raptors Way – for all its success – was tough to watch at times. It choked off opportunities for secondary players and was easily stymied in the playoffs. Everyone knew it.
Carroll’s controversial exit interview last summer was simply a less-nuanced version of Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s call for a culture reset.
That he did it on his way out the door and said it about a team that made him surprisingly rich and never raised an eyebrow (publicly) about knee issues that may have been understated by Carroll during free agency certainly rankled some in the organization.
But apart from pointing out that Toronto had a top-five ranked offence playing the old way and that they have spent the regular season to this point figuring out how to play differently on the fly is all the evidence needed that Carroll was right on the money.
As DeMar DeRozan said – as only he can – about the Raptors changing along the lines Carroll was advocating now that he’s gone:
“You got to go through what you gotta go through to understand what you gotta get better at.”
Adding: “I think it was a learning process for us individually and as a whole, as a team and we’re here today.”
The results were on display in spurts at least for the Raptors 120-87 blowout win over the visiting Nets, Brooklyn’s first visit to the Air Canada Centre this season.
Toronto led 91-64 after three quarters and garbage time commenced in earnest. Through the first 36 minutes the Raptors had 20 assists on 41 field goals and were shooting 58 per cent from the floor. Pretty efficient stuff and it wasn’t just the Lowry-DeRozan show – although they were fantastic. Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka continued to thrive, combining for 32 points on 25 shots. Six players ended up in double figures.
DeRozan had 31 points on 20 shots while the best part of the second half was watching Lowry’s transparent chase for a triple double that he finally got with an offensive rebound early in the fourth quarter after which he took a foul, stopped the game and sat for the rest of the night, admiring his 10 points 12 assist and 10 rebounds – the ninth triple double of his career.
“Coach wanted me to get it,” said Lowry afterwards.
DeRozan scoffed: “He lying. He lying. He lying. He said Russell Westbrook can do it any night, I’m going to try to do it.”
The bright spot for the Nets was Toronto’s Nik Stauskas catching fire in his Nets debut after being traded last week from Philadelphia.
“It was just fun to play again, it’s been a while,” said Stauskas, who finished with 22 points in 28 minutes – 15 in six minutes in the second quarter, the only point in which the Nets were in the game.
The Raptors recent success doesn’t diminish Carroll’s point. It amplifies it.
To refresh: Carroll told PostMedia’s Ryan Wolstat after the Raptors sent him to Brooklyn in a salary dump – club president Masai Ujiri had to include Toronto’s 2018 first-round pick and a second-round pick to convince Brooklyn to pick up the two years and $30-million left on his contract – that spending two years as an on-court spectator in an offence that was so heavily tilted towards Lowry and DeRozan was no fun and kind of dull.
“I wasn’t happy, my agent, we thought the style of ball was going to be different, it was going to be more team-oriented, but I guess it was still iso,” he said last summer.
And upon learn the Raptors were going to try and change the way they played without making significant changes in key personal and coaching?
Carroll was as skeptical as everyone else. “The say they’re going to try something different, I would love to see it (work). It’s always good to do it,” he said. “But once adversity hits and stuff starts going wrong, guys are going to go back to iso basketball — that’s how it is.”
Flash-forward and it was a deal that has worked out well for both sides.
The Raptors saved themselves from the luxury tax and are happier given minutes to the developing OG Anunoby, while Carroll is a valued veteran on a young Nets team, working for Kenny Atkinson, his old assistant coach in Atlanta, where Carroll’s abilities as a defensively versatile spot-up three-point shooter who made smart basket cuts were first realized. He’s putting up solid numbers, although they’re likely inflated somewhat by the Nets high-tempo attack.
And the Raptors? They are successfully implementing a system that Carroll might have fit into quite well were he still a Raptor and healthy.
The Raptors are 11th in the NBA in assists per game, compared with being last a year ago and they are seventh in potential assists. By almost any metric they have improved from a bad passing team to passable one.
Carroll didn’t play against his old team – it was the Nets third game in four nights so it was a pre-planned rest day for him – but he acknowledged that this style of basketball might have suited better, ironically.
“Yeah, they’re playing great basketball,” he said. “They’re moving the ball, they’re sharing it, they’re playing great basketball. My hat goes off to ’em. It’s an exciting style of basketball they’re playing right now, and they look like they’re the top of the East and the top of the league right now.”
And he acknowledged he was part the problem too, whether it was injuries or style of play, he didn’t come through as he planned and the Raptors hoped:
“I didn’t play like I needed to play here in Toronto,” he said. “You gotta try to move on and grow from that. That’s what I did: Tried to move on and grow. I didn’t perform like I needed to here and sometimes you’ve gotta look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘You didn’t do what you were supposed to.’”
The key to understanding what Carroll was missing in Toronto that he had in Atlanta is the number of shot attempts he had at the rim. In his last season with the Hawks, who won 60 games as the best passing team in the league, 30 per cent of his shots came on lay-ups thanks to all the room there was for smart cuts and the available passers to find him. In Toronto that number fell to just 18 per cent, while the number of threes he took – most after standing in corner for possessions on end – increased by about twenty per cent, per Basketball-Reference.com.
“[In Atlanta] He had Kyle Korver out there spacing the floor, Al Horford ,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “Our spacing is a little bit different just because of our personnel. That could be it, I’d have to really look at it and see.”
For their part, the Raptors say they bear no ill will towards their old teammate; they don’t even argue with his main point: that a team that played through Lowry and DeRozan so much could only go so far and more people need to be integrated.
“We tried to fit in with everybody on the team, those couple of years and tried to heighten everybody’s skill,” said DeRozan. “It was tough. We dealt with a lot of injuries through that time, always trying to figure out what, how, when. And through it all we was still extremely successful, winning 50-plus games, making it to the Eastern Conference Finals, going to the second-round so as much as people play on them comments we had some great years when he was there.”
And they are now that he’s gone too, as the win Friday night improved Toronto to 19-8 and an NBA-best 10-1 at home and just one game behind the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics in the loss column.
But there is room for improvement. The Raptors have, at times, slipped into old habits for stretches – not coincidentally late in close games on more than one occasion.
But they’re making progress towards the kind of team Carroll would approved of, and maybe even thrived with.