When the Toronto Raptors were looking for a tough-minded, defensively oriented wing who could stretch the floor offensively there were a couple of options last summer.
After some internal debate the Raptors made the safe choice and signed the healthy one: DeMarre Carroll.
The other was Wesley Mathews of the Portland Trail Blazers, who badly wanted to come to Toronto. The Raptors held him in high regard too. The obstacle?
Matthews was still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. The idea of their marquee free agent signing showing up to his first press conference in a walking boot was one the Raptors couldn’t quite get their heads around.
It was very easy then, to make signing Carroll their off-season priority, and in very short order the deal got done. Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri met with Carroll and his wife shortly after the free agency period opened made a strong initial offer and said that it would be taken off the table when the meeting was over.
Carroll didn’t hesitate. For the price of $60-million over four years the one-time fringe NBAer who found a niche for himself as an elite three-point threat with multi-position defensive chops was a Raptor.
I bring this up not to suggest the Raptors erred in signing Carroll— who played in just 13 of Toronto’s 36 games before undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery early Wednesday morning in New York City— rather just to point out that all of this business of improving NBA teams is incredibly unpredictable.
It’s early days, but Matthews, who signed for $70-million over four years in Dallas, appearing in 33 their first 35 games to help the surprising Mavericks to fifth place in the Western Conference playoff race with home-court in the first round in their sights.
It’s hard to know what the rest of the season holds for the hard-nosed forward. He had a strong training camp and exhibition season only to struggle early in the regular season with plantar fasciitis. He was shut down for three games, seemed to finding his stride and then bumped his right knee on JJ Reddick of the Los Angeles Clippers in late November – the first indication of a knee issue.
Some more struggles ensued – Carroll is shooting just 38.8 per cent from the floor, compared to 48-per-cent in his last two seasons with Atlanta – before he was shut down again, this time for 10 games. He returned to the line-up on December 28th, lasted four games before talking to reporters ominously about his knee after the Raptors loss to the Chicago Bulls where Carroll – among others – was torched for 40 second-half points from Jimmy Butler.
Swelling in the knee kept him out of Raptors game against the Cavaliers on Monday night. Their trip to Brooklyn for tonight’s game against the Nets made an examination by renowned knee specialist Dr. David Altchek convenient and his recommendation was that Carroll have the troublesome knee scoped at the first opportunity. Carroll found himself going under the knife before breakfast.
No one knows what happens next. Early indications are that there were no surprises found in the procedure and there’s some internal optimism that Carroll will be available to return in advance of the playoffs.
If he’s out for eight weeks that would still give him six weeks to get up to speed and the Raptors to acclimatize themselves to a player who was supposed to be part of the foundation but so far has only been a shadow of himself.
Losing Carroll for the moment won’t automatically be much of a loss at all, if pure production is the measure. Were he healthy it would be reasonable to assume that there would be more cohesion with him on the floor at both ends, with him being in and out of the line-up he’s looked uncomfortable playing off the ball-dominant ways of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan after coming over from the Atlanta Hawks, who remain one of the best ball moving teams in the NBA.
Defensively Carroll’s impact may have been more philosophical than practical. Although they’ve slipped recently the Raptors are certainly a better defensive team this year than last season – they stand ninth in opponents’ field goal percentage allowed and 13th in overall defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference.com, compared to 25th last season.
But Carroll’s contribution is tough to measure – the Raptors actually allow just over three points less per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s not, but that could be attributable to a number of things. In the bigger picture it may simply be that a respected veteran voice who identifies so closely with playing defense, chasing loose balls balls and making hard cuts without the ball has helped beyond any hard number.
The real question is what now?
Even before Carroll went down it was fair to speculate on moves the Ujiri might be considering as the Feb. 18 NBA trade deadline rounds into view. He’s been quiet the past two deadlines but this season seems different. The Raptors are no longer young or rebuilding. They have invested in their core. Their leaders are veterans. The time feels like now if they are going to squeeze whatever potential there is out of the DeRozan-Lowry dynamic.
Even with their injuries and road heavy schedule – heading into tonight’s game in Brooklyn the Raptors have played six more road games than Chicago and seven more than Miami, the two teams immediately ahead of them in the standings -- – Toronto is a game behind the Bulls for second-seed in the Eastern Conference.
For the moment the Cleveland Cavaliers look like a cut above, but after that? It’s hard to remember the last time the Eastern Conference was this wide open.
And Ujiri has some assets to grease the wheels too in the form of four first-round picks over the next two years. A team as mature as the Raptors would have a hard time finding room on their roster for that many rookies. They can’t find playing time for young talent on the end of their roster as it is.
Add in Carroll’s uncertain health and it makes sense that Ujiri might start working the phones harder than usual.
But nothing is simple in this regard. Parity has landed on the NBA with a thud. Right now 22 of the league’s 30 teams are either in the playoffs or within 3.5 games of the eighth spot in the two conferences.
After years of over tanking all across the league the only team that remains on that path is the Philadelphia 76ers in the East. Out west the Suns, Hornets, Timberwolves and Lakers might listen to offers with names like Ryan Anderson (Hornets) and Markieff Morris (Suns) likely to be prominent as rumours heat up.
Signing Carroll was supposed to fill a need for the Raptors, it was the safe choice. Instead, by surprise, it’s created a need, at least for now, and left the club with all kinds of choices to consider.