Will DeMarre Carroll’s lack of opportunity affect future free agent decisions about San Antonio Spurs?

SAN ANTONIO, TX - San Antonio Spurs DeMarre Carroll. Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX - San Antonio Spurs DeMarre Carroll. Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images) /

DeMarre Carroll’s first year with the San Antonio Spurs hasn’t gone according to plan. Could his lack of opportunity cause future free agents to have second thoughts?

What’s the difference between San Antonio Spurs’ swingman DeMarre Carroll and generational talents like James Harden and Luka Doncic?

No, seriously. They each play for Texas-based franchises with aspirations of postseason runs ranging deep into May (or June, if the basketball gods see favor). They’ve each been seen as high-impact players wherever they’ve gone. And all three have put up statistics we couldn’t have seen coming.

Harden is second only to Wilt Chamberlain on the single-season points per game leaderboard, Doncic became the youngest Player of the Month in December and Carroll — well, he’s already racked up 17 “Did Not Play: Coach’s Decision” tallies.

If you forecast any of those three facts in September, you might have had trouble finding believers.

It’d take quite the scavenger hunt to find the last player to sign a three-year, $21 million deal, remain healthy and receive as little playing time as Carroll has.

In a league where you can never have too many multifaceted, switchable 3-and-D specialists, it’s certainly caught many, including Carroll, off guard. What once appeared to be a match made in heaven for Carroll, has begun to — from the outside at least — resemble something a little warmer.

Carroll has seen limited action over the last three games, including a 185-second cameo during Monday’s win over Memphis and another DNP-CD on Thursday. But to find the last time he logged double-digit minutes, one would have to go all the way back to Dec. 1. For a player who averaged 25.4 or more minutes per game for six consecutive seasons, it qualifies as mind-boggling.

Jeff McDonald of San Antonio Express-News got the opportunity to ask Carroll about his lack of playing time and Carroll offered this statement (subscription required).

"“I did not have this in mind. Every time I play a different team, they always ask what it’s like to play here. I literally have no clue. I have no answer. All I can do is just stay ready.”"

Who’s cutting onions? One aspect that seems to get lost in the shuffle of this signing is that this was nothing like the signing of Trey Lyles, where it felt Lyles was more mere consolation prize after losing out on a different target. Carroll signed that lucrative deal 90 minutes into the free agency period.

I’m not a betting man, but it feels safe to say if Carroll could go back in time he’d probably give that just a little more time to consider.

And think about that for a second: Lyles was able to immediately come in and carve out a consistent rotational spot, even starting in two-thirds of the Spurs’ games.

It leaves a few questions to thought: the “Spurs system” we hear so much about — is it more difficult for swingmen to understand than say, frontcourt players? And if that’s the case, could more perimeter-oriented players have second thoughts about wanting to be “redshirted” in order to learn the system in Year One?

What is this Spurs system we hear so much about?

Some things in life you just never forget. I, for one, will never forget the day I learned what the “Spurs system” meant.

Game 3 of the 2014 Western Conference semifinals. That Portland team — especially LaMarcus Aldridge — inspired me beyond reason. The Blazers trailed by five going into a timeout. As ritual, my neighbor and I used commercial breaks to go to the outdoor hoop and shoot and I was intent on emulating the fadeaways I’d just seen Aldridge so effortlessly do.

When we returned from our shootaround, the Blazers were down 16.

In a fury, we rewound and rewound and what did we find? Screens, beautiful ball movement, excellent shooting — if Van Gogh’s painting and Mozart’s music came in basketball form, this would have been it — a few of those highlights can be found here.

If the 2014 Spurs’ offense is an expensive wine, this year’s version is more sparkling water. The Spurs are still trying to keep remnants of that glorious year within their philosophy, but personnel can sometimes make that difficult.

Nonetheless, of the aspects that do remain, Carroll has proven he can run those to a tee. Take for example an in-flow play the Spurs run often: the pick-and-roll lift. To paint a scenario for those unfamiliar: let’s say we’re looking at only the strong side of the floor, with three players on one side.

In this example, let’s say it’s LaMarcus Aldridge (the screener), Patty Mills (the roller), and Bryn Forbes (off-ball threat).

Aldridge sets the screen, Mills uses it to attack the middle of the floor and as the defense focuses in on Mills, Forbes “lifts” up to that elbow, top of the key weak spot in the defense, Forbes finds an open look from 3-point range and then it’s bombs away from there. This play works, because it puts each player’s strengths on max. In an ideal world, it looks something like this.

Simple enough, right?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve often heard that Carroll has been adjusting to the fundamentals of that Spurs system. And there are points at which he absolutely looks confused. Perhaps it’s a matter of him simply relying on the moxie and guile that comes with being a 10-year veteran, but he seems to have gotten this part of the Spurs down pat.

There’s more to see offensively, which we’ll get into shortly. But on defense, a staple in Carroll’s gritty game, he’s been able to quickly familiarize himself with what the Spurs like to do on that end of the ball, too.

One of the Spurs’ go-to philosophies is to force ball handlers toward the middle of the floor on pick-and-rolls — a practice known in basketball circles as “ice” — and this essentially gifts opposing perimeter scorers the mid-range shots. If this sounds familiar, it is. This is exactly what the San Antonio Spurs do on offense. The great irony.

Here’s an example of Carroll “icing” the pick-and-roll, positioning himself to funnel Dennis Schroder back inside for a mid-range look, basically the ultimate “we’ll live with you making this” shot.

So, there’s the good. As of this writing, Carroll has made $19,549 per minute with the Spurs (based on the amount of his $7 million salary already paid over 30 games) and within that small, 131-minute sample size, he’s shown that he’s gathered some of the basic premises of the Spurs’ system.

But there’s also some bad and some ugly. And while I’m vehemently against the idea of Carroll not simply being able to use his talents and learn the system on the fly, there are a few plays here and there that explain Gregg Popovich’s lack of trust in his prized free-agent signee. Have a look for yourself.

Film study: A case of overthinking?

In that McDonald article, Popovich pointed to Carroll learning “a new system” as one of the reasons for his inconsistent playing time. Even with the limited sample size, there are a couple of plays that support that dynamic.

One play during the Spurs-Lakers game from November comes to mind. Keep your eye on the bottom of the screen, where Mills is looking for a screen, a bit past half-court. Carroll looks to be expecting the ball and all of a sudden, the 3-point line is packed like a can of sardines.

On the loop, also take a look at Gregg Popovich, urging for Carroll to get out of the way.

For those curious, Carroll never again saw the floor that night and received a DNP-Coach’s Decision the following night against Atlanta, as well.

Who’s to tell how much weight my word carries? By all accounts, though, Carroll played exceptionally well beyond that hiccup. In nine of the 13 games he’s played this year, he’s produced a positive plus-minus.

In learning the Spurs system, Carroll has a few plays that are a bit off, but he’s also always actively crashing the glass, running the floor and mostly staying out of the way of his playmaking teammates.

Everything to this point, especially early in the season, points to both miscommunications and overthinking. And not just on Carroll’s part; there are three clear-cut examples of Carroll being a mere stone’s throw away from an open 3-pointer, but Rudy Gay either doesn’t trust his ability to make the pass, or he’s simply out to score. Examples of that: here, here, and here.

But back to Carroll: we’ve got another example. There’s no Spurs playbook laying around the house, but it feels safe to imagine that Gay and Carroll — at least Carroll for sure — are supposed to set a double-screen for Marco Belinelli to curl back to that right wing for an open 3-point shot. Alec Burks stays home, which makes the screen unimportant.

But something tells me a Carroll drive with three Warriors defenders around the paint wasn’t the call here.

And speaking of screens: if I hazard a guess, I’d imagine the whole screen-and-pass philosophy was heavy on Carroll’s mind, especially early in the season. When the Spurs run that second unit with Mills, Belinelli, and Davis Bert — um, Gay — they show flashes of that 2014 championship team, even though the Spurs rank just 19th in the league in total passes made.

One of the things you notice with Carroll is how zealous — perhaps even overzealous — he is about setting screens. In his Spurs debut (he had four turnovers in 16 minutes) he was even hit with an illegal screen call.

This wouldn’t mean much, until you remember that Carroll averaged just 0.3 screen assists in 2018-19 and 0.6 in 2017-18 as a Brooklyn Net. So, for me to see Carroll come in and set 190 handoff-and-screens per 48, it screams, “This is a new system, but a screen for Patty Mills has never hurt anybody!”

Carroll is still too talented, too seasoned to not be at least able to work through the kinks. It’s been difficult to watch him go out and play, say, three minutes of a game. Even watching him run, it at times feels like he isn’t loose. To compare it to Brooklyn, his running has gone from athletic to, well — arthritic.

And all of this points to one last thought: the Spurs already have a hard time as is when it comes to attracting marquee free agents. Could seeing Carroll’s lack of playing time in learning this system have an effect on future free agents coming to town?

What the past and the future tell us:

On surface level, that Carroll quote in the Express-News article feels like something to dissect. After games, players are asking Carroll what it is like to be a San Antonio Spur. We’re almost a six months (179 days since the signing) into Carroll’s deal and he still doesn’t have an answer. Doesn’t that feel even a little troubling?

Only 72 players in the Popovich era (since 1996-97) can say that they’ve played less than the 131 minutes Carroll has played. Of that sample, 60 of those players were under the age of 30.  This means that, presumably at least, they had the best years of their careers on the horizon. And almost none of them were coming off arguably the two best seasons of their careers.

For Carroll, newness in the system hits as a double whammy, as it also puts a cap on the effectiveness of one of his other great qualities: leadership. We’re seeing the after-effects of it in Brooklyn, where Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince-Waller and Joe Harris are producing in what looks to be the prime of their careers.

All of this points to the Spurs system perhaps being more difficult to master for swingmen than say, interior bigs. To use Lyles again: even though he’s listed at power forward, his playstyle isn’t too different from Carroll’s.

He’s largely a perimeter player, with 55 percent of his field goal attempts being beyond the arc, and his average shot distance — 16.5 feet — being as far out as any point in his career.

So has this “adjusting to the new system” notion ever been as impactful as it is now?

Only a few examples truly compare to Carroll’s puzzling situation. Think back to 2010, with swingman Roger Mason Jr. The start of Mason’s tenure was something for the storybooks; the sharpshooting journeyman averaged 30.4 minutes per game for a 54-win Spurs team.

A lot of this stems from Manu Ginobili’s injury — a stress fracture in his right distal fibula that took 19 games away, and then after further tests, ended his season for good. By 2010, he took them back, Debo style, and prompted Mason and his agent to do the whole “we’re not asking for a trade, but um, we’re totally cool with one” routine.

Then there’s the example of Michael Finley in 2010 and Stephen Jackson in 2013. These feel entirely different for a few reasons, though. Finley was a 37-year-old, 15-year NBA vet with a championship under his belt and at the time of his leaving, only three Spurs in franchise history connected on more 3-point attempts.

light. more spurs. San Antonio's All-2010s team

With Jackson, the “getting used to the system” argument feels nonsensical since he’d won a championship there with them a decade prior. Jackson found trouble earning consistent playing time and even had to deal with Popovich asking him to tell the media that “younger players were better” than him, to bolster their confidence.

Both players were waived.

To imagine the Spurs going to those extremes these days feels foolish. But when you take a look at all of the swingmen in the 2020 NBA Draft or free agency that the Spurs could find themselves making a move at, you have to wonder if those players are watching the Carroll situation play out, and if it’s provoked second thoughts.

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Perhaps it’s time to throw the Junkyard Dog a bone, and let him learn some new tricks on the fly. If not to save face, at least to not give future free agents a chance to turn another direction.