When Josh Smith signed with the Detroit Pistons this offseason, the Atlanta Hawks’ biggest hole instantly became perimeter defense.
Losing Dahntay Jones and DeShawn Stevenson may not seem like a big deal, but, when paired with Smith’s departure, it was relatively substantial. The Hawks suddenly had no one they could stick on an opposing dominant wing, no one to chase around and shadow the likes of James Harden and Paul George. Smith was the guy the Hawks utilized to lock down opponents at the end of games. Jones and Stevenson were the guys that got them there.
Luckily, the offseason doesn’t end after a single day. You have time to react to roster changes. Atlanta was looking at a backcourt of Jeff Teague, Lou Williams, Shelvin Mack, and Kyle Korver. Regardless of whether or not any of the above players perform well within a team defense-oriented environment, those aren’t the guys you want charged with following the big, physical wings in today’s game. They’re not isolation defenders, and Teague has enough trouble with pick-and-rolls as it is.
Both Jones and Stevenson are and were replaceable, though. There was a reason no one panicked. Tough veterans who play physical defense are a dime-a-dozen in this league. Guys like DeMarre Carroll? Not so much.
Part of the reason Carroll is the most important defensive-minded player the Hawks have had in some time is because of necessity. Without him, you get something like what happened in London. No one was able to even remotely stay with former Hawks All-Star Joe Johnson, one of the biggest and strongest two-guards in the NBA. Carroll is the one player on the team who stood a reasonable chance of throwing him off his game—pushing him off his spots and hounding him on the ball.
Carroll’s Defensive Rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) for this season so far is 105. That is in the same range as fellow elite perimeter defenders: Tony Allen (103), Andre Iguodala (102), and Jimmy Butler (99). However, D-Rating is a flawed stat in that it doesn’t determine who shares the court with a player. If you notice, all of the above players have a top-10 defensive anchor on their team: Marc Gasol, Andrew Bogut, and Joakim Noah. It’s hard for a player to increase his D-Rating when his team struggles on the defensive end. It’s also far from a tell-all stat, but it at least provides some context. And Carroll, without an ever-present defensive stalwart in the frontcourt (Brand: limited by minutes, Horford: injured), is allowing about the same total number of points.
Carroll’s defensive-win shares (estimates the number of wins a player has contributed through defense) for the season also hold the same elite company. His 1.3 mark is higher than Allen’s and within .2 of Iguodala’s. This too has flaws, particularly in that Carroll has played more games and more minutes than all of the other three.
The point of bringing up these numbers isn’t to say Carroll is a better defender than any of these players. It’s probable that he isn’t. It’s just to show that the numbers support what some of us have been observing: that DeMarre’s perimeter defense is crucial to the team’s success. The stats will always look better for players who share elite defensive company on the same team (Allen and Gasol, Butler and Noah, Iggy and Bogut). But Carroll is in the discussion. Don’t believe it? The Hawks are 2-6 when he plays 25 minutes or less. In seven of those eight games, the opposing team scored at least 104 points.
What really separates Carroll from former Hawks D-stoppers like Stevenson, though, is that he’s actually useful on offense. It isn’t always pretty, but Carroll doesn’t serve as a dead fish when his team has the ball. Stevenson and Jones were relegated to being floor-spacers. Part of that can be attributed to Larry Drew’s offensive structure, but they also weren’t capable of doing much with the ball.
Carroll excels on the wings in transition and in situations that promote movement and cutting. He’s effective within the flow of an ever-moving offense, which is why he's a great fit with Coach Budenholzer.
What endears Carroll to the Hawks and their fans most, however, is his relentlessness. He’s always going 100 miles per hour. We saw it against Houston the other night when he spent the game chasing James Harden around the perimeter, and, despite being 0-5 from beyond the arc, canned the game’s go-ahead three-pointer. We saw it last night when he dropped 19 on Miami on 8-of-13 shooting.
Carroll’s defensive efforts have been huge for the Hawks this season. It only feels right to acknowledge it after the impressive offensive performance he left us with on Monday night.