Atlanta Hawks: Did Toughness Leave with DeMarre?

If the Atlanta Hawks were only going to keep one player, and if it came down to paying Paul Millsap $20 million or paying DeMarre Carrol $14 million, the smart thing to do was to ink Millsap and let Carroll go where he could make money and win. No one disputes that as a basketball move. But just because it was the smarter decision at the time doesn’t mean that it wasn’t going to have consequences. When toughness and persistence are removed from the lineup of a NBA team, passivity inevitably follows.

Sliding Kent Bazemore into Carroll’s position-Bazemore is a quality defender- wasn’t going to make up for what the Hawks lost at the small forward position in terms of warfare. Carroll was gritty and tough and blue-collar, a player whose approach was single minded and relentless. He worked hard to get to this point, drafted out of Missouri. His identity of reaping rewards by what you do to stop players from scoring was infectious and it created a persona in the Hawks front court that the team fed off of. Caron Butler calls himself Tuff Juice. That could be DeMarre Carroll’s nickname as well.

DeMarre Carroll’s replacement, Kent Bazemore, has a nice personality and he is a very good shooter that is having a career year. Bazemore is very amenable and hyper-athletic. He is a little bit more happy-go-lucky than Carroll. All you need to know about Bazemore is once upon a time he was a Golden State Warrior. He embodied the Warriors ethic, do your job with a smile on your face, be preternaturally happy. Bazemore has had big games for the Hawks this year which has been unexpected. But the Hawks still miss Carroll’s fierceness at the small forward position. Carroll was the kind of player offensive players loathed facing because of how hard he made them work and how physically engaging he was. He knew how to create contact without fouling. He had expert footwork on the perimeter and in the paint.

It’s nothing against Bazemore. He does his damage with explosive athleticism but no one in the league fears playing the Hawks because of Bazemore stopping them. He is a finesse player.

The Hawks persona of a year ago when they were the best in the East, that hardcore, on edge, no one respects us mindset that propelled the Hawks to 60 wins just isn’t there anymore. You can argue it has to do with prosperity. The Hawks had their great year and celebrated it. They aren’t as good; they’ve had a little slippage, their mental approach has adjusted. But what DeMarre Carroll brought game in and game out was hunger. On some nights, the Hawks look flat, disinterested and bored.

From a strategic point of view, what has hurt the Hawks this year, has not been the Carroll stalwart, defense having flown the coop. They have managed to keep pace. Once again, credit Bazemore’s defense. The Hawks were 5th last year in points allowed. This year they are seventh, 99.9 points they are giving opponents. Teams shoot 44% against them.

Where Carroll is truly missed is defending the three. The Hawks have an average three- point defense in a floor spacing, 3-point shooting league. They give up 35% from behind the arc.

Hawks Defense Opponents Points Opponent FG% Opponent 3-Point % Rebounding Defensive Efficiency
2015-16 99.9 (7th) 44.0% (8th) 35.2% (16th) 40.7 (29th) 103.0 (5th)
2014-15 97.1 (5th) 43.9% (6th) 34.1% (7th) 40.6 (28th) 103.1 (6th)

It’s the offense that hasn’t been as sharp. Their 3-point shooting has taken a turn for the worse, nearly on life support compared to last year when they were  the second best perimeter shooting team not named Golden State. The absence of Carroll has contributed to their downslide but Kyle Korver isn’t having a good shooting year. His age, the wear and tear on his body, his tired legs, being 34 years old, 35 years old in six weeks, seems to be catching up with him, Korver is averaging 9.5 points, a four year low.

Hawks Offense Points FG% 3-Point % Assists Offensive Efficiency
2015-16 101.8 (14th) 45.8% (8th) 34,1% (20th) 25.2 (3rd) 104.9 (16th)
2014-15 102.5 (10th) 46.6% (4th) 38.0% (2nd) 25.7 (2nd) 108.9 (6th)

 

3-Point %, 2015-16 3-Point %, 2014-15
Kyle Korver 37.6% 49.2%
Thabo Sefolosha 28.0% 32.1%
Paul Millsap 29.9% 35.6%
DeMarre Carroll 37.8% (Raptors) 39.5%

The difference in the two years is pretty stark. Last year, the Hawks were coming off an undefeated month of 17-0 and had four All-Stars (Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver.) This year, the Hawks are ending the month of January with a losing record, 6-9, and have only one All-Star in Paul Millsap who was elected into the Toronto game by NBA coaches, an inclusion that was controversial. He made the team but Pau Gasol didn’t.

Last year the Hawks won 60% of their games on the road. This year they have a losing record on the road, 12-14.

Last year, the national media loved how the Hawks played but didn’t think they were going to get to the Finals, absent a superstar, and when they didn’t, there were a lot of I told you so’s. This year, the Hawks barely register on the contender meter. It’s Cleveland, possibly the Bulls, maybe Miami and Toronto. Rarely is Atlanta mentioned.

Truthfully though, the Hawks haven’t given anyone a reason to mention them. They are 2-4 against Cleveland, Chicago, Miami and Toronto. They are 16-13 against Eastern teams, barely above the .500 threshold. Conveniently, there is Al Horford trade talk, possibly to Phoenix for Tyson Chandler. Everyone is still down on Denis Schroder.

At times, it’s hard to believe it’s been twelve months since that spectacular Hawks January perfection. It feels like twelve years. This year the Hawks are a vague representation of who they were last year and a good part of the reason is the absence of Carroll. His image on the court was enough to remind the Hawks what their purpose was, what their identity was about. Be. Tough. No excuses. Play hard. Stay committed.

I remember DeMarre Carroll once saying about his team’s underperfomance in a game they looked weary in: “Everyone kind of looked like they were going their separate ways.”

Carroll went his separate way first, all the way to Toronto. Who is next?

photo via llananba