The Atlanta Hawks approached almost every game for the past two seasons content in the knowledge that DeMarre Carroll would defend the opponent's top wing scorer. That certainty is no longer. Carroll's four-year, $60 million commitment to the Raptors this summer brought an end to that peace of mind—in part because the Hawks, who had signed Carroll to a two-year deal in 2013 and thus didn't have his full Bird rights, couldn't make a competitive offer to keep Carroll while also retaining free agent forward Paul Millsap.
The Hawks' inability to re-sign Carroll comes at a price. Their next-best wing player on the roster is still working his way back from a broken right fibula suffered at the hands of the NYPD. The only wings Atlanta added this summer were minimum-salary types and cast-offs. Such a course for replacement is indicative of the Hawks' confidence in their developmental systems. Two years ago they saw Carroll, a bit player in Utah, and thought they could get more out of him than the Jazz, Grizzlies, or Rockets ever did. He came along so far in those two years that the Hawks couldn't find the means to keep him.
Such is the hope in adding a player like former Knick Tim Hardaway Jr., even at the cost of a first-round pick. Hardaway is clearly talented. What he lacks, at 23, is the basketball programming to make the best use of those talents within a team context. Atlanta's staff won't just need to hone Hardaway's jumper as it did Carroll's, but also rewrite the years of conditioning that have told him when to shoot and how to defend. The pick surrendered—the No. 19 selection back in June, which yielded Jerian Grant for New York—speaks to an internal confidence in that process.
It's fair to wonder if Atlanta reached too far in this particular instance. Hardaway is still growing as a player, though everything we've seen from him thus far suggests that he is a reluctant passer and too-willing shooter. Carroll, by contrast, was already a physical cutter and offensive rebounder on arrival who needed no lessons in shot prudence. Hardaway's transformation into a two-way contributor in the Hawks' preferred style would require a more complete (and arduous) rewiring.
Even still, the Hawks' decision to acquire Hardaway early in the off-season worked out relative to the soaring prices of free agency. Replacing a player like Carroll would demand a wage similar to that which Carroll ultimately received. Signing even a less appealing alternative would have demanded a rich wage, especially relative to the $3.6 million that Hardaway is owed over this season and next. Hardaway might be a clumsy fit and a bit of a developmental project, though the remainder of his deal is ultimately in the range of the new contracts Luke Babbitt (two years, $2.5 million) and Joe Ingles (two years, $4.5 million) signed this summer.
The question is how soon—and how much—Budenholzer comes to trust him. Carroll was a low-maintenance player in many respects, including in coaching concern. Carroll had the disposition to stay competitive within most matchups as a defender and wasn't at all a risk to bog down the Hawks' brisk motion offense. He could be thrown into almost any lineup without all that much concern for how he'd fit; the variety of players that Carroll could guard and the flexibility of his offensive game made his presence welcome in most any context.
The closest thing the Hawks have now would be a healthy Sefolosha, who only a year ago was discarded by the Thunder for how his limitations cramped the team's offense. Atlanta's remaining starters worked around Sefolosha to manage a solid margin in the regular season despite his shooting 32% from beyond the arc. The playoffs would have been a different matter; it's then that Sefolosha's patient shot release and underwhelming percentage might have become a bigger problem, just as it had for Oklahoma City.
It's a moot point, regardless, until Sefolosha is ready to play. Fourth-year wing Kent Bazemore could well start in the interim, just as he did when Carroll went down in the playoffs. The issues with that usage in the coming season would be the same as they were then: Bazemore's length and quickness can't quite make up for the fact that his defense can get jumpy and his offense is generally unreliable. Atlanta's starters would likely be fine with Bazemore cutting, running the floor, and getting in the way of opposing scorers. Where the step down from Carroll to Bazemore would be most painful is in all the other lineups—those without the same infrastructure of talent and continuity. A stopgap option like Bazemore just isn't steady or well-rounded enough to complement the same breadth of player combinations.
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That could get the recently added Justin Holiday, another long-armed defender with clear offensive limitations, some opportunity as circumstances allow. Dennis Schroder can also play alongside Korver and Jeff Teague as matchups permit, though he brings both a very different set of skills (off-the-dribble creation, playmaking) and concerns (ball dominance, over-shooting). None are clean replacements, even in limited minutes.
Carroll, in the grand scheme of things, is just a role player. Yet the void he leaves behind in Atlanta signifies how vital a role he filled and just how accommodating his game was in filling it. He managed tough defensive assignments without complaint and produced on offense without demanding control. That kind of well-rounded, unobtrusive game gave his coaches something to rely on. The Hawks won't be lost without him—merely forced to reckon with newfound constraints that range from inconvenient to legitimately dangerous.