Indiana’s Paul George is defended by Hawks small forward DeMarre Carroll in a game earlier this season. Carroll, who is averaging 9.2 points per game this season, has been tasked with defending the opponent’s best player each game this year. (Reuters)
ATLANTA — Help wanted: Another Bruce Bowen.
When the Hawks set about rebuilding the franchise using the blueprint that won the Spurs all those championships, finding a defensive stopper was a necessity. New coach Mike Budenholzer, as a longtime assistant with the Spurs, watched Bowen for years. The lockdown defender won three titles with the team and over his career was an eight-time member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first or second team.
Hired: DeMarre Carroll.
The Hawks signed Carroll to a two-year, $5 million contract over the summer and entrusted him with the task of defending the opposition’s top players. Last week alone, he guarded the Nets’ Joe Johnson, the Pacers’ Paul George and the Rockets’ James Harden.
Just who enters the NBA to be a defensive stopper? Doesn’t everybody want to be a 30-point per game scorer?
“When you get into the NBA, the guys who are the most successful are the guys who look in the mirror and be real with themselves,” Carroll said. “My uncle always told me that. What can you contribute to the team? What can you do to help the team win? Those are the guys who have the biggest success in the NBA, the guys who look in the mirror.”
Carroll played for his uncle, Mike Anderson, at the University of Missouri. Budenholzer admitted that not all players enter the league wanting to play defense. But Carroll came from the college program with the “40 minutes of hell” mentality.
Playing a defensive role is not always easy to accept. Budenholzer said it’s a matter of survival. It was for Bowen. It is for Carroll.
“(Bowen) knew that was the way he was going to stick in the NBA, that was how he was going to play, that was how he was going to get paid. That was his ticket. No matter how you were raised, no matter how many 30-point games you had, at some point you have to figure out a way you are going to survive and get on the court. Some people, they figure it out and (learn) that is their best way to stick in the league and to play in the league and, hopefully, play on good teams in the league.”
Carroll has been one of the Hawks’ top all-around players this season. He has averaged 9.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.4 steals in 30.8 minutes. He has made goals that include making an All-NBA defensive team and leading the Hawks in rebounding. His 5.5 rebounds average trails only Paul Millsap (8.5) and the injured Al Horford (8.4).
“I made a goal to try to make an all-defensive team,” Carroll said. “Most guys make goals to try to make an all-NBA team. Like Roy Hibbert (of the Pacers), he’s a realist. He wants to be the defensive player of the year. He knows he’s not going to be Marc Gasol (of the Grizzlies), a dominant scoring center in the league, so he’s more about blocking shots and letting Paul George and David West score all the points. When you make goals for yourself it helps you along the path.”
Carroll has averaged nearly twice as minutes as his previous career-high of 16.8 minutes set last season with the Jazz. He played a career-high 1,111 minutes in 66 games with the Jazz last season. He has played 1,110 minutes in 36 games with the Hawks.
Carroll has missed only three games this season — two because of sprained right thumb and one for the birth of his daughter.
Veteran Elton Brand said he spoke with Carroll about his role with the Hawks. He related a story about a young player on a previous team who was upset after only getting four shot attempts in a game. Brand said he reminded the youngster that the team had won the game. In the end, that’s all that matters.
It wasn’t a lesson Carroll needed to learn, but something that never hurts to hear.
“We were all scorers on our high school and college teams,” Brand said. “I just let him know that being a defensive stopper on a really good team is highlighted. If you are a defensive stopper and your team is in last place, maybe nobody cares. Right now, we are a top-three seed and you are a defensive stopper and you are hitting your open shots. That is a coveted player. You may not get 10 points a night, but if you guard your man and keep him under his average, that is a good thing for our team.”
Role players are becoming more and more important in the NBA. It takes all kinds. The two-time defending champion Heat need role players to surround their three stars. The Hawks, without a superstar, need players to fit roles within the team’s offensive and defensive systems. The more clearly defined those roles, the better the chance at success.
Budenholzer pointed to Phil Jackson, his mentor Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra as being adept at developing role players.
“The tough part is the players,” Heat coach Spoelstra said. “Can you accept it? Can you manage that? Can you have talented players on your team who the majority of the time are not playing big minutes or sometimes aren’t playing at all? … That is what they are signing up for. It’s not necessarily about your individual situation. How can you help?”
Carroll, the realist, knows his role. He is just fine with it.
“Being a defensive stopper is going to help this team,” Carroll said. “Kyle Korver shooting 3’s is going to help this team. … Jeff Teague coming to play every night is going to help our team. Paul Millsap being versatile is going to help our team. Everybody has their role. That’s my role. I don’t want to go outside my role. I want to do what the coach wants me to do.”