Believe it or not, this could be the biggest question for an up-and-coming Bobcats team as training camp starts. And the answer might be an unconventional one.
Undoubtedly, the newly acquired Jason Richardson and the newly re-signed Gerald Wallace are the more accomplished swingmen and deserve to be the starters on this team. But it is virtually impossible to overestimate what Matt Carroll gave this team in last year’s 33-win campaign. Getting consistent big-time minutes (26.1 per) for the first time in his four-year career, Carroll put up 12.1 points per game and shot an astounding 41.6 percent from outside the arc. He illuminated himself as a player with not only a definite skill – perimeter shooting – but at 6-foot-6 and 212 pounds, a versatile player with surprising quickness who can play two positions and get the ball to the rim on occasion as well.
As easy as it is to write off Carroll’s solid year on the basis of the “Well, somebody has to take enough shots to score some points on a subpar team with no dominant scorer” theorem, it was encouraging to see the Charlotte front office reward Carroll with a 6-year, $27 million contract this summer. But all the same, it is no guarantee that he will get minutes. Richardson comes over from Golden State having averaged 35.5 minutes per game in his six seasons there, and with a new contract in hand, Wallace will be asked to be on the floor as much as ever. It is hard to believe that overrated draft pick Adam Morrison won’t get some minutes at the swing spots either, if nothing else so that the ‘Cats aren’t seen as tacitly admitting that Michael Jordan made a mistake with that pick. At least for now.
Which means that rookie coach Sam Vincent’s toughest task will be getting Carroll on the floor with close to the same regularity that he played last year. This is a player who has spent four years working and has finally found a home in Charlotte. He has earned himself a shot to be a major part of this team when the going finally gets good – which it is far closer to than much of the NBA’s national following (and media) seem to realize.
Carroll’s lethal outside shot will keep defenses honest and allow the Charlotte offense to spread the floor in halfcourt sets. In a traditional lineup, Vincent would likely be best served to use him at the two next to Gerald Wallace. Wallace is a great jumper and slasher, but if there is a major weakness in his game right now, it is his outside shot. Having Carroll on the floor with him would prevent teams from sending his man to help on Wallace’s drive, as Carroll can’t be left standing alone on the perimeter. Of course, he will also be able to spell Wallace and play alongside Richardson in this set-up as well, although it makes more sense with Wallace on the floor.
Now, we come to the unconventional part. In one more effort to get Carroll some time with the first unit, perhaps it is worth presenting Boof’s (that's me, for all you new readers) Officially Crazy Idea of the Week: the run-n’-gun ‘Cats; a truly-small ball lineup featuring Ray Felton, Carroll, Wallace, Richardson and either Walter Herrmann or Emeka Okafor, depending on how truly small Vincent wanted to go. For three-to-five minute stretches over the course of the game, this unit could just get on the floor and fly. Ray Felton was put on this planet to push the ball up and down the floor, and having Carroll on the floor would really spread defenses thin with Richardson and Wallace waiting on the wings and doubling them really not a viable option. Richardson is used to playing in more of a big-man role in this type of setup from the Nellieball system in Oakland. Much like the Warriors did last spring, if the ‘Cats can dictate tempo, they will create matchup problems and force other teams to adjust to them.
No, this isn’t necessarily a style that should be leaned on as a crutch the way it has been in Golden State. But with Richardson’s nature as a gunner, Herrmann’s energy and Wallace’s all-around explosiveness, this team has the personnel that makes it perfectly built for the small ball game in short bursts. All five guys on the floor would be hustle guys willing to gamble to force turnovers and start fast breaks defensively, and Richardson and Wallace are both excellent-rebounding swingmen. This is the type of unit that could change the flow of the game, add a ton of energy and really break the momentum in Charlotte’s favor. Sure, it’s crazy. But out of the realm of possibility? Absolutely not.
And it will get Matt Carroll on the floor. Which, for those who haven’t figured it out yet, is right where he belongs.