With his own free agency looming and his team seemingly preparing to move on from him, this season will be crucial for Milwaukee Bucks point guard Michael Carter-Williams.
Coming to the Bucks in 2015 as the centerpiece of the three-team deal that sent Brandon Knight to Phoenix, expectations were high for former Philadelphia 76ers guard Michael Carter-Williams.
MCW had garnered the Rookie of The Year award the year previous, and by all accounts, looked the part of the long, versatile playmaker head coach Jason Kidd wanted at the point.
However, Carter-Williams has not found success with the Bucks, and so far has not made the important transition from putting up mostly-empty stats with a bad team to excelling in a determined role for a playoff contender.
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Recent personnel moves by the Bucks also display an organizational distrust in MCW’s ability to lead the team going forward as a starting point guard; benching him in favor of Point Giannis last season, floating his name for trades, and bringing in Olympic superstar Matthew Dellavadova to play alongside Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokopunmpo.
Before we analyse the strengths and weaknesses of his game, let’s first look at what’s at stake for him next season financially.
Money has never been in greater supply for NBA franchises, and with the salary cap set to jump another $8 million next year, a strong 2016-2017 campaign from Carter-Williams could earn him a substantial pay increase, as well as job security for an extended period of time.
MCW is set to be a restricted free agent, meaning the Bucks can match any offer he would receive from another team should they offer him a one year, $4,358,247 qualifying offer, meaning that at their choosing, Milwaukee can retain his services for at least the foreseeable future.
Because of this privilege, there is certainly incentive for the Bucks to continue to work with Carter-Williams, and if his play and fit improves, attempt to match a contract offer, rather than banishing him to the end of the bench and breaking ties.
The flipside of this scenario is a much darker picture for MCW – if he continues to struggle with the same issues that have plagued him his whole career, it is not likely that the Bucks will be eager to even extend a qualifying offer, and other teams will be considerably more stingy in opening up their pocketbooks to the former Orangeman.
Another disappointing season certainly wouldn’t spell doom for MCW’s career prospects, but it would most definitely be a step in the wrong direction.
There are many skills and facets that make Carter-Williams’ game attractive to the Bucks and other teams, but inconsistencies and troubling flaws abound too.
At 6’6″, MCW is one of the tallest point guards in the league, and he uses this to his advantage, particularly on the defensive end. Per NBA Math’s Points Saved metric, Carter-Williams was one of just four Bucks to contribute positively on the defensive side of the ball, and averaging 1.5 steals per game ranked him second on the team behind just 3-and-D specialist Khris Middleton.
A reliable jump shot is most definitely not in MCW’s repertoire, at a career three-point field goal percentage of just 25.5 percent. During his career with the Bucks, Carter-Williams has been put on the notorious Jason Kidd Diet, similar to Giannis Antetokounmpo in previous years, restricting his three-point field goal attempts down to just one per game last season, compared with three per contest during his rookie campaign.
Carter-Williams finds most of his success via drives to the basket, either finishing over smaller guards or dishing to an open teammate around the rim, to the tune of 5.2 assists per game. MCW’s 7.7 drives per game are tops on the team by a wide margin, and he finishes at a rate of 56.9 percent within three feet of the basket.
Although he may flourish in driving and dishing, MCW has still has not grown out of an issue with turnovers, posting 2.8 per game at just a 1.85 assist-to-turnover ratio. Most of his giveaways are of the bad pass variety, and although his turnovers have decreased over the years, he still has not displayed the on-court maturity that the Bucks are likely looking for.
This reliance on dribble penetration, while less problematic in a vacuum, presents problems for Carter-Williams’ role going forward with the Bucks, a team built around the shooting-challenged (for now) duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker.
Because the aforementioned two need the ball in their hands to be successful, Carter-Williams has been far too ball-dominant for most fans’ liking, posting a 21.3 usage rate last season and taking over 10 shots per game.
Carter-Williams also goes to the pick and roll early and often, at a mind-blowing frequency of 32.5 percent but struggles with efficiency, posting just 0.71 points per possession as the ball handler. Too often, defenses would simply sag off or go under the screen, forcing MCW into a misguided pass or tough midrange jumper.
His own lack of a jump shot combined with the similarly paint-bound games of Parker and Antetokounmnpo severely clogged the paint for the Bucks offense last season and led to Milwaukee’s most used lineup posting a net -6.8 plus-minus.
The Bucks targeted Matthew Dellavadova in free agency based on his talents as a spot-up shooter, and should he win the starting gig next season, Bucks fans can expect to see Carter-Williams come off the bench once again as he did late in 2016.
When playing as a reserve last season, MCW did not see his scoring output change drastically, going from 11.6 points per game as a starter to 11.4 as a reserve, but his net plus-minus improved from an abhorrent -4.9 to just -1.0 points.
Even though the league is moving farther and farther away from players like MCW who cannot demand the respect of the defense on the perimeter, there are still clear examples of similar players who have found success in a defined role.
One must look no further than Golden State backup point guard Shaun Livingston to see what Carter-Williams could be in time. Livingston finds most of his success in posting up smaller guards, a skill Carter-Williams does not yet have.
While Livingston posts up 19.2 percent of the time putting up 1.00 points per possession, Carter-Williams does so only 4.7% of the time to the tune of just .43 points per possession. This is likely a result of Greg Monroe‘s seemingly immovable real estate on the low block, but going forward there is no reason why MCW wouldn’t use his large frame to his advantage by punishing smaller defenders on the block.
The bottom line is, even though he has been frustrating to watch at times, Michael Carter-Williams has many redeeming qualities and unique skills that could make him an attractive option to the Bucks or other teams come next offseason.
It’s now just up to him to showcase them.