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The Ever-Evolving Mystery that is Charlie Villanueva

Let's quickly review Charlie Villanueva's historical roles with the Bucks:

July 2006: Power forward of the future!  Bogut and Villanueva FTW!
July 2007: Designated trade bait.  The future is in Mandarin, baby.
July 2008: Starting power default.  Wait, Yi really got traded before CV?
Dec 2008: Sixth Man of the Year candidate?  Oh, and it's a contract year...

It's been a very good month for VNuv: 17.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.33 bpg, and .494/.444 shooting in 28 mpg, all off the bench.  His shooting numbers are perhaps the most encouraging, as Villanueva has generally scored at a high clip the last couple years, but almost always because of a penchant for volume shooting rather than real efficiency.  Overall that's still been the story of 08/09, as Villanueva's true shooting percentage continues to hover barely over 50% and about where it was last year.  And no, that's not a good place to be--it ranks just 50th out of 70 among power forwards this season.  (Though it's not often mentioned by the mainstream media, TS% accounts for both the increased value of a three point shot, like eFG%, while also factoring in that players who get to the line and make free throws score more efficiently than those who don't.)

What's interesting is why Villanueva's 08/09 shooting percentages (.430/.342/.898 for a TS% of .503) are still below where you'd like them to be.  Normally it would be easy to point the finger at Villanueva's love affair with the long ball, where last year he made just 29.7% of his attempts.  And it's not just that he didn't make threes--Villanueva's tendency to drift outside meant he wasn't drawing fouls, and he ended up attempting more threes than free throws.  Not exactly an ideal mix for a big man who was good from the line but struggled with his outside shot. 

This season Villanueva's three point shooting has become slightly more selective: his attempts are down by a quarter (1.8 vs. 2.4 3fga/g) despite shooting more overall (12.2 fga vs. 10.7 fg).  Not surprisingly, that selectivity has translated into better results, as Villanueva's 3/6 shooting last night brought his season three point accuracy to 34.2%.  Far from incredible, but good enough that you don't mind him taking one or two of them per contest.  And according to 82games, his eFG% on jumpers is up from .414 last year to .448 this season, fairly comparable to Redd (.444) and Jefferson (.464) and well ahead of Ridnour (.423) and Sessions (.340).  Considering that 63% of his shots were jumpers last year and he's taking 60% of his shots that way this year, it's a significant improvement.

Unfortunately, Villanueva's inside game has regressed dramatically.  Maybe it's just that he's forcing more shots inside, but CV's inside eFG% has plummeted from .564 last year to just .427 this year.  That slump is offset somewhat by the fact that his increased activity inside is getting him to the line more (2.6 vs. 2.1 fta/g) where he's also connecting at a rather absurd 89% clip.  But while he might not be known for being a strong finisher around the bucket, his effective inside field goal percentages were .607 and .655 his first two years in the league.  So we know he's not nearly this bad.

Despite all that, Villanueva's quietly having his strongest season as a pro.  His 17.16 PER leads the Bucks and his 17.9 rebound rate rank him among the league's best power forwards on the glass.  Even his defense has come around a bit.  Though he's still regularly exploited by bigger 4's like Pau Gasol and coming off the bench often matches him against lesser players, Villanueva's own/opponent PER differential is positive for the first time in his career.  He's even blocked seven shots in his last two games.  No matter how you slice it, that's a nice thing to see.

And after struggling to adapt to the sixth man role a year ago, CV has flourished off the bench over the last month, averaging nearly 15 ppg and 7 rpg in 23 mpg while shooting .463/.300/.886.  While Scott Skiles kept him on a very short leash to start the year, CV seems to be gaining his new coach's trust a bit, especially with Luc Mbah a Moute struggling after his fine start. It's easy to discount Villanueva's contributions because a) he's still wildly inconsistent and b) he's never been quite as good as many hoped when he was first acquired.  But let's give him credit--he's accepted his new role and become a key part of the Bucks' rotation.  And he's again been better than Yi Jianlian, who has hardly had a breakout year in New Jersey.  In fact, his per-minute scoring and rebounding numbers compare favorably with a number of the league's better PFs--though his efficiency (among other things) admittedly lags way behind:

Player Pts/40 Rebs/40 TS%
Charlie Villanueva 22.7 12.3 .503
Kevin Garnett 19.8 11.6 .550
Pau Gasol 20.6 10.6 .617
Antawn Jamison 20.8 9.8 .556

Charlie's Future: What Now?

Of course, Villanueva's encouraging play of late only further complicates John Hammond's job.  It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Villanueva was the least likely Buck to mesh with Skiles, but the Bucks had few options up front following the trade of Yi.  Villanueva is making $3.45 million this season and will be a restricted free agent this summer, effectively giving the Bucks the right of first refusal on any new deal he signs. But even his strong play of late isn't likely to cement his role in the Bucks' long-term future. 

The problem is that the Bucks will again be close to the luxury tax next summer (likely in the low- to mid-$70 million range), and with Ramon Sessions also entering restricted free agency they might have to choose between re-signing Villanueva and the guy who looks like the team's most talented point guard.  As of now the Bucks have about $69 million committed to 11 players in 09/10, including all options but not including new draft picks.  They can probably keep both players if Villanueva takes the qualifying offer ($4.60 million), though they would benefit greatly from Francisco Elson ($1.7 million) and Malik Allen ($1.3 million) turning down their player options for 09/10.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure how either guy is going to get a better deal somewhere else, but then again NBA players and agents aren't renowned for their foresight.  Even with both players staying, the Bucks could still have some wiggle room to re-sign Sessions and CV while staying under the tax, but it will be highly dependent on the final tax number.

If Villanueva does take the QO then he would have the right to veto any trade, making him a less liquid asset, and he'd also be an unrestricted free agent the following summer (though the Bucks would have Bird rights).  In other words, the Bucks might have to make a decision about Villanueva's future by the trade deadline: keep him with the intention of re-signing him for 09/10, or use him as a sweetener to dump a longer-term deal like Dan Gadzuric (perhaps wishful thinking) or Charlie Bell.  The Bucks also still have Damon Jones' expiring deal lying around, which could be of some use in a bigger package, though the Bucks' luxury tax issues mean they aren't really in a position to deal expiring contracts for longer-term deals. 

Probably the worst case scenario is that other teams realize the Bucks can't afford to re-sign both Sessions and Villanueva to MLE-level deals and both guys get big offers elsewhere.  In that scenario the Bucks likely lose Villanueva and get nothing in return, while having to pay Sessions a market rate rather than getting the usual RFA discount.  Then again, not signing Villanueva to a long-term deal could also end up being a blessing in disguise, especially in light of the Bucks' recent history.

Either way, Villanueva's made a strong case for increased playing time, and Skiles has been giving it to him this month.  He's not consistent enough to merit an automatic 35 minutes every night--against certain players he simply can't match up defensively, and when he's not shooting well his value diminishes considerably.  An average of 28-30 seems a fair number given the quality we've seen of late, but as always the more important question with CV remains: can he keep it up?