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The Case For Michael Carter-Williams Off the Bench

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Jason Kidd raised some eyebrows when he removed Michael Carter-Williams from the starting unit. It might have been a response to poor play...or was it a move towards a larger strategy?

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

In his third year in the NBA, Michael-Carter Williams' career has had more downs than ups.

Leading the first iteration of the perpetually-dreadful Philadelphia 76ers and their multi-year tank job, MCW stuffed the box score en route to Rookie of the Year honors in 2014, but his impressive raw numbers belied inefficient scoring and a penchant for turning the ball over. After offseason shoulder surgery short-circuited the summer of 2014, his lack of improvement that fall made him an increasingly popular target for the Sixers' continued struggles.

An opportunity to be mentored by Jason Kidd was supposed to be the spark to set Carter-Wiliams back on track, but as it turns out, life doesn't always get more simple when you're moved from a bad team to a good one -- especially when the leading scorer of that good team was the guy you just replaced. It's tough enough being a scapegoat, and even tougher when you tend to do things that are both frustrating to watch and objectively bad for the team.

Let's be clear on one thing: MCW has not yet shown that he is the answer at point guard for the Milwaukee Bucks, and he may never show it. Bucks fans have a ...complicated... relationship with Michael Carter-Williams, for reasons both within and beyond his ability to control. We're not here to discuss the merits of MCW as a long-term cornerstone of the franchise. What we are here to do is figure out what niche MCW can fill on this team, an experiment head coach Jason Kidd might have already found the solution for.

After dropping seven of nine games toward the end of November, Kidd made the surprising choice to replace MCW in the starting lineup with Jerryd Bayless, as well as replacing Jabari Parker Major Cat with O.J. Mayo to take on the Charlotte Hornets. The rationale seemed obvious: Carter-Williams had not played well and had made too many mistakes to justify starting games, and the Bucks needed something to shake up a team crashing and burning on the defensive end. MCW has remained out of the starting five ever since, and while it hasn't completely reversed the Bucks' fortunes (2-3 since the Charlotte game), we've seen a glimpse of what might salvage MCW's place on the team.

As a starter, MCW ranged from underwhelming to disastrous; in his 11 games started, he has a raw +/- of -6.2 points per 100 possesions, which would rank 4th worst among all NBA guards (behind him: T.J. McConnell, D'Angelo Russell, and the player formerly known as Kobe Bryant. Not the best of company.) He was turning the ball over, taking too many shots, and failing to consistently leverage his physical tools on defense. What exacerbated the situation in fans' eyes was that other guards on the roster at least added playmaking (Greivis Vasquez), ball control (Tyler Ennis), and perimeter shooting (Bayless); why have your starting PG do all of these things poorly when someone else can at least do one of them well enough?

As a player off the bench, though, MCW has shown some signs of life. His raw numbers are all about the same, but his individual advanced stats are intriguing. Consider the following (source: NBA.com):

15-16 MCW

GP

MIN

OffRtg

DefRtg

NetRtg

AST%

AST/TO

AST Ratio

DREB%

TO Ratio

USG%

Starting

11

28.8

103.6

113.0

-9.4

26.5

1.33

25.4

10.2

19.2

22.3

Bench

5

26.2

90.1

87.2

2.8

35.2

2.50

29.7

17.2

11.9

20.7

Recognizing the size of the sample, this shows the blueprint of a player who, though flawed, can be a contributor if he is put in a position to be successful. My contention is that the optimal version of Michael Carter-Williams is the version that is a featured player...on the second unit. Here are the thoroughly-untested, unscientific reasons why:

  • Playing against tired starters. MCW entering the game after 6-7 minutes of action means that the opposing guards have already started nearing the end of their first shift. Carter-Williams' combination of size and speed is often enough to deal with on its own, and they're more likely to make mistakes when they can't match his energy level. If nothing else, MCW is well-equipped at making opponents pay for mistakes (other than leaving him a wide-open jumper, that is). And if the starter gets pulled...
  • Playing against overmatched backups. Quick, name all of the backup guards in the NBA who are big enough to handle MCW on the block, or all of the backup wings quick enough to corral MCW on the break. Successful offense is dependent on creating mismatches, and there are a number of NBA reserves who, quite simply, lack the talent to overcome the mismatches that MCW creates.
  • Supporting the second-unit's defense within Kidd's scheme. Jason Kidd's defense is built for a smart, big-bodied center to close off driving lanes (paging Greg Monroe), and for Giannis, Jabari, and Khris Middleton to get steals fueled by quick switches and frenetic energy (for the whole possession, gang). MCW is big enough and athletic enough to guard positions 1-3, and can help the second unit maintain the same system while the starters get a breather.
  • Setting up the bench-unit shooters. For the time being, the second unit figures to feature players who are more proficient at long-range shots than the starters (Giannis and Jabari, primarily). When Jerryd Bayless, Greivis Vasquez, or Rashad Vaughn join MCW on the court, or if OJ Mayo and Khris Middleton get their minutes staggered, the team should be looking to have Carter-Williams connect them with the ball in spots they're comfortable putting up shots from.
  • Lineup flexibility later in games. Are we seeing Good MCW, who's moving the ball, causing problems for the opposing offense, and taking quality shots? Let it ride, leave him in the game. Are we seeing Bad MCW, who makes sloppy passes, opens lanes for opposing guards, and takes ill-advised shots? That's fine, get him some time on the bench until his next shift.
While there's no guarantee that any of these points will actually work, the same goes for MCW's improvement as an NBA player. To date, he has not shown significant growth since his rookie year, and opponents are willing to let his flaws undermine the Bucks. It's nobody's fault, it's just the way it is. So instead of placing unrealistic expectations on a player unlikely to meet them, why not carve out a custom role that fits all the things the player can excel at?

One obvious hangup is Carter-Williams himself. It's not often that a player transitions from a starting role to a bench role so early in his career, and MCW may bristle at the suggestion that he could be better as a reserve. Self-confidence is common in NBA players (it almost has to be), and it's certainly plausible that Carter-Williams simply has not had enough time to develop into what he needs to be in order to win games. The coaching staff would have to deliver the sales pitch delicately and convince MCW that this change would be in the best interest of both him and the team.

Either way, the Bucks have time to solve the question of who will get Giannis and Jabari the ball once the team is ready to truly contend. The team isn't there yet, and the Bucks have an opportunity to identify a piece that may not be highly-visible when the time comes, but has the potential to be instrumental to the team's success. Who knows, maybe Michael Carter-Williams continues to be so effective off the bench that he earns a long-term home in Milwaukee and an extension to his contract. Crazier things have happened in the NBA.

MCW, if you're reading this, you probably already know that the team has no incentive to make you a salary cap priority until the summer of 2017, and that your value is going to be compared to other point guards on the market relative to what you can offer on the court. As of yet, both of those things are working against you...so take this opportunity to reframe the conversation. There's another big guard with limited range who did the same thing I'm asking you to do, albeit more out of necessity, and that guy has a ring.

Why struggle against the best guards in the NBA when you can wreck opposing second units, while still getting 25+ minutes a night? Remember what you did to Aaron Brooks last year? You can do that every game! Michael, embrace your role as a multi-purpose wing. Reinvent yourself as a jack-of-all-trades, but off the bench, and you can make yourself an important part of a team going for it all sooner rather than later.