By now you know the talking points for the deadline trade centered on Brandon Knight and Michael Carter-Williams. The Bucks opted to swap the bird in their hand (a steadily improving guard with a score-first mentality and intriguing three-point shooting) for a handful of birds in the bush (a tidy salary cap and several unproven pieces). In the first of our three-part podcast series analyzing the trade, we focus on Michael Carter-Williams and how he fits with the Bucks going forward. As always, it's complicated.
The MCW we've seen in Philly cuts against the modern NBA model for building a good offense. A lead guard who dominates the ball but can't shoot off the dribble and posts sub-50% TS is the exact opposite of what teams typically want these days. Simply put, the point guard position is the fulcrum of a hyper-efficient offense. Take a quick look at the Offensive Real Plus-Minus (ORPM) leaderboard on ESPN and notice the shooting talent on that list. Good luck finding a "pure" point guard among the leaders. As for MCW, he ranks 89th in ORPM among 91 qualifying point guards. Woof.
When you consider that 18 of the top 40 players in ORPM are listed as point guards (and all are rated at +2.49 pts /100 poss or better), it makes MCW's -3.28 mark especially hard to swallow. To lose that much ground in offensive value at a position primed to provide scoring punch puts additional pressure on every other guy on the floor. And it's a bit too convenient to fall back on Jason Kidd and suggest a mentor-mentee relationship will transform MCW. Increased proximity to an NBA HOF talent does not increase the likelihood of osmosis (e.g., you can find a "Hakeem Olajuwon is helping big man X work on his post game" story every offseason). To make the best of MCW's talents, the Bucks will necessarily have to change their approach from what they did with Knight, a topic we delve into more detail on in our next podcast.
For a harsh bite of reality, check out what Derek Bodner of DraftExpress and SB Nation's Sixers blog, Liberty Ballers, had to say about MCW's shooting potential last June:
Part of my concern with Michael Carter-Williams isn't that he had problems in certain areas this past year, it's that his problems (turnovers, finishing at the rim, shooting off the dribble, defending through screens and pick and rolls) are problems that he's always had. I would be a lot more bullish on his upside if I were more confident in his ability to correct these problems, and shooting is one of the major areas that I'm concerned about, as it limits his ability both as a playmaker off the pick and roll (where he turned the ball over on nearly 20% of his pick and roll possessions, and shot just 37% on his own field goal attempts), as well as his ability to fit into an offense where the ball might be dominated by other stars.
As much as he may need to improve offensively, MCW's defensive talent could push the Bucks to the cutting edge of defensive versatility. The wingspan angle is a bit overblown when comparing MCW (6' 7.25") to Knight (6' 6.75"), and even standing reach doesn't reveal a huge change (8' 5" for MCW vs. 8' 2.5" for Knight). With Knight helping to build the second-ranked defense in the NBA, how much can really be gained by swapping him out for a taller prospect?
Diminishing marginal returns aside, the theory of adding a more versatile defender capable of switching picks across several positional gaps should excite you, and MCW's defensive metrics suggest he's a clear upgrade over even the solid Knight. Kidd's Bucks are among the most aggressive teams in defending pick-and-rolls, according to Vantage Sports. MCW's quick feet make him a perfect candidate for PnR switches and blitzes, so expect Milwaukee to raise hell on defense. The Warriors are using this blueprint to take the league by storm. Of course, they have one special piece that the Bucks no longer have: an elite rim protector.
In other words, how much does point guard defense matter? Note that 28 of the top-40 players in DRPM are power forwards and centers. MCW ranks second in DRPM among point guards (yay!), but that only puts him at 64th overall when all positions are considered (awww). The PF/C position is still the fulcrum of a great defense because rim protection is still king. It's hard to say the Bucks are all-in on their excellent defense when they paid Larry Sanders to go away, though Sanders' absence has hardly been felt statistically over the past two months. The situation is more complicated than I let on, and Sanders did not deserve another chance, but holding on to Larry (an unquestionably elite rim protector) a bit longer would have shown me the Bucks want to be an elite defense at all costs. As it stands, they're left somewhere in the middle with a murkier long-term vision. So it goes. Enjoy part one of our trade analysis podcast series.