Bucks point guard Michael Carter-Williams isn't a great shooter or an efficient scorer, but it's fair to say that he will create mismatches when Jason Kidd summons him into the post next season. The problem is that it's hard to tell which team will ultimately gain the advantage when it happens. Is Kidd on the cutting edge of a new trend, or is he a step behind a league trending toward more three-point attempts? We discuss the issue of MCW's offensive "fit" in our latest Bucks offseason podcast episode, so click below to take a listen and then read on for companion content and reaction to Zach Lowe's latest article at Grantland on the future of post-up offense in the NBA.
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It's fair to acknowledge that Michael Carter-Williams cuts against the modern point guard prototype. The position is typically the fulcrum of an efficient offense. Point guards are asked to probe the defense, manipulate bigs in the pick-and-roll, stretch coverages with effective outside shooting, pierce the defensive shell to open up opportunities for others, and control the ball without coughing it up too often. It's a lot to ask of one man, but that's the reality of the situation. He who dominates the ball assumes the most responsibility for the efficiency of an offense (and yes, MCW dominates the ball).
The expected offensive value of the position is reflected in the ESPN Real Plus-Minus numbers, where 38 point guards own a positive ORPM and 16 of those players rate at +2 or better. For the sake of comparison, MCW's -3.06 ORPM is the third-worst mark among the 84 point guards in the association. He's also posted sub-50% TS on +25% USG in both of his NBA seasons, which puts him among rare company during that time. In defiance of these numbers, the scoreboard suggests the Bucks performed quite well on offense with MCW on the floor. It's hard to know what to do with that information, as it doesn't feel right and it doesn't quite make sense intuitively.
This (potential) positional conundrum doesn't seem to bother Jason Kidd. The obvious path forward for MCW relates to post-ups. Kidd worked his magic with a no-shot point guard in Brooklyn, and we covered this angle back in February for our post-trade analysis podcast:
The blueprint for unlocking MCW emerged last season in Brooklyn. With the help of Jason Kidd and his innovative coaching staff, Shaun Livingston (who looks and feels a lot like a mature version of MCW) leveraged his massive frame to score with aggressive post-ups and crafty off-ball cuts. The results were quite impressive (even if the storyline flew under the radar a bit). Follow this link to Basketball-Reference.com and pay close attention to the shot allocation in 2013-14 for Livingston.
Indeed, Carter-Williams performed well in the post upon his arrival in Milwaukee. MCW flipped an ugly small sample of post play in Philly (0.65 ppp on 12 FGA) on its head during his time with the Bucks (0.92 ppp on 28 FGA). That's not to say the primary problem is solved. Although a mark of 0.92 ppp on post-up possessions puts MCW in the 76th percentile, it still rates out as significantly less efficient than the worst offensive team in the NBA. But maybe it's more about post passing than post scoring.
Kidd told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN back in April that he plans to spend the offseason working with MCW on improving distribution and passing skills:
"We will start spending a little more time [this summer] and understanding what I think defenses are going to do [to him]," Kidd said. "I couldn't shoot so they went underneath. So what are the options of what you can do? Knowing that they are going to try to meet you in the paint, well you are 6-6 so you can shoot over anybody at any given time.
"Being patient and understanding some of the passes you are going to make," Kidd added. "I threw them all. So you are going to have to learn your teammates real quick. What they can catch and what they can't catch and who can catch a no-look pass ... that takes time."
All of this bring us to Zach Lowe, who always does an excellent job of identifying and exploring emerging trends in the NBA and canvassing the league for quality quotes and insights. His work cuts both ways on MCW. In late April, Lowe identified early winners and losers in the 2015 NBA Playoffs; he came down hard on MCW and Rajon Rondo (the guys at the bottom of the ORPM list for point guards, by the way):
LOSER: Point Guards Who Can’t Shoot
They might be the trickiest players to build around — one-man saboteurs of otherwise-functional NBA offenses. It’s just hard to gain traction on a pick-and-roll when the guy guarding the ball handler can go under every screen — even below the foul line:
Carter-Williams isn’t a good enough passer or defender yet to make up for his bricky shooting. Rajon Rondo used to be, and the Celtics still needed three of the greatest shooters ever at their positions to build a functional offense around him. As those stars declined, Boston’s offense fell with them. A healthy Rondo proved unable to prop up a league-average offense without Hall of Fame–level support.
The other side of this double-edged sword cuts through the confusion to identify the potential future of post offense in the league. And wouldn't you know it, Jason Kidd makes a few appearances in Lowe's latest piece for Grantland. The general trend is clear: teams are posting up less in response to data that shows other opportunities provide more efficient routes to effective offense. Post players can't directly compete with the power of the three-point shot, and backing down a defender doesn't create as many free throw chances in the lane as driving to the rim does. Jason Kidd disagrees, saying: "Sometimes you need to forget the analytics and remember the best shot is the one closest to the goal."
There's a kernel of truth there. Kidd is willing to exploit mismatches, and putting a big point guard like MCW in the post has its advantages. The success of Shaun Livingston and Kendall Marshall with post-up offense under Kidd shows that he knows what he's talking about. As defenses switch the pick-and-roll more often, Lowe suggests that teams like the Bucks will be well positioned to take advantage of mismatches. In Kidd's words: "Sometimes it feels like we are making the game harder than it should be. The bottom line is this: The closer you get to the basket, the bigger a threat you are."
The flip side of this trend is that smart defenses are more willing to let opponents finish possessions in the post because it's not typically a path to efficient offense. Single-dimensional players who can't execute all facets of an offense (shooting, passing and dribbling) can bog things down and create advantages for the defense. We covered this in our previous podcast episode on Milwaukee's swarming defensive system. Here's a bit of what Lowe and Kidd had to say on this issue (via Grantland):
Coaches are getting smarter about exploiting bigs who can’t post up, especially in the playoffs. More coaches go small and send an extra shooter onto the floor, the second they see an opposing big who can’t hurt smaller defenders on the block. A few coaches dipped into small ball against Rudy Gobert late in the season, yanking the French Rejection out of his lair near the rim. The Heat in both Finals series against San Antonio dared Tiago Splitter to post up smaller players.
And in this season’s playoffs, Kidd invited a hobbled Joakim Noah to post up any of his wing players. "We tried to get them to go to that mismatch," Kidd says. "We’d live with that over Pau Gasol, Jimmy Butler, or Derrick Rose getting the ball."
The tightrope act that is the future of post offense reveals itself in the dichotomous quotes from Kidd. When teams can't surround post passers with shooting options, the defense has an advantage.
Post-up stat that stood out to me: by Synergy tracking, only one of the 53 players with 125+ post-up possessions scored over 1.0 PPP.— Kevin Yeung (@KevinHFY) May 26, 2015
Now the question is whether Carter-Williams is multi-dimensional enough to overcome shooting deficits the Bucks are likely to face when Jabari, Giannis, MCW and a big share the floor. Will MCW emerge as offensive weapon Kidd envisions or the type of weak link Kidd's own defense would seek to isolate and exploit?