A new role. A new team. A new opportunity.
That's what awaits young Milwaukee Bucks starters Khris Middleton and Michael Carter-Williams as they enter what is surely the most critical off-season period of their short careers. Fresh off a surprising playoff appearance that featured highs and lows, both stand at something of a crossroads. The safe money says neither will see a big change from this year to the next -- all indications are that Milwaukee will do anything it can to keep Middleton, and that MCW isn't being outwardly dangled on the trade market again -- but in terms of taking that mythic "next step," now might just be the time.
As is the case with anything Bucks-related these days, development is the name of the game. We hear the same mantras repeated year after year, that summer is when players get better. It's when guys refine their game, add new skills, refocus on their strengths and weaknesses. That's a pressing matter for both players, but the context surrounding each is very different.
For Khris Middleton, this off-season is likely to mark his graduation from one set of labels to the next. As his salary skyrockets, so will expectations. With a monster payday likely headed his way in restricted free agency, he'll no longer be one of those "young, cheap, high-value role players." He'll have new tags to live up to, like "go-to scorer" or "rising star." Middleton's 2014-2015 season was undoubtedly his best yet, but the degree to which he's approaching stardom might be a bit overstated. Yes, Middleton's consistent shooting and defense were invaluable to the Bucks, and he was a fixture in many of their top-rated lineups. But he still tallied a Player Efficiency Rating of just 15.6 (only slightly above average), and there are still a number of holes in his game.
His case raises a concern about paying young players with limited track records (as if the Bucks needed another lesson after the Larry Sanders situation). Every professional organization knows you're supposed to pay players for what they will do, not what they've already done. But recognizing that fact and implementing it are two different animals. Can we expect Middleton to improve on where he is right now, and how much is that improvement worth? At the same time, can the Bucks afford to lose him for nothing, given how critical he was to the team's success this year? It's Khris's job to prove he's earned a new contract and it's ultimately his responsibility to live up to it. But the machinations of the folks who will be sitting across the table from him will play a massive role in shaping the rest of his career.
For Michael Carter-Williams, the path forward is clearer. There are no contract negotiations to worry about, and expectations are...maybe not lower, but certainly more tempered. Perhaps it's easiest to say we just don't really know what to expect from MCW when he (presumably) takes the floor for the Bucks next fall.
We know what we'd like to see. If summer is when young NBA players improve, Carter-Williams has a busy couple of months ahead of him. His 25 games with Milwaukee were curious. He was still woefully inefficient as a scorer, but his game changed in positive ways, and his on/off-court metrics were very favorable: the Bucks outscored their opponents by over 6 points per 100 possessions with MCW on the court according to Basketball-Reference.com, and their post-trade starting lineup was nearly 10 points per 100 better than opponents.
Still, the Bucks' offense rarely looked good late in the season, and even then it often seemed in spite of MCW's play rather than due to it. Improving as a shooter is priority number one, two, and three. Nobody transforms as a player over the course of one off-season, but if six months from now we don't see any noticeable improvement, the MCW experiment could be wrapped up sooner than later. It's not to say MCW will be splashing threes at a 40% clip by November, but getting into the low 30% range would be a major step forward for a player who mostly avoided shooting threes after arriving in Milwaukee. It's also not completely out of the realm of possibility; shoulder surgery robbed MCW of working on his shot last summer, so a healthy offseason will hopefully allow him to improve on his poor 25% career accuracy from deep.
There's still a question of whether the Bucks will even wait around to see if Carter-Williams can clean up his game, but there's no real reason to be impatient at this point. He still has two years left on his rookie contract and restricted free agency after that, so there's no immediate cap concern as Milwaukee fills out the roster behind the young core. Questions of fit are perhaps the bigger issue, since the Bucks aren't exactly stocked with shooter at the other positions, making a non-shooting point guard particularly problematic.
After seeing the brutal end to the Bucks' feisty series against the Bulls, it's clear this team still has plenty of work to do. Taking a step back next season would be disappointing, but it wouldn't necessarily portend certain doom. Milwaukee will have to devote plenty of time to re-integrating Jabari Parker into the lineup and evaluating his recovery, a critical factor in their future plans. It wouldn't be a surprise to see this season's upward trajectory taper off as the pull of .500 starts tugging the opposite direction.
Last summer was a dramatic one for the Milwaukee Bucks as an organization. It brought with it tremendous change and started the team on a path to a (hopefully) brighter future. Now it's up to players like Middleton and Carter-Williams to ensure the positive trend continues.