Just four years after winning the NBA's Rookie of the Year award, the oft-injured Michael Carter-Williams has found himself as a backup in Charlotte. Can he turn his career around, or will his poor shooting doom him to continue his slide into obscurity?
It’s been an up-and-down career for Michael Carter-Williams.
After a breakout sophomore season at Syracuse, MCW went to the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA draft. He immediately exceeded expectations during a Rookie of the Year campaign in which he averaged over 16 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. It wasn’t too long ago that he seemed like the point guard of the future for Philadelphia, a long-armed triple-double machine that could lock down opponents and disrupt offenses. Of course, that’s not quite how it worked out.
Midway through his second season, he became one of the first victims of Philly’s “process” when he was traded to Milwaukee. Carter-Williams spent a season and a half with the Bucks before being traded again last summer, this time to Chicago. MCW played much less on a dysfunctional Bulls team, as a backup to both Rajon Rondo and occasionally Jerian Grant.
And that’s how the former Rookie of the Year ended up with a one-year, $2.7 million deal to play backup in Charlotte, his fourth team in five years. That’s nearly unprecedented – since the NBA/ABA merger, only one other ROTY award winner has bounced around that much in his first five seasons. Adrian Dantley found himself traded by the Buffalo Braves, Indiana Pacers, and Los Angeles Lakers in his first three seasons before finally settling in with the Utah Jazz.
That’s good company to be in – despite being traded four times in his career and never winning a title, Dantley is a Hall of Famer and one of the league’s all-time best scorers. Over the course of his career, he averaged 24.3 points per game on .540 shooting from the field, both of which remain among the best marks in NBA history.
And that’s the problem for Michael Carter-Williams. When you’re an elite scorer, you find a place in the league, regardless of what jersey you wear. Carter-Williams isn’t an elite scorer, and he’s on a measly one-year deal to be a backup on a mediocre team.
It’s not entirely accurate to say Carter-Williams isn’t an elite scorer; in fact, it’s generous: the 25-year-old is one of the league’s worst offensive players. In a league that is increasingly three-happy, MCW has yet to hit more than .273 from deep. It’s not just long-range shots, either: there was no distance from the basket that MCW shot well from. Compared to the average of every guard in the league, his numbers are shockingly low:
That’s all in a relatively small sample size from last year, but it’s not inconsistent with the rest of his career.
Besides his ugly shooting, there are other reasons for concern about Carter-Williams. He’s never played a full season thanks to an increasingly long list of injuries. After an offseason knee procedure, it’s unclear when he’ll actually be able to see the floor for the Hornets.
Despite all the negatives, though, there’s a reason MCW is still in the league. Specifically, his defense and passing are good enough that he has a role to play.
He dished over six assists per 36 minutes in each of his first three seasons, but that number fell to 4.8 in Chicago. His numbers as a Bull were likely deflated in part due to a team that isn’t exactly conducive to piling up assists: they weren’t exactly loaded with shooters, and the primary scorers in Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade are usually creating their own shots rather than relying on setups from teammates. Carter-Williams isn’t exactly John Stockton, but he doesn’t need to be – if he can keep the ball moving and make smart plays, he can still help a Hornets offense that too often can’t score effectively.
His major impact, however, comes on the other end of the floor. His steals per game numbers are gaudy, but that’s not always the most reliable measure of effective defense. What’s more reliable is a comparison of his team’s defensive ratings when he’s on and off the court. With the exception of his rookie year, his teams have been better defensively while he’s playing than during his time on the bench. It’s not always a drastic difference, but the trend is there: Michael Carter-Williams makes his teams better defensively.
Still, even a good defender and passer that can’t shoot at all isn’t exactly the most valuable player, especially on a team that already employs Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. MKG is a similar archetype in that he’s great defensively but can’t shoot, but there are some important differences: first and foremost, Kidd-Gilchrist is a great defender, not just a good one. He’s also better offensively, with a legitimately dangerous cutting game and a knack to score on the fast break. MCW isn’t on the same level on either end of the floor. Playing the two Michaels together might be a solid defensive option, but it would be near impossible to find the space to score.
The good news is that Carter-Williams won’t be relied upon as a major player. As a backup to All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, MCW will only be playing small stretches. Especially as he and fellow backup Julyan Stone recover, it’s possible we see non-traditional point guards like Nicolas Batum or even Malik Monk get some time in that spot.
Charlotte has a history of turning down-on-their-luck players around and making them valuable contributors: Jeremy Lin, Marco Belinelli, Marvin Williams, and even Batum were all coming off less-than-stellar seasons before re-emerging as valuable players in Buzz City. For every Lin, though, there’s also a Spencer Hawes or a Roy Hibbert: a reclamation project gone wrong. It’s possible Carter-Williams joins that first group and becomes a valuable contributor, but Hornets fans shouldn’t hold their breath. Charlotte likely won’t be the last stop of Michael Carter-Williams’ wild ride, but we seem to be approaching the end of the line.