There is very little question that recent Hornets’ signee Michael Carter-Williams was, well, terrible last year. Out of everybody who played 500 minutes last year, his .437 TS% ranks 6th from the bottom, ahead of only Semaj Christon, Justise Winslow, Kris Dunn, Chandler Parsons, and Stanley Johnson. He got benched in the playoffs for Isaiah Canaan and Jerian Grant, neither of whom was actually good enough to see the floor. So why, then, is there so much hope around him in Charlotte? Two big reasons.
First, the Bulls never had the foggiest clue what the heck they were doing with MCW from minute 1:
MCW was traded for on October 17, 2016. That’s not just post-training camp, that’s most of the way through the pre-season. They never got a chance to actually plan schemes around him, never mind actually teach him those schemes or put him in decent lineups.
That’s what lead to the opening game. He came in for the first time with 4:43 remaining in the 1st half, into a lineup that also included Rondo, Butler, Gibson, and Mirotic. Eventually Mirotic would sub off for Wade, giving the worst spaced lineup in the entire NBA. Ultimately, it seems the Bulls basically just threw MCW into the lineups that were previously designed for Snell, with predictable results since they aren’t remotely comparable players. The most common offensive involvement for MCW in these lineups looked like this:
Note MCW in the left corner, who is basically already running back to play defense before a shot is even up. This is because as it turns out, dropping MCW in a corner and asking him to spot up is a terrible idea.
And this was a running theme of his time in Chicago – not just being out of place as a spot-up shooter, but not being put in a position to actually maximize his talents. For example, he played a little over 10% of his minutes with Rajon Rondo, a catastrophe that should’ve been really obvious to Coach Hoiberg before he ever put it out there. In those minutes, MCW had a 33.3% TS. Rondo had a 23.3% TS. Those lineups just never made sense, and yet they make up a quite significant chunk of MCW’s minutes for the year.
Second, the things he can do are things that Charlotte will actually ask him to do:
To say nothing of his defense, which was excellent already (5th among point guards by DRPM, sandwiched between Kyle Lowry and George Hill, and he demonstrated the defensive range to cover guys ranging from Isaiah Thomas to Paul George well) and should be his primary focus, his life is going to get infinitely easier on offense. Charlotte will certainly give him a much healthier dose of ball-screens that were missing in Chicago; MCW only finished 27.7% of possessions as a pick and roll ball handler, a number more comparable to secondary playmakers like Patrick Beverley, Dion Waiters, and Charlotte’s own Nicolas Batum. When he did finish in that way, the results were middling to slightly below average, but that’s somewhat to be expected when you realize that that only represents his scoring rate and not the rate for the whole offense created by his passing. MCW demonstrated the ability to run both the pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll, despite substandard partners on the other end in what was frequently Nikola Mirotic or Robin Lopez, both of whom finished as below league average roll men for the season
On this play, for example, Carter-Williams forces Lavoy Allen to sit off and switch, opening up the wide open 3 for Nikola Mirotic, which he sinks.
While Mirotic is a marginally better shooter than Frank, the difference is small (1.4% from 3) enough that it’s reasonable to expect Frank to be better by next year. Further, Frank is better than Mirotic at punishing his man off the dribble (Better FG% on drives despite twice the volume), which is better for MCW’s type of game because when people cheat off him a little as a non-shooter, they have an opportunity to hard-close, which you punish by pump-faking and driving past it.
Similarly, imagine if Cody Zeller is on the other end of this screen and roll —
— rather than Cristiano Felicio, who attacks the double team and predictably has his shot blocked. This is a play that, on the back of the combination of Cody’s passing ability and the ability of our shooters to relocate along the perimeter for better shots, goes from being a busted play for the Bulls to an open 3 for the Hornets. Not to mention swapping Portis for Frank probably means the double team doesn’t even happen in the first place, as Portis heavily collapsed the floor on that pick-and-roll in the first place.
He also became a fairly good cutter later in the season once he was more comfortable within the flow of the offense. Here he catches the defense sleeping and gets under the rim off a weak-side cut that the Hornets are extremely familiar with from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
As a result, it’s clear that the Hornets are in a better position than the Bulls to take advantage of MCW’s offensive strengths and abilities.
Now, that isn’t to say MCW’s flaws won’t hurt him some; He’s not a good finisher at or around the rim, which compounds his already bad shooting. He frequently misses routine finishes, like this one and the one in the previous clip off a good cut.
Further, he doesn’t really have much of a floater game, which would open up more space around the rim for him to finish in. He has this weird sort of half jumper form, half push shot on floaters that goes in as often as you would expect given the orthodoxy (or lack thereof) on the form.
As a result, Carter-Williams finished a relatively poor 49.5% from 0-5 feet of the rim, a number that ranks just outside the 10 worst for players that took 2 attempts per game in that range. Given that the other guys are either also bad offensively (Mudiay, Smart, Winslow), or have shown some kind of shooting range (Teague, Waiters, Stauskas), that isn’t good. However, in large part that’s because playing in Chicago destroyed his numbers, which is why over-judging based on this past season is a bad idea. During the ’15-’16 season, in a situation that still definitely wasn’t as good as Charlotte, MCW averaged 55.5% at the rim, a number right in line with Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker, Charlotte’s point guards for that year, on comparable volume.
In short, MCW isn’t a splashy offensive signing, but he is absolutely good enough on offense to justify keeping him on the court for his defense. He should be more than enough to bolster a Charlotte bench that’s still somewhat reeling from the Ramon Sessions mistake.