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Michael Carter-Williams Struggling With Increased Role

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Michael Carter-Williams is third in the NBA in usage rate since returning from his shoulder surgery, filling a role for the Sixers that may not fit his offensive skill set.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In the Sixers 122-96 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Friday night, Michael Carter-Williams led the Sixers in scoring with 18 points in 27 minutes on the night.

Carter-Williams has led the team in scoring in 3 of the 5 games since he's returned, averaging 15.4 points per game in the process.

He's also doing it while shooting 35.5% from the field, with a dismally low 43.4% true shooting percentage, and a usage rate of 32.9%. That usage rate is the 3rd highest in the league (among players with at least 100 minutes played), behind only Kobe Bryant (37.8%) and DeMarcus Cousins (33.3%). In the Phoenix game, he had a usage rate of 44.3%

It's not only that Michael Carter-Williams is struggling with his offense, but the team is struggling while he's been out on the court. The team has an offensive rating of 83.1 in the 147 minutes Michael Carter-Williams has played, 95.4 during the 430 minutes he has been on the bench. On the season, the Sixers 90.8 offensive rating is the worst in the league, almost 9 points per 100 possessions worse than the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have the second worst at 99.2. If it holds up, it would be the worst offensive rating in the modern era. An offensive rating of 81.7 is almost unimaginably bad.

This is part of the problem some may have with the plan, and something that I was concerned with before the season. The overall dearth of talent on the Sixers almost necessitates that Michael Carter-Williams play a role that he's not capable of.

The second quarter last night was a perfect example. His shots included a contested three pointer with 10 seconds left on the shot clock, a contested fade-away with 10 seconds left on the clock, a pull-up 3 with 17 seconds left, a transition 3 with 18 seconds left, and a runner in the lane where he controlled the ball the entire possession. These are not the types of possessions that Michael Carter-Williams, or the Sixers, can be successful with.

"Most definitely move the ball around," Brett Brown said after the game when asked whether he preferred the types of shots Michael Carter-Williams was taking. "And we talked about it at half time. His heart's in the right place."

"He's pressing. He's trying to get us back on track," Brown continued.

It's that pressing that's leading to Carter-Williams to play a style of basketball that he's not suited for.

For as much as we talk about Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten not being a fit, and certainly, their lack of perimeter shooting makes a very strong case for that to be so, Wroten's ability to create his own offense might be helping take some of the load off of Carter-Williams.

When Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten are both on the court, Carter-Williams has a true shooting percentage of 52.3%. Carter-Williams' true shooting percentage falls to 35.3% when Wroten is on the bench. With Wroten on the court, 35.7% of Michael Carter-Williams' made field goals are assisted, but that's true of only 15.4% of Carter-Williams' made field goals when Wroten is on the bench. The team has an 88.1 offensive rating when both are on the court, but only a 75.6 offensive rating when only Michael Carter-Williams is playing.

(Author's note: The offensive rating in the above paragraph is from nba.com, which uses a slightly different formula than Basketball-reference.com, which was referenced earlier in the article).

Stat W/Wroten w/out Wroten
TS% (MCW) 52.3% 35.3%
% FGM Ast (MCW) 35.7% 15.4%
Team FTA Rate 45.7% 31.7%
Team Off Rtg 88.1 75.6
Team TO% 17.3% 22.7%

Certainly, part of Michael Carter-Williams' struggles thus far have been due to his recent return to the lineup, due to the time he missed due to his shoulder injury, and not something I expect to continue over the course of the entire season. His 43.4% true shooting percentage should increase as he returns to form.

But I also think there's no doubt that the style of offense Michael Carter-Williams is currently trying to play is not how the Sixers hope he plays in the future.

Does playing this style of basketball now instill bad habits that will be hard for Michael Carter-Williams to break in the future? I don't know. I think we all, on both sides of the argument, speak with too much certainty on matters like this, particularly when dealing with psychological aspects that many of us are not particularly qualified to speak to.

But beyond the legitimacy of whether playing with such few offensive options might give Michael Carter-Williams bad habits, I find it increasingly difficult to evaluate the progress he is making and his ultimate upside. Sure, you can evaluate specific skills, and it will be relatively easy at the end of the year to quantify whether he has improved shooting off the dribble or finishing at the hoop, even if those might be clouded somewhat due to limited room to shoot or a packed lane due to poor floor spacing.

But it's the shot selection and decision making that will be increasingly difficult to quantify, two attributes so crucial for a point guards overall success. If Michael Carter-Williams continues to shoot less efficient from the field than he did last year, if he turns the ball over more, and if his assist rate drops, how much can you explain away due to his teammates? How much can you expect him to play within himself when the offense is operating at a historically inept rate? More importantly, what degree of confidence can you have that he will drastically improve these shortfalls when he gets competent teammates around him?

I think it's far more important to get answers to these questions than it is to figure out whether JaKarr Sampson, Robert Covington, or Brandon Davies have futures in the NBA. For a team so focused on player development, it seems a curious oversight. I think there's some valid questioning of Sam Hinkie, not so much of the plan that he took but in the execution of it, even if I think most people focus too much on the toxic culture, whereas I think it's more about skill sets, role, and evaluation.

I don't think it's out of line to suggest that I would rather see Michael Carter-Williams play a role that better fits his skill sets and resembles the one he would be asked to play in the future, but it's increasingly looking like we may not have that luxury this season.