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Michael Carter-Williams Finding His Role In The Sixers Offense

Over the last 5 games, despite the absence of leading scorer Tony Wroten, Michael Carter-Williams has shouldered less of the Sixers offensive burden, and it's led to some great results.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, the Sixers, who have by far the worst offense in the league with a 93.5 offensive rating, squared off against the Minnesota Timberwolves, owners of the worst defense in the league at a 111.9 rating.

Stoppable force meet movable object.

In the first half of the game, the Sixers offense clearly won the matchup, scoring 61 first half points on 62.2% shooting from the field. The 62.2% shooting from the field was the highest the Sixers have managed over the course of a half this season.

Perhaps most impressively, the Sixers had 19 assists on 23 made field goals in the first half. There have been games, 21 of them in fact, this season where the Sixers didn't have more than 19 assists in a game.

The offense was bound to hit a slump after that first half, as they're simply not talented enough to maintain that level of efficiency, even against the Timberwolves porous defense. And they did, as they shot only 27% in the third quarter. Luckily, their defense was up to the task and held Minnesota to only 29% shooting as well, keeping the Sixers in the game and setting up the decisive 4th quarter.

Even with that third quarter slump, the ball movement has been noticeably better of late. Michael Carter-Williams play, specifically, has done a full 180 degree shift.

"I see it in all of our players. There is a poise that slowly is creeping into their game," Brett Brown said after the Sixers 103-94 win over the Wolves. "I see that mostly in Michael, where he understands that other people are going to need the ball, and where he understands when he's going to have to get his.

"I think he's recognizing pick and roll coverages, and understanding where the rotations are coming from," Brown continued. "I just feel like he's playing so much more at peace within himself, and I think the group is doing the same, and collectively it produces some decent performances."

On the season, Michael Carter-Williams has averaged 101.7 touches per game, the most in the league. He has passed the ball, on averaged, 74.7 times per game, or 73.5% of the time he touches the ball.

Of the top 10 point guards in terms of touches per game, only 3 pass the ball less frequently than Michael Carter-Williams: Damian Lillard (71.5%), Kyrie Irving (71.1%), and Russell Westbrook (61.8%). Obviously, Michael Carter-Williams isn't near the scorer of those 3.

The construction of the team obviously plays a large role in that. Michael Carter-Williams wouldn't naturally have the second highest usage rate of that group, but with so few options on the Sixers he has frequently tried to shoulder a higher portion of the load than he normally would.

Still, it doesn't make it right, either for his long term development or for the team's short term success. The numbers, neither for the team or for his individual teammates, are better when Michael Carter-Williams has been on the court.

2014-15 Season Mins Off Rtg TS% % FGM Ast
MCW On Court 1301 89.4 48.1% 60.6%
MCW Off Court 965 94.1 50.5% 60.8%

And a look at the stats of some of the players Michael Carter-Williams most frequently shares the court with:

Season Minutes Off Rtg TS%
Player w/MCW w/out w/MCW w/out w/MCW w/out
Nerlens Noel 911 384 87.4 95 46.6% 42.5%
K.J. McDaniels 615 583 93.1 108 48.2% 52.6%
Luc Mbah a Moute 772 361 88.2 92.9 45.7% 54.1%
Robert Covington 773 256 93.9 100.6 55.8% 54.3%
Henry Sims 550 452 87.8 92 47.4% 53.8%

Nerlens Noel is the only one who has been appreciably more efficient (individually) with Michael Carter-Williams on the court. Robert Covington has also been (marginally) more efficient. The rest have been pretty clearly more efficient with Michael Carter-Williams off the court than when he's been on, and the team has universally been more efficient without their point guard.

Over the past 5 games, that has changed considerably, and it has led to success. MCW was a rebound away from notching back-to-back triple doubles, and has averaged 13.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game over the Sixers last 5 games, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5%.


First, Michael Carter-Williams is passing more. His usage rate over the last 5 games is down to 24.2%, a pretty significant drop from the 27.7% he has on the season. His touches per game are down pretty significantly as well, from 101.7 per game on the season to 93.5 per game over the last 5, and he's now passing on 77.8% of those touches, compared to 73.5% on the season.

When Usage Touches % Passes
Season 27.7% 101.7 73.5%
Last 5 Games 24.2% 93.5 77.8%

This is particularly impressive considering the Sixers have been playing without Tony Wroten, their leading scorer. The urge for Michael Carter-Williams to try to shoulder too much of the scoring load has largely been avoided of late.

"I think I've relaxed a little bit," Michael Carter-Williams said after the win last night. "When we start getting into a little bit of trouble, or the other team starts going on a little bit of a run, I'm keeping my composure a little bit more.

"I'm not trying to do it all myself, and I'm trying to let things happen rather than trying to force it a little bit."

His shots have also been better. Part of that has been limiting his shots early in the shot clock. On the season, 33% of Michael Carter-Williams field goal attempts have come with 15 or more seconds left on the shot block. Over the last 5 games, such shots have only accounted for 27% of his field goal attempts.

Another part of MCW taking better shots has been his shot selection. He's attempted only 2.5 field goal attempts per game between 8' and the three point line over the past 5 games, with 53.5% of his attempts coming within 8 feet of the basket, where he's shot 56.5% during that time. On the season, MCW has attempted 4.7 field goal attempts per game between 8' and the three point line.

More importantly than his individual success, the team has performed significantly better.

Last 5 Games
Mins Off Rtg TS% % FGM Ast
MCW On Court 132 100.5 53.6% 69.8%
MCW Off Court 108 84.4 44.9% 60.3%

(Reminder: the team has an 89.4 offensive rating on the season when Michael Carter-Williams has been on the court ).

The difference has been quite staggering, especially when looking at Nerlens Noel and Robert Covington. Over the last 5 games, Nerlens Noel has a true shooting percentage of 18.2% in the 44 minutes he played without Michael Carter-Williams. Robert Covington has had a true shooting percentage of only 30.2% in the 39 minutes he played without MCW over that same span. Those players have true shooting percentages of 56.9% and 57.9%, respectively, when they have played with MCW in the last 5 games.

"I think [there were] some real discussions within the past few days, and I give them credit for responding," Brown told the media about the improved ball movement when asked earlier in the week.

Whatever the reasoning, whether it was a result of the talks Brown had with Michael Carter-Williams, the public comments from Nerlens Noel, or Michael Carter-Williams simply figuring out how to lead the team better, the results have been a very positive step in the right direction.

Nerlens Noel's incredible game

Nerlens Noel finished the night with 14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 steals, and 6 blocks, despite a very tough matchup in trying to keep Nikola Pekovic, who Brett Brown jokingly guessed outweighed Noel by about 325 pounds, from dominating down low.

And Pekovic did have some success, scoring 18 points on 9 shots, with all 18 points coming when Nerlens Noel was in the game. Most of his scoring chances came when the Wolves were able to successfully get the ball over the fronting Noel or off of offensive rebounds.

When Noel was able to remain around the hoop to defend? The Wolves shot 3-for-12 on the night when challenging Noel. On the season, Noel is holding opponents to 45.9% at the rim when he's been in the vicinity. Of players who have defended at least 6 shots per game at the rim, that ranks 7th in the NBA, behind Rudy Gobert (37.1%), Serge Ibaka (40.1%), Roy Hibbert (41.8%), Andrew Bogut (42%), Dwight Howard (45.1%), and Larry Sanders (45.8%).

Noel also became the first Sixers player in the 20 years of data that Basketball-Reference has to record 4+ steals and 6+ blocks in a game (when they were wearing a Sixers uniform). There is one current Sixers who has accomplished the feat: Andrei Kirilenko did it 3 times when he was with the Utah Jazz. Hakeem Olajuwon did it 24 times.

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