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Bucks, Carter-Williams aim to quickly turn things around

If Milwaukee is to ascend like last season, its point guard needs to figure out how he should play within the system

POSTED: Nov 24, 2015 12:08 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Michael Carter-Williams is still making adjustments to running the offense for coach Jason Kidd.

Just because the Milwaukee Bucks hit the snooze button on their point-guard-of-the-future decision doesn't mean the clock hasn't been ticking.

When the Bucks traded Brandon Knight to Phoenix last February, in the midst of their surprisingly resurgent season with Knight playing at a near-All-Star level, it mostly was about the money. They didn't want to face the prospect of losing their point guard in free agency or signing him to a pricey new contract when they already had made the decision to retain Knight's backcourt mate, Khris Middleton, at a similarly hefty cost.

Bucks coach Jason Kidd even said as much last week when reminded about Knight's solid play for the Suns. "It wasn't Klay Thompson or Steph Curry," Kidd said on Milwaukee's stop in Washington. "We weren't going to max out our backcourt. As an organization, we had a decision to make and we made it."

He's trying to figure out how his coaches want him to play. How he should play.

– Bucks' GM John Hammond on Michael Carter-Williams

That's hardly a ringing endorsement of the guy Milwaukee got in the three-team deal to take Knight's place. Michael Carter-Williams had been the NBA's 2014 Rookie of the Year but it was his contract -- as a third-year player now with salaries of $2.4 million this season and $3.2 million next -- that appealed most to the Bucks. They'll pay their point guard about $19.4 million less in that time than Phoenix will pay Knight.

Through the first month of this season, alas, Milwaukee has been getting what it's paid for. Carter-Williams' production through his team's first 13 games (five of which he missed with a strained left ankle) was at or flirting with career lows in per-36 stats: 14.7 points, 6.4 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 12.2 field-goal attempts. Same with his advanced numbers: 92 ORtg, 112 DRtg, 23.7 percent turnover rate, 27.9 assist rate, 23.6 usage and 12.4 PER. His on/off rating was above water (plus 1.1) only because the Bucks were bad when he played (minus-8.4) but worse (minus-9.5) when he didn't.

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Several NBA scouts, skeptical of Carter-Williams from his start on that someone-has-to-shine-on-a-bad-team 76ers' squad, were seeing in October and November what the stats supported: "We know he's not a great shooter," said one East advance man, "but I haven't liked his body language at times."

Said another: "Once he figures out how to use his length, I think he can be a good defender. But you've got to be a smart defender if you aren't the quickest or strongest, and C.J. Miles was going right at him [in Indiana]. I know he was injured and he's still trying to get his legs up under him, but that's a question too. How healthy can he stay?"

But then Carter-Williams comes out Tuesday after three brutal road losses -- by 29 points at Washington, 15 at Cleveland and 37 at Indiana -- and pushes the ball, the pace and the Bucks to a blowout in their favor, 109-88 over Detroit at Bradley Center. He scored 12 points on 6-for-10 shooting, dished eight assists and attacked the rim as if he'd gotten a bellyful of criticisms in the 24 hours before tipoff.

"I want to continue to push the ball up the floor," the point guard said afterward. "We've got guys that can run. I like playing like that. I think that's where I am best. I don't know why I ever got away from it.

"I'm looking for open teammates. If they're running the lanes, kick it ahead to them. If they're not open, I'm looking to attack and get in the paint, create help. And if I have nothing, I can always pull it out and run a play."

Sounds so simple, doesn't it? Yet to do it night in, night out, against an ever-changing list of opponents, while trying to decipher on the fly which teammates have it going for them in a given game and which do not, is a whole 'nother level of competence for Carter-Williams. And, frankly, for the Bucks, who overachieved and probably spoiled a lot of us last season.

This is a team, remember, that is only 19 months removed from the 15-67 bunch that finally got permission from management to take a plunge to the bottom of the standings in search of lottery help. Trying to hover near .500 to keep Milwaukeeans interested under previous owner Herb Kohl, the Bucks were stuck, neither good enough to seriously contend nor bad enough to out-Sixers the Sixers and other tank-minded teams.

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So the Bucks cratered, grabbed Jabari Parker with the No. 2 pick in the 2014 Draft, then lost the promising forward's service seven weeks into the season. They dealt with and bought out their mixed-up defensive anchor, Larry Sanders. They traded and replaced their point guard, all the while adapting to Kidd and a new coaching staff.

And they nearly tripled their victory total from 15 to 41, reaching the No. 6 seed in the East and putting a first-round scare into Chicago.

Too much, too soon? No one ever should apologize for success in this league but, probably, yes. Had the Bucks won 30 games last season, with an eye on .500 now, nobody would be thinking twice about 6-8. But with 41-41 as the new reference point, it's for cryin' out loud, what's wrong with this playoff team?!

"Our ultimate goal is to build this to the position where we're highly competitive year in and year out," general manager John Hammond said Monday. "It's not about trying to do this in a month. I don't' know many teams that have taken shortcuts to get there."

The Bucks dipped down to snag an elite draft pick once before bungee-cording back to the middle again. Ask folks in Philadelphia if that's how these rebuilds are supposed to work. Golden State landed the NBA's current marvel, Curry, in 2009, then won 26 games, 36 and 23 (the lockout-equivalent of 29) with him. The Thunder drafted Kevin Durant in 2007 (while still in Seattle), grabbed Russell Westbrook a year later and won 20 and 23 times before rocketing to 50 in 2009-10.

A lot of NBA insiders expected Milwaukee to take a step back this season before gathering itself and taking another stride forward. Well, this is what it looks like, especially with a point guard still learning the system after one training camp, still learning his teammates (hello, Greg Monroe and Parker, neither of whom played with Carter-Williams last season), still not ready to give the locker-room leadership previously provided by Jared Dudley and Zaza Pachulia, still learning his own capabilities.

It's not as if the roster is dripping with perimeter shooters to open up proper lanes through which Carter-Williams can slice. Milwaukee's two best players, long-term, are still 20 (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Parker) and its point guard turned 24 last month.

"We still love that he's 6-6," Hammond said. "We still think he can be a high-quality defender and rebounder. He's trying to figure out how his coaches want him to play. How he should play."

That's a little more complicated than someone just saying "better," which is mostly what Carter-Williams has heard.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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