It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Philadelphia 76ers, consigned to laughingstock status in the preseason, weren't even supposed to win three games per month, let alone their first three games of the season. Michael Carter-Williams wasn't supposed to be this good. At least not yet.
It was supposed to be a process. To hell with your stinkin' process.
The Sixers indeed moved to 3-0 on Saturday night, outscoring the Chicago Bulls by 18 points in the second half to score a 107-104 triumph at the Wells Fargo Center. Yes, those Chicago Bulls. The ones with four former All-Stars and a player who many see as a possible future February honoree in the starting lineup.
On the other end of Hawes' shot—a 16-footer from the top of the key that gave Philly a three-point lead with 5.9 seconds remaining—was Carter-Williams, who again served as the patron saint of the Shattered Expectations Club. Holding the ball to siphon as much time off the clock as possible, Carter-Williams took Hawes' pick to the left side of the floor, reversed when Rose stayed with him and whirred a behind-the-back strike to Hawes beyond the three-point line when Noah over-committed.
One pump, Noah bites. One dribble, the shot goes in. It was the most beautiful of Carter-Williams' 10 assists. Along with helping teammates, he helped himself to 26 points, 20 of which came after the halftime break.
It was telling that, on a team that holds a couple credible veterans in its coffers, Carter-Williams was the man responsible for creating the game's most critical opportunity. And what it says is that, three games into his career, Carter-Williams has already established himself as a leader.
"Coach gives me a lot of confidence out there," Carter-Williams said, per the Associated Press. "I'm able to play freely and I just try to make things happen within the team. I try to do my job out there and get all my teammates involved. They did a great job. And when they do a great job, it makes me look good."
This was the second time Carter-Williams sat at the head of the table for a surprising Sixers victory. The first came against the defending champion Miami Heat on Philly's opening night. Carter-Williams had 22 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds and an NBA debut record nine steals in that game, coming dangerously close to a quadruple-double.
In the moment, writing the Sixers and Carter-Williams off was easy. Miami was on the second night of a back-to-back. Dwyane Wade wasn't playing. The Sixers retired Allen Iverson's number at halftime. The stakes and emotions were high for Philadelphia and nonexistent for Miami.
That win was merely a freak accident, something we'd all look back and cackle about six months from now when Miami is the top seed in the East and Philly is struggling to hit double-digit wins, right?
Now I'm not so sure.
"I would blame tonight on me," Rose said after the game. "Turnovers, missed shots, miscommunication—I just couldn't get in my groove."
For that, Rose can at least partially thank Carter-Williams. The 2011 league MVP, wearing tape on his neck and still in the recovery process from his ACL injury, scored just 13 points in his 32 minutes of action. He made only four of his 14 shots and turned the ball over eight times, with Carter-Williams nipping at his hip pocket the entire game.
It's rare seeing a player who can match quickness and athleticism with Rose. OK, it's like seeing Yeti and a unicorn in the same day. But there Carter-Williams was, pressuring Rose on pick-and-rolls, forcing wildly errant passes and flustering him with his length.
Just look at Carter-Williams' hands here, as Rose comes barreling in on one of his patented open-court rushes:
Rose got the better of MCW a couple times. He nearly juked him out of his shoes with a fourth-quarter crossover that elicited some Rucker Park-worthy "ohhhhs" from the crowd. For the most part, though, it was Rose looking like he was still getting his sea legs and Carter-Williams being the athletic freak taking the NBA by storm.
The defense is a plausible outcome. Though he played in Jim Boeheim's zone scheme in college—one that frustrates NBA scouts because of its inability to translate to the pros—Carter-Williams rivaled Victor Oladipo as the best on-ball defender in this year's draft. At 6'6" he has the length to plausibly guard three positions depending on the lineup, and his lateral quickness is superb.
The passing? Also somewhat expected. His size makes for an excellent weapon in the open court, and Carter-Williams is very good at scanning the defense and drawing extra help when he drives. These are the things he did at Syracuse, just in a freer environment.
The scoring? Yeah, I have no idea. The story coming out of Orlando Summer League was how abysmal he looked trying to score the ball. Carter-Williams shot 27.1 percent in Orlando. When he joined the Sixers for the preseason, he did improve—all the way to a robust 32.9 percent. He shot 39.3 percent last year in college, where his elite skills should have made scoring easier.
In 66 collegiate games, Carter-Williams scored 20 points once. He's done it twice in three NBA games.
The reality of the situation is, well, that the Sixers and Carter-Williams will come back to reality. Three-game samples early in the season are beautiful because they can bring stories like this to the forefront. But they're also that. Three games of an 82-game sample.
Carter-Williams has far more games that will look like his second (14 points, five assists, 6-of-15 shooting) than his first and third. The Sixers will have plenty of games where they look like they have six NBA players, rather than the perfect mix of miscreants bound for a playoff berth.
But that's not happening right now.
Right now, we're still part of the season where advanced metrics are just as unreliable as counting stats. Right now, the Heat and Bulls are a combined 2-4 and the Sixers are 3-0. Right now, if aliens descended on earth and demanded the NBA season cease, Michael Carter-Williams would walk away with MVP honors.
This isn't the way it was supposed to be. But it's the way it is. For now.
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