With the 2013-14 NBA season rapidly winding down, there is not much drama left for the Philadelphia 76ers. The team has already been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and was realistically eliminated many months before that.
In truth, there are only three questions left to answer in Philly's season:
- Will the Sixers lay claim to the longest losing streak in NBA history? They are at 25 consecutive losses, one behind the record set by the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers. They could break that record on Sat., March 29, against the Detroit Pistons.
- Will they finish with the league's worst record? Philly is two games ahead of (behind?) the Milwaukee Bucks with 11 games left to play. Milwaukee has lost eight consecutive games itself.
- Will point guard Michael Carter-Williams win Rookie of the Year?
Of the three, the Carter-Williams question is the only one that involves actual positive achievement. The rookie point guard has been the lone bright spot of the season, especially given the fact that Philly's other highly touted rookie, Nerlens Noel, has yet to play a single game.
While the Sixers continue to tank in order to get the highest possible pick in the 2014 NBA draft, the development of Carter-Williams is just as important to their future. After all, he is the one young player who has already proven himself against NBA competition. Philadelphia may have holes throughout its roster, but at least they should have the point guard position locked up for the next several years.
After all, Carter-Williams clearly seems to be the best rookie in this year's class, by the conventional stats. He ranks first among qualified rookies in points per game (16.7), rebounds per game (6.1) and assists per game (6.2).
How many rookies, other than Carter-Williams, have averaged at least 16 points, six rebounds and six assists in a season. Only two players...and you might have heard of them: Oscar Robertson in 1960-61 and Magic Johnson in 1979-80.
Unfortunately, the quality of his play has plummeted as the Sixers' losses have mounted. Carter-Williams is shooting just 37.5 percent from the field in March, his lowest monthly total of the season, while also committing more turnovers.
And it's hard to blame him for his shoddy play. Ever since general manager Sam Hinkie traded away veterans Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen at the February deadline, the Sixers haven't fielded a roster worthy of an NBA team. At the moment, they have only two legitimate threats in power forward Thaddeus Young and Carter-Williams.
What kind of effect is this having on the impressionable young point guard? How can he expect to learn how to play an efficient, team-oriented game when he no longer has a functional team to play with?
Grantland's Bill Simmons discussed the idea of hurting Carter-Williams' development in his article on the Sixers' historic tanking campaign, even going as far as comparing him to former Boston Celtic Antoine Walker:
In 1997, I watched M.L. Carr irrevocably alter Antoine Walker’s career with that same “Rookie of the Year on a Crap Team” carrot. As the Celtics threw away their last two months for [Tim] Duncan ping-pong balls, they had Antoine playing out of position at center, hogging the ball, chasing his own numbers and learning horrendous habits. At the time, I was living in Boston and hitting most of those games because my dad steadfastly refused to go. Trust me: Antoine was only 20 years old, and he NEVER recovered from those two months. He learned all the wrong things. All of them.
Well, the same thing is happening to Carter-Williams right now. He might be special, he might never get there … who knows?
As bad as it was for a forward like Walker to develop bad habits at an early age, it would be doubly harmful to a point guard like Carter-Williams. Will the stink of this season's team stay with Philly's prized rookie forever?
The Jump-Shot Problem
Despite putting up raw numbers that put him the same sentence as Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson, Michael Carter-Williams ranks near the bottom of the underwhelming 2013-14 rookie class in many advanced statistical categories, including true shooting percentage (TS percent), Basketball-Reference win shares (WS) and win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48).
Only the presence of Boston Celtics rookie Phil Pressey—an undrafted free agent—prevents Carter-Williams from finishing dead last among his rookie peers in these categories. And these are not future All-Stars we're talking about; these are players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Cody Zeller and Matthew Dellavedova.
How can this kid be compared to the likes a Magic in one breath and fall short of most of his fellow rookies in another? The majority of the answer lies in his shaky jump shot. Carter Williams has the eighth-worst true shooting percentage in the NBA, mostly due to hitting an unacceptably low 31.7 percent of his his jumpers.
As you can see from this NBA.com shot chart, Carter-Williams shoots below league average from most spots on the floor (indicated by the red color):
Not only has he been bad from beyond the arc, he has has also struggled at the rim. That is a true double whammy.
What Can the Sixers (and Carter-Williams) Do?
Clearly, there will be an infusion of talent coming to Philadelphia in the offseason. Not only will Noel finally take the floor next season, but the Sixers are all but guaranteed to get a top-five pick in the loaded 2014 draft. Also, the New Orleans Pelicans must give the Sixers their first-round pick if it falls outside of the top five.
That means the Sixers will likely have three incoming first-round picks joining Carter-Williams and Thad Young. That should certainly help the team compete at a level above this year's level.
But there is a dirty little secret in Philly: The front office probably doesn't want to compete next season, either. Per RealGM, the Sixers will owe the Boston Celtics their 2015 first-rounder if they make the playoffs next season. If they finish in the lottery, Philly will owe Boston two second-round picks.
Given the way first-rounders are valued these days, Sam Hinkie would probably take the pick over a playoff berth in Year 2 of his rebuilding plan.
In short, the Sixers will be better next season...but not that much better.
In the meantime, the onus falls on Carter-Williams to improve his jumper. Shooting a consistent jumper proved to be a problem even during his time at Syracuse University. During his final season of college, Syracuse assistant coach Gerry McNamara commented on the improvement in his shooting form, per Josh Verlin of City Of Basketball Love, via CBS Philly:
From a mechanical standpoint, [his jump shot is] pretty good. [Carter-Williams'] release point is a little bit low, but we worked on the height of his release point. Similar to a golf swing, you make changes. You make adjustments. Sometimes it takes a little while. As we move forward and progressed, I thought midway through the season, he started to get a little bit better at it. He started to trust it a little bit more.
But that same jump shot has regressed slightly through his first NBA season. No matter how toxic the losing environment in Philadelphia has become, it is important for Carter-Williams to continue to work hard on his shooting mechanics.
Will that hard work pay off? It's impossible to say. Some point guards with shaky jumpers—like John Wall of the Washington Wizards—improve over time. Others—like Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves—show little progress, no matter how hard they work.
One thing is certain, however: Unless Carter-Williams puts in the time to improve his jump shot, no collection of teammates will be able to help him realize his awesome potential.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.