For the last year, we have seen #OwnTheFuture plastered everywhere on anything and everything produced by the Milwaukee Bucks. Videos. Towels. Posters. And yesterday, it was plastered all over their trade of Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams, Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee.
In Knight, the Bucks had found something that they couldn’t control. By playing at such a high level this season, Knight had, in a way, hijacked the Bucks’ future. Despite owning his rights in restricted free agency, the Bucks had no control over how much competing teams may have bid for the 23-year-old point guard, and thus no control over the amount of money they would need to match to avoid letting Knight slip out of Milwaukee for nothing. For a team seemingly unsure of Knight’s ability to run a team, this was simply untenable, so the Bucks made a move and regained control.
With the move, the Bucks once again own their future, but what does that future look like now?
Although there were two other players involved, the only two players that seem to matter in the trade are Knight and Carter-Williams. The two point guards couldn’t be more different, which makes the change in point guard not only interesting, but significant in defining the Bucks’ identity.
Let’s start on the defensive side of the ball. Since the trade occurred, many have alluded to the insane wingspan the Bucks will be able to put on the floor with the addition of Carter-Williams. It certainly will be impressive, adding Carter-Williams’ 6-foot, 7 1/4-inch wingspan to the Bucks’ long-armed defense. But it’s only half an inch more than Brandon Knight, whose wingspan measured 6 feet, 6 3/4 inches.
So the Bucks won’t be adding much wingspan, but they add a very capable defender, as Carter-Williams has ranked among the best point guards in a majority of defensive metrics. Again, though, this will likely not make a huge difference, as the Bucks were already great defensively in Kidd and Sweeney’s system.
Although the trade shouldn’t make a significant change defensively, the differences in Knight and Carter-Williams could have a significant impact on the Bucks offense.
Much has been made of Carter-Williams passing ability, and rightfully so, as the second-year point guard has put up 7.4 assists per game this season, the NBA’s eighth-highest mark, on one of the worst of offensive teams in NBA history. Going a step further, Carter-Williams has created the sixth-most assist opportunities per game (16.5), a stat that records the number of times a player shoots after receiving a pass. This statistic may more accurately represent Carter-Williams’ passing ability, because his teammates have been so poor offensively this season.
Part of the difficulty in projecting Carter-Williams is the poor offensive environment from which he came in Philadelphia. As a 76er, Carter-Williams touched the ball an excessive amount in the front court. On average, he was touching the ball 87 times in the front court per game, which is 20-plus touches more than Knight was averaging with the Bucks. One would think Carter-Williams would prefer to touch the ball less, and the Bucks’ coaching staff will almost certainly suggest it, but cutting out 25 percent of any player’s touches is a bit easier said than done.
The effect that moving from the 76ers to an actual basketball team may have on Carter-Williams is quite unpredictable. Many times, we have seen young players move from secondary roles to larger roles, but rarely are young players moved from larger roles to smaller roles. Fewer touches and a smaller role in Milwaukee may mean Carter-Williams becomes a hyperefficient passer who maintains a high assist level, while cutting down on extra touches and turnovers. But a decreased role may also just mean fewer assists with the same haphazard approach to taking care of the basketball (more than four turnovers per game) that he displayed in Philadelphia.
In addition to the difficulty in predicting what Carter-Williams will look like in a new system, his fit with current Bucks personnel is worrisome. For as much as people wanted to question Knight as this team’s point guard, few wanted to talk about the fact that he was simply doing what the Bucks needed him to do this season. This isn’t an argument that Knight can be a pass-first point guard, because he can’t, but it seems pretty undeniable that Knight’s skill set was a near-perfect fit with this squad.
With limited offensive games, the Bucks were getting quite a bit out of guys like Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia and John Henson, while also finding manageable roles for O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, and Khris Middleton. Across the board, players weren’t asked to do too much and weren’t seeing as many help defenders because of Knight’s heavy scoring load and offensive talents. This may all disappear with Carter-Williams’ lack of shooting outside of five feet. The Bucks’ recent offensive success had been predicated on exploiting mismatches by putting three shooters on the floor with Antetokounmpo and Henson, and using quick ball movement to find the open man. If defenses only have to worry about two shooters, the amount of open space will shrink.
And yet, even when taking all of that into account, the current ramifications of this trade are inconsequential. This trade was not made to make the Bucks better this season; this trade was about the future. This trade was about setting up Antetokounmpo and Parker for success in the future, and unfortunately, that’s where I find my biggest problems.
This trade was made to make sure that Antetokounmpo and Parker get the shots they want in the coming years, which, in theory, is a very good thing. In a perfect world, the Bucks’ two budding young stars will learn to take over offensively, get signed to max contracts, and the Bucks will be set up perfectly for the future WITH cap space to sign players who want to play alongside them once they’ve reached that star potential. This could very well happen, but it just seems a bit unfair to plan it out like that so soon.
In Knight, the Bucks had found an insurance plan. He might have made their cap situation a bit more interesting for the next year, but ultimately, the Bucks would have been able to handle him on the roster because of the impending leaguewide cap increase of more than $20 million. Knight was a capable scorer who could help shoulder the load offensively until Antetokounmpo and Parker were ready.
Parker looked like a very capable scorer in his short time with the Bucks before his ACL tear, and Antetokounmpo has shown some really promising improvement this season, but neither is ready to shoulder a heavy scoring or usage load quite yet. With both players loving to attack off the dribble, they may have benefited more from a player who could spread the floor and occupy defenders than a player who can get them the ball at this juvenile stage of their development.
In a few years, it might have been prudent to move Knight out of the way and find a player willing to get the ball to Antetokounmpo and Parker, but, at this point, the move seems like a pre-emptive fix to a problem that didn’t exist. By removing Knight, the Bucks have effectively doubled down on Antetokounmpo and Parker, and possibly put unfair pressure on those two players to succeed and become max players.
Ultimately, the front office has dealt away a player who could have been a wildcard for the Bucks, both in performance and in salary, and regained full control of the franchise. For better or worse, the Bucks now completely own the future.
Let’s see what they do with it.
Quick Bucks is Milwaukee Magazine‘s weekly roundup of all things Milwaukee Bucks written by Eric Nehm. You can yell at Eric or calmly tell him how this dunk could ever be completed in a game on Twitter @eric_nehm.