ST. FRANCIS, Wis. -- Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has a reputation for winning. As a player or coach he has been in the playoffs every season since 1996-97.
This seemed like the year the streak would end. Kidd took over a Bucks squad that was penciled in for the lottery even before prized rookie Jabari Parker went down with a season-ending knee injury and elite defender Larry Sanders left the team citing mental health.
By the All-Star break, the Bucks looked like one of those rubber toys you throw into water and watch it expand instantaneously. They were growing rapidly, had won eight of nine, and at 30-23, were on track to keep Kidd's playoff streak alive.
And that's when the Bucks, inspired by Kidd, did something truly surprising: They traded Knight for a package highlighted by Michael Carter-Williams.
This was no small gamble. Carter-Williams, the 2013-14 Rookie of the Year, has intriguing size and talent -- but comes with risk: In a league increasingly built on the power of the 3-pointer, Knight is nearly a 40 percent shooter, while Carter-Williams is among the worst-shooting guards in the league.
What's worse is that in Carter-Williams' second year, he was regressing in nearly every category, as the team he had been leading -- the Philadelphia 76ers -- racked up losses at a near-record pace.
After the trade the Bucks won just 11 of the season's remaining 29 games, barely getting Kidd to the playoffs again.
Kidd forged a Hall of Fame career largely around trusting his vision. He could see things before everyone else, and often threw dazzling passes as a result.
But nobody's perfect. Kidd took risks and made his share of mistakes. Only three players in NBA history have more turnovers.
Which begs the question: What does Kidd see in Carter-Williams?
On one side of Kidd's office overlooking the Milwaukee Bucks' practice court is a wall with hand-written quotes and notes.
Smudges of diagrammed plays barely remain visible on the dry-erase board. But near the top remains a question that is clearly visible.
"Who will lead us?"
As a co-rookie of the year in Dallas, the 6-foot-4 Kidd led a high-octane offense feeding Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn on the wings. He became an All-Star slinging the ball to talented teammates in Phoenix, then went to two consecutive NBA Finals lobbing alley-oops to Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson for the Nets. His championship came, at last, by getting Dirk Nowitzki the ball in the right place at the right time.
He used a certain skill set to make it happen. Being taller than a lot of his point-guard counterparts helped him see the entire floor, post up and make his impact felt on defense. Exceptional vision and a pass-first mentality meant plenty of easy buckets for teammates.
And then there's leadership.
As a head coach, Kidd clearly has shown a preference for point guards in that mold. And there simply aren't many.
When the 6-foot-6 Carter-Williams kicked off his career with the 76ers in October of 2013 with a 22-point, 12-assist, nine-steal, seven-rebound historic debut against the Miami Heat, Kidd noticed from Brooklyn that a triple-double threat was emerging.
"At the beginning of the season, he was hell on wheels," Kidd said of Carter-Williams' rookie season. "He was breaking or setting records. He was all over the place."
Carter-Williams grew up trying to pattern his game after Kidd and the former Oakland prodigy's mentor -- Gary Payton.
"He's certainly in the mold of Jason Kidd," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said of Carter-Williams. "You can see why they tried to acquire him. He has great size at that position, terrific vision, he makes other players better, you can play him in different areas in the court, he can play in the post, he can play in transition. And he's extremely disruptive defensively with his size and length."
When Carter-Williams came to the Bucks, the Number 1 jersey he wore in Philly was retired for Oscar Robertson. He switched to 5 -- the number Kidd wore almost his entire career.
"I think [Kidd] sees a little bit of himself in Michael," Bucks veteran Jared Dudley says. "I think that probably attracted [Kidd] to him and someone who maybe is not a great shooter but can be."
When Kidd played, he saw having a dominant big man as his ticket to winning a title. But in today's NBA, Kidd believes passing the ball with Spurs-like precision is the best path to a championship. And when he looks up and down the Bucks roster, he sees players like Antetokounmpo, Parker and Middleton who are ready to make the most of great passing.
Carter-Williams, says Kidd, is the player to "set the table" for those scorers.
"I thought B-Knight had a heck of a first half of the season, he did everything we asked," Kidd says. "But also having a guy who is going to pass first, it is not a knock on B-Knight, it's just totally different. Michael can affect the game without scoring and B-Knight has to score the ball."
One of the first things the Milwaukee coaches noticed Carter-Williams doing as a Buck was immediately looking up court after an outlet pass or rebound to see if Antetokounmpo was running for an easy basket. They loved it.
"That is what J-Kidd excelled in," Livingston said after his Golden State Warriors played against Carter-Williams and the Bucks in late March. "[Carter-Williams] has to learn players that he is playing against, who's hot, who's got it going. For him, once he learns those things, he's getting better. And he is in the perfect situation to learn from J-Kidd."
"Coach Kidd has taught me a lot just from the point guard position. I think I have been able to slow down a little bit and really work on different things. ... I think I improved on being a leader on the court. Controlling the game, controlling the pace ... that is where I have grown."
-- Michael Carter-Williams
The 3-pointer has impacted the NBA game deeply in recent years and is a key weapon in the arsenal of essentially every elite offense.
And the point guards running an elite NBA offense this year are typically at least competent from downtown, and most -- Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving all run top-five offenses -- are exceptional, shooting close to or better than 40 percent.
For Carter-Williams, improving his jumper and developing a reliable 3-point shot could mean the difference between going from good to elite. And Kidd is banking on it. In the weeks leading up to the Bucks securing the sixth seed in the East, Carter-Williams came in on his own to watch film and spent hours working on his shot with the coaching staff, especially assistant coach Sean Sweeney.
Before every game, Carter-Williams launches jumpers and runners from all over the court with Sweeney. Kidd often watches and sometimes gives tips such as tweaking Carter-Williams' right foot or discouraging "such a violent, big step."
"It's really hard to change a golf swing in a middle of a round," Kidd says. "For right now it is for us to keep it simple. ... The other thing is really trying to remind him that he has time to shoot it, there's no rush."
Kidd says that Carter-Williams doesn't need to overhaul his shot. Perhaps all he needs to do is get stronger and practice.
There is some suggestion that his first healthy NBA offseason could help Carter-Williams' shooting ability, too. He underwent surgery to repair the labrum of his right shooting shoulder after last season. He tried not to rush back and spent the summer rehabbing instead of working on his jumper.
His mother and manager, Mandy Carter-Zegarowski, saw the point guard's confidence sag.
"What I've seen is he had shoulder surgery which is very serious in terms of his muscle memory and compensating with the rest of his muscles and ligaments while he played his entire rookie year with that injury," said Carter-Zegarowski, who coached the Ipswich High School (Mass.) girls varsity basketball team to 10 straight state tournament appearances. "You lose an offseason and preseason and have four practices before you play your first game and you haven't shot really for six months or build muscle or done any of the things that he needs another offseason to do."
At the time of the trade in late February, Carter-Williams was the least efficient scorer in the NBA at 0.71 points per play (among players with at least 700 plays) according to ESPN Stats & Info. He also had the second-worst 3-point percentage and third-lowest effective field-goal percentage of anyone taking at least 10 shots a game. Carter-Williams, 23, also owned the NBA's lowest field goal percentage outside the paint at the time. Kidd says Carter-Williams' fundamentals and mechanics are sound and that he can get better. He should know.
Once mocked as "Ason Kidd" because he didn't have a J, Kidd started as a 27 percent 3-point bricker but worked his way to becoming one of the game's better shooters with multiple seasons north of 40 percent. He finished in the top five all time in made 3-point field goals. Kidd didn't really start concentrating on improving his outside shot with shooting coach Bob Thate until he was in New Jersey and his body began to break down.
"We will start spending a little more time [this summer] and understanding what I think defenses are going to do [to him]," Kidd said. "I couldn't shoot so they went underneath. So what are the options of what you can do? Knowing that they are going to try to meet you in the paint, well you are 6-6 so you can shoot over anybody at any given time.
"Being patient and understanding some of the passes you are going to make," Kidd added. "I threw them all. So you are going to have to learn your teammates real quick. What they can catch and what they can't catch and who can catch a no-look pass ... that takes time. What I don't want to do is put any added pressure [on him now]."
"They didn't give me a chance to really show who I can play with and what we could have had. But then again I think this is a better situation for me. ... And they'll one day realize that they made a mistake." -- Michael Carter-Williams
The change of scenery may also be good for Carter-Williams, who admits to having been frustrated with the staggering amount of losses that come with playing for a rebuilding team.
"When I was a rookie, what motivated me was trying to win Rookie of the Year and play the best that I could that I would compete so hard. And then the first half of this year was really tough for me. I think a lot of the time, when things were going wrong, I would get blamed for things because I was the point guard. I think I was just so mad about losing and multiple things in the first half of this year."
"He just was down," says Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who recently visited with Carter-Williams in Milwaukee. "You do everything you can to try to win every game and you come up a little bit short all the time -- I know it started to wear on him."
The point guard says his only issue in Philadelphia was the losing and he wondered if his frustration with the slow rebuilding was a reason for the trade. He never complained but at the same time he couldn't tolerate the nightly defeats piling up.
"I wonder why sometimes," Carter-Williams said of the Sixers trading him. "But I don't know if it was because I didn't have the greatest attitude [toward losing] at Philly. My attitude to my teammates and coaches was always good. I mean [attitude] just about the fact that we weren't winning because I really cared about winning."
Carter-Zegarowski said Sixers GM Sam Hinkie told her, and he later told reporters in Philadelphia, that he simply could not pass up on adding a 2015 top-five protected first-round pick from the Lakers to his collection of draft picks.
"The only way that we would move him is if someone really blew us away," Hinkie told Philadelphia reporters after the trade. "We rejected offer after offer over the last year or more. [But] the thing that came along was really, really interesting and really scarce. ... It is almost impossibly hard to get your hands on a pick that at least has the chance to be a high lottery pick."
In April, Carter-Williams started showing signs of improvement under Kidd. He averaged 16.9 points, 6.0 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 2.5 steals, 2.8 turnovers and 50.9 percent shooting overall. His player efficiency rating rose from 12.8 before the trade to 16.3. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he took shots that were, on average, nine feet from the hoop instead of 11.5.
He also clearly excelled out of the post. In an April 1 win over Chicago, Carter-Williams scored 15 straight points during a second-quarter stretch when many of his baskets came from post-ups. He finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds in that game, giving Tom Thibodeau a glimpse of what they'd have to take away in their first-round matchup with Milwaukee.
"I think you see sometimes where they let him run backdowns like Jason used to," 76ers coach Brett Brown said of his old point guard. "Big guard, kick it over, let him back down, be 6-6 and space off of him. He's scoring a little bit out of that environment, but he passes really well out of that environment, like Jason and Gary Payton did."
Helping Carter-Williams' efficiency is the fact that he has almost stopped shooting 3s. He scored 30 points twice in April despite making just one 3-pointer in those two games against Cleveland and Philadelphia.
In the playoffs, Kidd wants Carter-Williams to learn valuable lessons, and that's exactly what's happening. Besides having to guard Derrick Rose at times, Carter-Williams has had to adjust to a Bulls defense that has backed off him. He is shooting 39.1 percent for the series, but has increased his scoring in each of the three losses to Chicago and averaged 13.3 points, 4.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals.
"If I was Michael and I was a pure point guard, I am just going to not say nothing, come to practice, go to Jason Kidd's office every day, watch clips with him, ask him for advice and just play as hard as possible. Because if your coach is Jason Kidd and you are a point guard, just being around him for, one, two, three, five, 10 years, you gonna be great!"
-- Giannis Antetokounmpo
"Everybody is focused on that the trade has slowed us down," Kidd says. "What really slowed us down? For the ones who wrote or predicted [the Bucks' record in the preseason], we weren't even on the map. So what slowed us down? ... We were going to struggle no matter what -- trade or no trade.
"If you look at our roster, you got 20-year-olds, 23-year-olds who haven't been in this situation so how to do they handle it when they have never been in it.
"I don't know if it was risky," Kidd added of trading Knight. "That is hard to say it was risky because what did we mortgage? We didn't mortgage anything. What did we lose?"
The move actually saves the Bucks money for now with Knight set to become a restricted free agent and Carter-Williams still under his rookie deal for two more seasons. Instead of having to pay to keep Knight and Middleton, who is also going to be a restricted free agent, the Bucks can focus on locking up their emerging shooter.
And Kidd can now mold a Rookie of the Year point guard with plus size and court vision. He sees a brighter future for the Bucks with a young core of Carter-Williams, Antetokounmpo and Parker. That's why the former 1994 Co-Rookie of the Year is excited about raising the 2014 Rookie of the Year.
As for that question on his thinking board, Kidd is betting Carter-Williams will answer that riddle sooner than later.
"He could be better [than me]," Kidd says. "His athletic ability is probably better. He can pass the ball, makes his teammates better. The one thing for Mike is [playing] minutes and understanding time and score [in meaningful games] and understanding what makes this different than [a rebuilding project in] Philly?
"He is going to be fine. He is going to be a guy that is going to average over nine assists as he understands the system. I think he is going to be a great leader in this league."