When the Milwaukee Bucks agreed to terms on a five-year, $70 million contract with Khris Middleton last offseason, many NBA fans scrutinized the deal. Part of the strong reaction was rooted in the fact that Middleton was drafted 39th overall in the 2012 draft and was essentially a throw in as part of the Brandon Jennings-Brandon Knight trade with the Detroit Pistons. While Middleton made a name for himself last year as a very solid wing-defender and spot-up shooter, he was still an unknown to many casual fans.
Despite any immediate negativity the Bucks’ front office received, they were very comfortable paying Middleton $70 million over five years since the salary cap is set to explode after this season and most role players will be making roughly $10 million or more annually moving forward.
With Middleton staying put, the addition of Greg Monroe and the return of Jabari Parker from a season ending ACL tear, many fans and members of the media expected a big step forward from the Bucks this season. However, the Bucks have been up-and-down throughout the first half of the season and are currently ranked 13th in the Eastern Conference (five games back in the loss column to the eighth seed Miami HEAT).
Despite the disappointing season, Bucks fans should be excited about the tremendous growth we have seen from Middleton this season. Middleton isn’t just living up to his contract, he is making it look like a bargain.
Last season, Middleton averaged 13.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game, while shooting 46.7 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from beyond the arc. This season, Middleton is averaging 17.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, four assists and 1.1 steals per game, while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from three-point range. The uptick in Middleton’s per game averages this season may seem nominal, but that is because he got off to a slow start this season. However, since December 20, Middleton is averaging 22.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists and one steal per game, while shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 40 percent from distance.
Those numbers are very good but still don’t fully indicate just how much Middleton has improved this season. Specifically, they don’t indicate how much Middleton has improved as a play-maker. Since the end of December, Middleton has been relied on to frequently initiate the Bucks’ offense and operate in the pick-and-roll. Middleton has been surprisingly effective so far, especially when you consider that he has always been considered just a 3-and-D wing.
Part of the reason why the Bucks are using Middleton as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll is because he is one of the only players Milwaukee has that can shoot and pass well enough consistently to bend opposing defenses, create at least some space for teammates and force crisp rotations from opponents.
In this play, Middleton draws hard coverage from both Spencer Hawes and Nicolas Batum off of John Henson’s pick. Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the spot-up shooters spacing the floor on the weak-side, neither of whom are threats from three-point range. As a result, the Hornets are comfortable packing in the paint, preventing an open lob from Middleton to Henson. This forces Middleton to take a tough jumper over both Batum and Hawes.
Middleton has been making this shot in recent games and is probably the only player that Milwaukee has that can do so with any sort of consistency, which is one of the things that makes Middleton valuable as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets.
The fact that Middleton can draw so much defensive attention is big for this Bucks squad since they lack the shooting to space the floor. Additionally, the fact that Middleton is a career 40.7 percent shooter from distance and now a serious threat to hit pull up jumpers as the ball-handler out of the pick-and-roll means that he can stretch defenses enough that they will occasionally make mistakes guarding the weak-side.
As mentioned above, defenses will pack the paint knowing that the Bucks don’t have the shooters to punish them, however, this can leave players like Parker open to run baseline for an occasional uncontested shot at the rim.
This play worked particularly well since Monroe is such an effective post scorer and passer. Marvin Williams made the mistake of staying somewhat within range of Michael-Carter Williams and Antetokounmpo, neither of whom are threats from distance, rather than paying attention to Parker who usually looks for easy shots at the rim by running baseline. Also, it should be noted that the pocket pass that Middleton makes on this play is a difficult one to make. There was only a small window for Middleton to make this pass and it is one that even some of the better passing point guards in the league miss with some frequency.
The fact that Middleton can now execute these plays consistently is a testament to the work he put in last offseason. Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently spoke to Middleton about his offseason training, which included some workouts with HEAT guard Dwyane Wade.
“It’s been a huge impact so far,” Middleton told Gardner. “Just talking to [Wade], and him letting me know how he approaches the game and what he’s thinking in certain situations, it’s helping me out tremendously.”
Wade is and has been one of the best play-makers at shooting guard over the last decade or so. It seems like Wade’s lessons have stuck with Middleton, who has moved from floor-spacer to all-around offensive weapon this season, similar to Wade. Count Wade among those who have been impressed with Middleton’s overall progress.
“He’s a guy who can get his shot off at any point,” Wade said. “This year they’ve opened up his game more and made him more of a playmaker for the team. He’s posting up; he’s running a lot of pick-and-rolls.
“He’s a young guy who has potential. Nobody really knows how high of a ceiling he has. You’re starting to see it. He’s putting big games together for them.”
Middleton isn’t just creating plays for others out of the pick-and-roll. He is being opportunistic and finding different ways to find easy scoring opportunities for his teammates. Teammates are now looking for Middleton off of defensive rebounds, allowing Middleton to attack scrambling defenses in transition. This is a nice weapon for Milwaukee to turn to since transition opportunities mitigate the Bucks’ biggest limitation on offense (lack of shooting/spacing) and maximizes their greatest strength (length and athleticism).
In addition to asking him to be more of a play-maker, the Bucks are running sets to get Middleton one-on-one in the post and on the wing when he has a favorable matchup. This can be particularly damaging against teams that run two point guards together, such as the Hornets. Jeremy Lin had the unfortunate task of trying to stop Middleton in their recent matchup, which Middleton took advantage of.
On this particular play, we see Antetokounmpo and Carter-Williams notice that Middleton has an opportunity to go one-on-one against Lin. They don’t run any fancy actions, they just simply dump the ball to Middleton and clear out. Using his significant height advantage and a simple step-back, Middleton gets an easy 12-foot jump shot, which he buries.
This may not seem like a big deal, but for a team that lacks consistent shooting, play-making and a go-to scorer, the ability to dump the ball to Middleton in isolation is a nice weapon for the Bucks. And don’t think that Middleton is only able to score against weaker opponents in limited situations. Middleton has shown the ability to score against some of the better wing-defenders in the league this season.
One such example can be seen above when Batum and Hawes were in his face and he was still able to knock in a jumper off the dribble. However, the best example we have of this is Middleton’s recent game-sealing shot against the Chicago Bulls.
Middleton was being guarded by Jimmy Butler, one of the premier wing-defenders in the NBA. Middleton used some nice footwork to create some separation from Butler and, like he did against Lin, utilized his length to get a clean look at the rim.
Critics of Middleton and his contract may point to the fact that the Bucks’ defense has been terrible overall this season, which is something Middleton is supposed to have a positive impact on. They can point out that his Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating dropped from 4.09 last season to -1.87 this season.
It’s true that Middleton has been less effective overall defensively this season than last. However, most of that has to do with the fact that the Bucks have been a mess defensively all season and have yet to figure out how to address that. In addition, Middleton is carrying a much heavier burden on offense, leaving him less energy on defense. Lastly, as Zach Lowe of ESPN recently pointed out, the Bucks are experimenting on both ends of the court each game and recently assigned Parker to guard each opponent’s best wing-scorers. This has pushed Middleton off the ball, unlike last season, which has changed the impact he can make defensively.
Despite the defensive setback, Middleton is playing the best ball of his career and has evolved from a 3-and-D wing to a go-to scorer and play-maker for Milwaukee. He is still spacing the floor with his smooth jumper, while punishing teams off the dribble in ways he previously could not.
The Bucks still have a lot to figure out, but one thing is certain: Khris Middleton is proving his skeptics wrong and is proving that he is well worth the contract Milwaukee gave him last offseason.
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