Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford made NBA history this season, becoming the first three-time winner of the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Crawford, who averaged 14.2 points in the regular season and 17.3 points in the playoffs, was an important contributor for the 53-win Clippers and will soon have the opportunity to cash in on his successful season.
In July, Crawford will be an unrestricted free agent. He could have a long list of interested suitors since the ability to create shots, lead a second unit and spread the floor with three-point shooting are highly valued skills in today’s NBA. With the league’s salary cap rising to an unprecedented $92 million due to a new national television deal, the 36-year-old will get a significant raise from the $5,675,000 he made this season in L.A.
Even though Crawford didn’t start most contests for the Clippers, he often finished them and came up big in late-game situations. In fact, Crawford led the team in fourth-quarter scoring with 341 points.
Without question, Crawford is one of the league’s best one-on-one scorers. He finished the season ranked seventh in the NBA in total isolation points and isolation points per game, trailing only James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, Damian Lillard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and DeMar DeRozan.
He’s so effective because he can score in a variety of ways. His pull-up is deadly and he used the move to score 8.3 points per game, which was 11th-most among all NBA players. Crawford has great range too, as only 13 NBA players hit more threes than Crawford’s 117 this season. He’s also terrific at drawing contact (there’s a reason he has the most four-point plays in NBA history), and shot 90.4 percent from the charity stripe this season – the second– highest percentage in the league behind only Stephen Curry’s 90.8 percent.
Fellow NBA players have a lot of respect for Crawford and his game. With his handles, shot-creating ability and quickness, he’s incredibly difficult to contain. In March, Basketball Insiders talked to a number of players about what it’s like to defend Crawford.
“Jamal is one of the toughest covers in the league,” Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum said. “His ability to shoot off the dribble and manipulate ball screens makes him a unique guard. [He] also gives the Clippers a secondary ball handler. Jamal could potentially win [the Sixth Man award] every year.”
“He’s one of the best players to have ever come off a bench,” Indiana Pacers point guard Ty Lawson said. “You never know what he’s going to do. He might come down and just pull up for a three. Or he might give you a hesitation move, which he normally does right before he pulls up for a three, or he might just blow by you. It’s so hard to guard him. Even in the lane, he knows how to throw up floaters and he always seems to make them.”
“He’s so important to that team because he’s instant offense off of the bench,” Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton said. “He’s somebody who can come in and bring energy and get the crowd into the game. Also, when it comes to closing games, he’s someone who can create his own shot, so he’s very important to the Clippers. He’s tough to guard because he is so good at making tough shots. No shot is a bad shot for him. I remember watching him when I was younger – four-point play after four-point play.”
“He’s a game-changer for them,” Blazers point guard Damian Lillard said. “They could be having a bad night and he can take over. He makes big shots, tough shots, and draws fouls if you’re too physical.”
Crawford’s teammates praise his game too, while also raving about his off-court contributions. After the Clippers were eliminated by the Blazers in Game 7 of their first-round series, Austin Rivers got choked up when discussing how much Crawford’s support and friendship meant to him.
“He’s the best teammate I’ve ever had, man,” Rivers said, holding back tears. “A lot of people doubted me when I came to L.A. a year ago. People thought I was just getting a chance because of my father. Jamal believed in me, man.”
Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Crawford to discuss his upcoming free agency, the Clippers’ future, the rising salary cap, his willingness to recruit star players and much more. Check out the exclusive Q&A:
Are you excited for free agency? Some players dread it, but others look forward to it. How do you feel about it?
Jamal Crawford: “Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. I think with the way the league is now and the way things are going, this is a great time to be a free agent – for sure.”
With the salary cap going up, there will be some crazy contracts handed out. As a player, how much do you follow the cap information and how do you think the increase will impact things this summer?
Crawford: “I’m very aware of it. I have been for a while now, just being such a student of the game – and not just the game itself, but also things that are happening around the game and the way that the league is growing. I’m very aware of what’s going on. I think with the way that the popularity of basketball and the business of basketball are trending up, the game is in great shape.”
Most people don’t know what it’s like to be a free agent or how it feels to approach this process. There aren’t many jobs where there’s a public list that shows who you’re competing against, how productive they’ve been and what they’re earning. As you approach free agency, do you look at the other guards you’ll be in the market with and all of the teams with cap space and consider all of the scenarios?
Crawford: “Yes and no. Yes, because you have to be aware of which players are out there and what teams can do so that you know what people are looking for and what options exist. But I also say no because I feel like at the end of the day, I just need to do what I do on the court and I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I can feel good about what I’ve done and be confident entering the summer. I’m definitely aware of who else is out there, but I’m not too concerned about it.”
This is your first time entering free agency coming off of a Sixth Man of the Year season. How much do you think that helps you?
Crawford: “I think it helps, just because one of the knocks on me could be age, but I think age is only an issue if it shows. If you just watch me play and don’t know, I feel like you might think, ‘Oh, he’s 25 or 26.’ I’m better than a lot of guys who are 10 years younger than me. And, if you look, my numbers per-36-minutes are better now than they were 10 years ago when I was with the New York Knicks. I understand the rule that ‘Father Time is undefeated’ and all that, but for whatever reason – my faith in God, my style of play and my clean living – age hasn’t had any effect on me whatsoever.”
What’s your approach to fending off Father Time and staying effective for so long? Whatever it is, it has worked really well. Jared Dudley told me that you’re “the Benjamin Button of the NBA.” What’s the secret?
Crawford: “I think clean living and taking care of myself are really important. I’m always doing preventive stuff. I don’t wait until any injuries happen – knock on wood – to take care of my body. I’m always doing stuff like foam rolling, stretching, going in the cold tub, drinking a lot of fluids and staying in great shape. I’m always in great shape. I’ve never been a guy who gets out of shape and then needs to get back in shape. I feel like that’s like taking a job and leaving your house for nine months, and then when you come back, you try to turn on your lights and they’re popping and you try to start your car and you have issues. I think some injuries happen when you take a lot of time off and then try to get back into shape and back into playing. I don’t take that time off. I rest my body and recover, but I don’t take that kind of time off where I get out of shape because I think that’s when bad things happen.”
How do you feel after games or the morning after games? Do you feel more aches and pains than when you were younger?
Crawford: “No, I honestly feel fine. Because of the stuff I do after games like foam rolling, I don’t really allow the aches and pains to come. I’m always in prevention mode, especially with the Clippers’ trainers, who approach things the same way. They are always on top of things and they’ve taught all of us that prevention is key to be able to withstand a long season and avoid those aches and pains. Because I do all of those things and am very diligent about taking care of myself – foam rolling, stretching, working out – I feel fine. That’s why I play every single day in the summer. I don’t take time off because I feel great.”
What’s your hope this summer? I’m sure you’ll weigh your options since there are so many teams that have significant cap space, but are you hoping to re-sign with the Clippers?
Crawford: “My preference is to re-sign with the Clippers. But I understand that, at the end of the day, I’m a free agent so I have to look at everything. I have to take every call and consider every offer that comes to me and my agent. I have to, that’s just part of being a free agent. Like I said, my preference is to re-sign with the Clippers. But we have to take every single call that comes in. That’s the way it is.”
Has Doc Rivers (president of basketball operations and head coach of the Clippers) talked to you at all about free agency during your exit meeting or since your season ended?
Crawford: “We discussed it a little bit. He just said, ‘We want to bring you back and that’s part of the plan, for sure.’ I think I’m one of the priorities and he said that they want to bring me back to L.A. I thought the exit meeting went really well and he definitely made it clear that he wants me to re-sign.”
With the Clippers, this team has been together for quite some time and that kind of continuity is somewhat rare is today’s NBA. Since being eliminated, there have been some trade rumors and speculation that the team may be split up. Do you think the best approach is to bring the whole team back or do you think some changes need to be made?
Crawford: “I think chemistry is underrated. If you look at the really, really great teams, most of them have been together for years – and not just in this era either, even going back and looking at the great teams in NBA history. With us, if you look at the last two champions – the Spurs and the Warriors – we knocked both of those teams out recently [eliminating San Antonio in 2015 and eliminating Golden State in 2014]. I think we’re right there in terms of contending. We’re not far away whatsoever. Sometimes you have to keep knocking on that door until you break it down. It may take time and it may not be the easiest process, but that’s the way I kind of look at it.”
I feel like I ask you every summer, but how many more years do you want to keep playing? Every summer, you say five more years.
Crawford: “I know (laughs). It’s still the same! I’ll still say five years. I’m still in love with the game, I’m still playing at a high level and I still feel like I’m getting better as a player, which is crazy. This year, I thought my defense was better and I thought my all-around game was better. Initially, to start the season, I thought I took a step backward so that some of the new guys that we brought in could take a step forward. But then I switched, transitioning to being more aggressive in the second half of the year. I’ll still say that I want to play four or five more years. And if you ask me in four or five years, I may say four or five years again. As long as I’m playing at a high level and things are going well and I’m still in love with the game, why wouldn’t I keep playing?”
In today’s NBA, creating your own shot, spacing and shooting are extremely important. Do you think that the way the game is evolving benefits you and your style of play?
Crawford: “No question. No question. I think, obviously, spacing on the court is so important. If you’re a shooter, even if you are missing shots in a particular game, the other team still has to respect your shot based on what you’ve done and what you can do at any time if you can get hot. And I’m talking about any shooter, not just me. Teams have to respect that, which opens up the court. Shot creation is huge too, in the playoffs especially. When plays break down, you still have to manufacture a shot. When you have a guy who can get any shot he wants at any time or bail his team out on a bad possession to give you a chance at some points, that’s a very, very valuable weapon. When a play breaks down, it becomes, ‘Okay, we just have to get a great shot up. Who can us that shot?’ I think having that guy is very valuable. You see that from Kyrie Irving a lot. And, honestly, there are times for isolation. Sometimes that may be the best offense on particular possessions.”
Your teammates speak very highly of you and your presence in the locker room. How much do you think being a veteran leader helps your value?
Crawford: “I think that helps. What’s weird is that usually the guys who become a positive locker room presence and a veteran leader in the locker room aren’t contributing on the court as much because they’re in the last year or two of their career. I’m doing it at a time when I’m still playing at a high level, because that’s just who I am. That’s how I’ve always been. Hearing what Austin said… When he has tears in his eyes and he’s saying that I’m the best teammate he’s ever had, that means everything to me. That means the world to me. I obviously didn’t do that because I wanted that acclaim or attention. I did that because I wanted to be a great friend and a great teammate. You can ask any one of my teammates and they’ll say I do the same things to support them. I always try to remain positive and encourage guys. I can get on you if I need to, but it’s always a positive thing. It’s a long season, so you have to let guys know that you’re in this together and that you have their back. You can ask anyone, whether they’re a star or were on a 10-day, I’m the same way with anyone.”
You have so many friends around the NBA. You’re obviously close with all of the Seattle guys, but you have close relationships with so many random players that fans wouldn’t expect too. When I did that article about how your peers felt you deserved the Sixth Man of the Year award, players from all around the league campaigned for you. And you’ve had everyone from Kevin Durant to John Wall to Kyrie Irving to LaMarcus Aldridge to James Harden to DeMar DeRozan come through Seattle to play in your pro-am.
I bring all of this up because I’m curious: Are you open to recruiting during free agency this summer? Whether it’s for the Clippers or a new team, are you going to recruit other players?
Crawford: “No doubt about it. I’m glad you’re bringing it up, and I think you’re the first to do so. That’s an aspect of my free agency that a lot of people may not have thought about, but I certainly have. I feel like I’m cool with almost every player in the NBA. I think that respect comes because of, first off, what you do on the court and also who you are off the court. You’re as good as your peers think you are – no disrespect to the media or anyone else. We, as players, know who is a good pro and a great person and there’s a certain respect that comes with that. There isn’t a single player who I can’t get on the phone or talk to about a situation. When I sign with a team, I’m definitely willing to recruit and I’m almost positive I can land somebody too.”
What’s your response to the criticism of your defense? Does it bother you?
Crawford: “No, it doesn’t bother me at all. At first, I think they may have actually had a point. They had a right to say what they said. It’s obviously an opinion, but I’d agree that it had some validity at one point. But now, I think my defense has improved. I’m not saying that I’m Tony Allen or Kawhi Leonard or Garrett Temple by any means, but my defense is definitely respectable. And the way the league is now, it’s mostly built around team defense. You can’t touch a player or get physical, especially on the perimeter, so you really rely on team defense. I think the best defenses in the league are team defenses. I’m always going to give great effort and follow the scheme, whatever the game plan may be. At first, I think those critics had a reason to gripe about my defense. But now, I think I’ve improved. You can go back and look at my defense in the playoffs and see that it was pretty solid.”
Three Sixth Man of the Year trophies already gives you the record. Is a fourth coming before your career is said and done?
Crawford: “No question about it. Without a doubt. I can say that wholeheartedly. Alex, man, I wouldn’t lie to you or the people about this: I feel great and I can stay at this level for four or five more years, barring a major injury. With the way that the game is played and with my skill set, there’s no doubt I can do it. Think about it: When I was 32 years old and had just signed with the Clippers, people then were probably like, ‘Man, well, he’s older and may not be as effective.’ Well, I was the third-leading scorer and won two of four Sixth Man of the Year awards. I’ve heard critics say, ‘Well, he’s older now…’ for a while. If my age isn’t showing, it doesn’t matter.”
Does market matter to you? Last summer, a lot was made about the smaller-market teams landing free agents while teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks missed out on some players. Do you care about market size?
Crawford: “No. The market doesn’t matter to me at all. Like I said, my preference is to stay with the Clippers, but my door is open for anyone who wants to do business and has interest in me. I will seriously look at every single team that has an interest in me, regardless of the market.”
NBA AM: Don’t Count Out Cole Anthony, He’ll Prove You Wrong
Dylan Thayer discusses Cole Anthony’s long road to the Orlando Magic starting lineup and what the future may hold for the talented guard.
Needless to say, Cole Anthony has been one of the top rookies from the class of 2020 thus far. In the years leading up to the NBA Draft, Anthony – the son of long-time veteran Greg Anthony – had been one of the class’s most prized players, with most experts mocking him in the top five. But the first losing season of University of North Carolina head coach Roy Williams’ career led to scouts turning away from Anthony as a top recruit. The buzz was that ego and attitude problems would stop him from being a safe lottery pick.
Coming out of high school, Anthony was the second highest-ranked prospect in the ESPN Top 100 for 2019. The Oak Hill squad Anthony led went 23-5 with him on the court, making the national semifinal against fellow recent draftee Isaiah Stewart. Anthony put on a show in his senior year averaging 18.0 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game and 9.5 assists per game, per Oak Hill Hoops. In April of 2019, he committed to the University of North Carolina Tarheels over other top NCAA basketball programs.
The 2019-20 NCAA season was a very rocky one for the Tarheels, to say the least. The team finished 14-19 and had their first losing season since 2001-02. Injuries hampered the team throughout the year and the lack of consistency within the team’s lineup did not lead to the best product possible. Anthony had his own right knee injury that caused him to miss time during the season, and he later revealed that he only played about five games at 100 percent, per Sports Illustrated.
But after an underwhelming tenure at UNC, the biggest thing that sticks out is how Anthony matured and reacted to it. In an interview with the front office, Anthony spoke highly of his teammates:
“At the end of the day, we really didn’t get much time to play together as a whole unit,” Anthony said. “But those are my brothers.”
One of the biggest knocks on Anthony’s game coming into the NBA was that teams feared he would not have a good effect on the locker room, but where did that stem from? For starters, UNC’s record – and the fact that Anthony was supposed to be the star – lead outsiders to place the blame on him due to their collective failures. In an article for The Athletic, opposing coaches did not speak very highly of Anthony’s skillset. In fact, they said his shot was very inefficient, his defense was not consistent, his dribbling was not strong enough and, worst of all, he would just be another player that inefficiently scores points for a bad team. Leading up to draft night, Anthony’s stock had definitely taken a hit – but he managed to go No. 15 overall, the first non-lottery pick of the night.
Without a doubt, so far this season, Anthony has been a steal for the Orlando Magic. Originally, he was in charge of running the team’s second unit, but once starter Markelle Fultz suffered a season-ending injury, Anthony was handed the keys to the point guard position. Losing Fultz was a big blow to the Magic’s season, but Anthony is a very good replacement for him as their high motor play styles are similar.
Anthony has not been the most consistent or efficient player as of yet, but he has shown plenty of promise throughout the early part of his rookie season. Additionally, an insanely short offseason means there are still major adjustments that these young guys must make at the NBA level. On Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets, Anthony had his best game of the season by putting up 21 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists over 31 minutes.
Already, the scorer has cashed in on 15-plus points in five games so far. Even better, Anthony is averaging 11.0 points per game, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while ranking in the top five among rookies in those respective statistical categories.
Still, the downside to Anthony’s play is definitely how inconsistent he has been on a game-to-game basis. On the season, he is shooting a meager 36.9 percent from the field, placing him sixth-to-last in that category, per NBA Advanced Stats. Surprisingly enough, he has shot the ball at a better clip than No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards. His three-point percentage is just under 34 percent and he has shot the ball at a very good level from the free-throw line at 84.6 percent. Regardless, there’s plenty of room to improve.
But with the guidance of Anthony’s talented hands – including a shocking buzzer-beating game-winner already – the Magic find themselves in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. The Magic have been a familiar face in the lower half in the conference’s playoff bracket over the past few seasons, but Anthony is hoping to aim higher than ever. With the lead guard duties belonging to the blossoming rookie, he needs to step up and perform in big moments if this team wants to go anywhere this season, a ton of that responsibility will fall upon Anthony’s shoulders – fair or not.
From what Anthony has shown throughout his career, however, betting against him would not be a very wise decision.
ICYMI: Atlantic Division
To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division.
So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.
Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate
After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.
In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.
Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.
Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?
The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.
Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.
There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.
While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well.
Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer
After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.
Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.
Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.
Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.
They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.
Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season.
Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.
Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.
NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer
Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.
For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.
In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.
The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.
Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.
Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them.
That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game.
Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.
While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.
As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.
That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.
Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.
But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.