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.
NBA Daily: What We Forgot
With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.
With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.
Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.
But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.
Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal
Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.
Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.
Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.
The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.
Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done
What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.
Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.
Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.
In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.
The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.
Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.
Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.
Maturity Issues Loom Large
Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.
Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.
After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.
Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.
Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.
But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.
NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks
Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.
Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.
So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.
Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.
But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.
Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.
Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.
But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.
So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.
He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.
Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.
But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.
Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.
Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.
That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.
But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.
But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.
The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.
NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key
Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.
The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure.
Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders.
Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.
Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them.
Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll.
Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.
Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well.
Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.
The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA.
Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.
As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.