The Milwaukee Bucks came out of nowhere last season, accelerating their rebuild to the tune of a surprise playoff berth. They raced to a 30-23 start before regressing to an 11-18 finish after the All-Star Break, then bowed out in a six-game first-round series against the Chicago Bulls.
The Bucks certainly garnered a lot of attention, and rightfully so. This was a young, absurdly long, well-coached defensive juggernaut thanks to Jason Kidd and defensive guru Sean Sweeney.
Brandon Knight (17.8 PPG, 5.4 APG, 1.6 SPG in Milwaukee) was in the hunt for an All-Star Game berth before ultimately being snubbed, and then traded to Phoenix. Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.7 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1 BPG) showed occasional flashes of two-way brilliance and almost unfair versatility, playing and defending at least four different positions relatively well.
Despite the hype and attention that Knight and Giannis received, neither of them were the Bucks’ best player last year. That title belongs to now-24-year-old wing Khris Middleton, who was rewarded with a five-year, $70 million contract this summer.
Once seen as a throw-in to help facilitate the Brandon Trade (Knight and Jennings), Middleton has come into his own as one of the better young two-way wings in the NBA. For people outside of Milwaukee, Middleton’s name may seem familiar thanks to the two buzzer-beaters he hit last year:
If you look at Middleton’s traditional box score averages from last year — 13.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.5 SPG — you likely won’t be impressed. But what makes Middleton so valuable offensively is his shooting ability from mid-range and from deep.
The Bucks did a decent job of freeing Middleton with screens so he could abuse teams with his compact, quick release:
Milwaukee occasionally used similar off-ball action to free Middleton from three, although they could and should certainly look to do that more next year, as Brew Hoop’s Eric Nehm touched on in a piece he wrote about Middleton last month:
What is surprising, though, is the seeming lack of effort the Bucks gave to creating these catch-and-shoot three point opportunities throughout the season. Middleton was a popular target for floppy actions that created mid-range opportunities (more on that in a moment), but rarely if ever did the Bucks’ look to set a flare to get Middleton an open three, or a hammer set to get him to a corner, or even try a split cut after dumping it to Zaza Pachulia. So it’s perhaps not surprising that Middleton took relatively few threes compared to his peers. Among the league’s top 20 shooters in three-point percentage, only Harrison Barnes and Courtney Lee attempted fewer threes per minute than Middleton. Some of that stems from Middleton’s willingness to take a dribble or two rather than fire away from deep, but much of it is a matter of play-calling as well.
Regardless, Middleton was able to knock down 40.7 percent of his threes, and a ridiculous 47.5 percent of his jumpers between 15 and 22 feet — a mark that ranked seventh in the NBA among players with at least 200 attempts in that range.
Although he didn’t attack the basket too much (2.7 drives per game, via SportVU), Middleton also proved to be a pretty solid finisher, converting 62.3 percent of his opportunities at the rim (defined as a shot inside of three feet, via Basketball-Reference).
He still has room to grow as a shot creator (70 percent of his shots were assisted), but after the Knight trade, Middleton did show flashes of being a reliable secondary scoring option. Allow me to present an odd fact and a chart about Middleton’s production post-All-Star break:
1. Middleton scored 486 points, drained 46 threes and came up with 40 steals after the break. Only five other players had at least 400 points, 40 made threes and 40 steals in that time frame: LeBron James, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. That’s high-key absurd company to be in, although you could argue that stat is a tad arbitrary.
2. Middleton measured up pretty favorably with a pair of All-Star-caliber wings who got much more attention than he did:
With Knight gone to Phoenix in addition to no Jabari Parker, who was lost in December to a torn ACL, Middleton received more touches and was able to deliver a few gems like his 30-point performance against the Wizards:
Or when he tied that career-high scoring mark four days later against the Magic:
What was incredible about Middleton’s productive, under-the-radar year was that he consistently defended at, in my opinion, a level worthy of an All-Defensive Team selection. As shown in the aforementioned table featuring his post-All Star break numbers, he still managed to hold opposing players to under 40 percent shooting while simultaneously raising his offensive production.
Actually, just take a look at how good he was defensively last year:
And here’s his defensive shot chart, courtesy of NBAsavant.com:
While Giannis was praised for being a Swiss Army Knife on defense, Middleton once again went overlooked. He guarded shooting guards and small forwards regularly, but showed the ability to guard smaller 4s and could also stay in front of point guards on switches.
Via Basketball-Reference, the Bucks allowed 98.6 points per 100 possessions with Middleton on the floor, 2.8 points lower/better than the Golden State Warriors’ mark which led the NBA. However, that number ballooned to 107.4 with Middleton on the bench, a rate that would’ve ranked 25th in the NBA.
Middleton also graded out well by ESPN’s advanced metric Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM), which is defined as a “Player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions.” Middleton’s DRPM of 4.09 was eight in the NBA, only behind Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, DeMarcus Cousins, Tony Allen, Andrew Bogut and the leader, Draymond Green.
Middleton’s lofty extension caught a lot of people (cough, that had probably never heard of him, cough) off guard, but there were reasons he got locked up; there are also reasons to believe that his deal may end up looking like a bargain.
We all know about the cap jump, and that’s an easy way to excuse or explain away many of the deals that were given out this summer. However, Middleton provides three things that teams really value from their wings: youth, shooting and defense.
Middleton just turned 24 back in August, which means he’ll be 29 years old (and theoretically in the prime of his career) once his contract is up.
He’s also one heck of a floor spacer from deep and is one of the few players who excel in the mid-range area without dribbling the ball to death. Of his 855 shot attempts last year, 585 of them came with him touching the ball for two seconds or less, and 711 of them came after dribbling two times or less, per SportVU.
Defensively, Middleton can guard two positions exceptionally well, and can hold his own guarding two others periodically. That kind of defensive potency and versatility is valuable everywhere, but it especially helps make Milwaukee dangerous.
Put those three factors together, along with Middleton’s relatively clean bill of health so far in his career, and you can see why the investment made so much sense to Milwaukee. Khris Middleton is pretty darn good, you guys. I’ll try my best not to tweet about him so often now.