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Milwaukee Bucks Have a Perfect Second Option in Khris Middleton

The Bucks are playing like a superteam despite having only one superstar. They have the best record (42-14) in the NBA this season, and the best net rating (plus-9.6) of any team over the last two seasons. Everyone knows about Giannis Antetokounmpo. Khris Middleton, their second-best player, is more of an unknown nationally. He just made his first All-Star Game in his seventh season. The complementary nature of his game makes him the perfect second option in Milwaukee. The Bucks will need the synergy between him and Giannis to outweigh the glitzier star pairings that Milwaukee will inevitably face in the Eastern Conference playoffs. If the team makes the NBA Finals, Middleton will become a star in his own right.

Middleton is playing the best basketball of his career under new head coach Mike Budenholzer. His per-game numbers (17.1 points on 43.8 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 1.1 steals) are in line with his career averages. The difference is that he’s taking more 3s than ever before (6.0 per game) while cutting down on his number of long 2-point attempts between 16 feet from the basket and the 3-point line. Middleton went from taking 18.9 percent of his field goal attempts in that range last season to 9.9 percent this season. The change hasn’t made him more efficient; his true shooting percentage is slightly down from last season. Middleton is just using geometry to his advantage by stretching out the defense and attacking from farther away. And the attention he generates by doing that makes everyone around him better. The Bucks go from an offensive rating of 114.2 in 1,645 minutes with Middleton this season to 106.0 in 1,053 minutes without him.

A player who generates so much of his offense from beyond the 3-point line is the perfect partner for Giannis, who has been historically dominant at the rim this season. They are the rare one-two punch that can threaten the defense simultaneously from different areas of the floor. They aren’t as redundant as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who are both at their best with the ball in their hands in the paint. Nor are there many defenses with the size on the perimeter to match up with Giannis (6-foot-11 and 242 pounds) and Middleton (6-foot-8 and 222 pounds). Not only do their games fit well together, but there aren’t any chemistry issues that can occur when two big-time scorers play together. Middleton has accepted a smaller role in the offense without complaint.

What makes Middleton special is that he could be equally effective in a bigger role. Middleton isn’t just a secondary scorer. He can play on or off the ball over the course of a game. He’s a well-rounded offensive player who can score out of pick-and-rolls, isolations, and post-ups, shoot off movement after running around screens, and make plays for his teammates. His usage rate skyrockets from 18.7 in 1,071 minutes with Giannis this season to 30.1 in 574 minutes without him. He has the skills to be The Man somewhere else. The Bucks have an eye-popping net rating of plus-15.5 (and an offensive rating of 112.7, which is slightly below their season total) in those 574 minutes without Giannis this season.

Middleton is one of the few players in the NBA who creates both space and shots for his teammates. There are 16 players averaging at least six 3-point attempts and four assists per game this season. The vast majority are point guards who can be slowed down by longer and more athletic defenders. Middleton is a 6-foot-8 point forward. The only players his size hitting those benchmarks are Paul George and Blake Griffin. Players with that combination of size and skill set are almost impossible to defend because few defenders can stay in front of them and still bother their shot, and they can pick apart a defense that sends help. Middleton has an extra advantage because any wing defender who could guard him probably has the Giannis assignment.

There isn’t much flash to Middleton’s game. He’s not an elite athlete, and he can’t play above the rim. Everything starts with his jumper. He can raise up from anywhere, and he doesn’t need much space to get off his shot. He makes his living knocking down tough shots. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Middleton is in the 70th percentile of players leaguewide when shooting off the dribble this season, and he was in the 82nd percentile last season. He is what Joe Johnson would look like in a modern offense. He is taking a higher percentage of his shots from behind the 3-point line (43.3) than Johnson did in his prime, and he uses ball screens to force mismatches and attack weaker defenders in space. This is something we will see a lot in the playoffs:

Middleton’s offensive versatility alone makes him one of the more valuable players in the league. His defense raises his value even higher. He’s the top wing defender on the no. 1 defense. Giannis is a power-forward-center hybrid who roams the paint as a help-side defender, and Malcolm Brogdon (6-foot-5) doesn’t have the size to match up with the best wings in the East. Middleton had the assignment on Kawhi Leonard in three of their four games against Toronto and held the MVP candidate to 11-of-27 shooting (40.4 percent) when they were matched up. He’s a smart defender who leverages his size to compensate for his lack of speed. He will have a lot on his plate in the playoffs. Milwaukee will have to go through some combination of Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston to get out of the East, which means Middleton will be guarding Kawhi, Jimmy Butler, and/or Jayson Tatum.

The biggest reason that Middleton is not considered an elite player is that he has never been in the spotlight before. He already has two strikes against him: He plays for a small-market team and doesn’t take a lot of shots (13.9 per game this season). The Bucks have a lot of mouths to feed on offense, which means everyone but Giannis has to sacrifice. Their starting backcourt of Eric Bledsoe (12.5 field goal attempts per game) and Brogdon (11.8) can both have offense run through them, and their fifth option (Brook Lopez) is a former All-Star averaging 9.6 field goal attempts per game. Middleton has to pick and choose when to look for his shot, and there are times when he can be invisible, given all their other options. He hasn’t taken more than 20 shots in a game once this season.

No player has been hurt more by the poor coaching in Milwaukee through the past few seasons than Middleton. It’s hard to give too much credit to the secondary option on an average team when he’s playing next to one of the best players in the NBA. Middleton has spent his entire career in Giannis’s shadow, but his sacrifice was never noticed because the previous coaching regime of Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty left so many points on the board. The Bucks have been a sleeping giant in the East for years. I thought they should have won their first-round series against Toronto in 2017 and Boston in 2018. It was not hard to predict what would happen once Budenholzer installed a more modern scheme. A competently run team with Giannis and Middleton as its best two players should be a perennial contender. Middleton is 27 and is just entering his prime, and his game is not based on explosiveness. This probably won’t be the only All-Star Game that he makes in his career.

The Bucks wasted what should have been a star-making performance from Middleton in last season’s playoffs. He averaged 24.7 points on 59.8 percent shooting and had 5.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game in Milwaukee’s first-round loss to the Celtics, and he scored at will against any defender they tried on him. His dominance slipped under the radar because Boston was seen as an underachieving team winning with smoke and mirrors after losing Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Middleton’s performance looks much more impressive in retrospect, after that same group embarrassed the 76ers in five games in the second round and took the Cavs to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals.

Milwaukee needs that version of Middleton to make it out of the East, which is deeper than ever at the top. There is nothing that anyone can do against a force of nature like Giannis. The key for opposing teams is slowing down his supporting cast. The biggest Achilles’s heel is Lopez: His shooting ability opens up the Bucks on offense, but his lack of speed leaves them vulnerable on defense. They have more options with the emergence of D.J. Wilson in the past two months and their trade for Nikola Mirotic at the deadline, but there will still not be as much space for smaller guards like Bledsoe and Brogdon to operate as they have in the regular season. The Bucks will need someone besides Giannis who can score with defenders draped over him at the end of the shot clock, and Antetokounmpo’s inconsistent jumper means that he will not always be the best option in those situations.

Middleton showed he could handle that role in last season’s playoffs, but there’s no guarantee his hot shooting carries over. He shot 61.0 percent from 3 on 5.9 attempts per game and 59.2 percent from 2 on 10.1 attempts per game against Boston. Those numbers will regress to the mean, and he doesn’t have a Plan B when his jumper isn’t falling. He doesn’t get to the foul line much (his free throw rate of .222 is no. 44 among the 54 players who average at least 17 points per game this season), and he’s only an average finisher at the rim, where he’s shooting 61.4 percent. The Bucks can’t afford for Middleton to get in a slump at the wrong time. Budenholzer will need to scheme him into open shots, either by playing him in the two-man game with Giannis, or by having Middleton force weaker defenders to switch on him when he’s the ball handler in those plays.

Middleton will get paid like a star this summer, either way. There will be a lot of teams with the cap space to sign a player to a maximum contract, and he’s a more realistic target for a small-market team like Utah or Indiana than some of the bigger names that will be out there. Milwaukee will have no choice but to max him out, which means it won’t have the flexibility to make many other moves around Giannis going forward. Giving Middleton $30 million a year might seem like an overpay right now, but he could turn himself into a much bigger name by the time the playoffs are over. He has the ability to be the second-best player on a championship team. Now he just has to show it.

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