The best story in the NBA is happening in Milwaukee this season. While the mainstream press has occupied itself speculating on what Giannis Antetokounmpo will do as a free agent in the summer of 2021, the Bucks are putting together one of the strongest regular season campaigns the league has ever seen.
The Bucks are currently playing at a 72-win pace well past the halfway point of the season. Milwaukee has the best record in the NBA, the best player in the NBA, and the possibly the best bench in the NBA. They also have a legitimate co-star to Antetokounmpo as a No. 2 option who is about to be named an all-star for the second time in his career.
Khris Middleton has had a remarkable season by any standard, and Tuesday night he turned in the game of his life against the Washington Wizards. With Antetokounmpo out with a shoulder injury, Middleton dropped 51 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists in a 151-131 Bucks’ win.
Middleton doesn’t have the name recognition of a typical star. Maybe it’s because he lacked the draft hype of so many players entering the league as a second round pick out of Texas A&M in 2012. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing particularly flashy about his game. Maybe it all goes back to market size and playing in Milwaukee. Whatever the reason, Middleton feels like one of the league’s most slept-on players. Given just how important he is to the Bucks’ title hopes, that shouldn’t be the case as the regular season gives way to the playoffs.
Middleton entered unrestricted free agency last summer just before his 28th birthday. The Bucks didn’t waste any time giving him a max contract, agreeing to a five-year, $178 million deal the moment free agency opened. Some wondered if Middleton could live up to such an enormous contract, especially after the Bucks lost Malcolm Brogdon to the Pacers. All Middleton has done in response is turn in an amazing season in the first year of the deal.
His breakout performance against Washington only crystalizes how great he’s been.
Middleton is having an incredibly efficient season
Here are Middleton’s numbers so far this season: 20.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.9 assists in 28.8 minutes per game on 50.3 percent shooting from the field, 43.2 percent shooting from three-point range, and 90.6 percent shooting from the foul line.
Yes, that puts Middleton in the mix to join the hallowed 50/40/90 club. The Bucks had Brogdon join that list last season, but Middleton’s efficiency while still being a volume scorer is even more impressive. These are the only players who have ever had a 50/40/90 season while averaging at least 20 points per game: Stephen Curry, Larry Bird, Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki. Not bad company.
Middleton was as efficient as ever in his career night vs. the Wizards, shooting 16-of-26 from the field, 7-of-10 from three-point range, and 12-of-12 from the foul line even without Antetokounmpo to take the brunt of the defensive attention.
He even had some uncharacteristically dope highlights. Middleton breaking ankles!
Khris Middleton breaking ankles pic.twitter.com/CRYflyrMFL— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) January 29, 2020
Middleton with poster dunks in crunch time!
Middleton dropping dimes!
There are simply not many players alive who can do this at 6’7, especially while providing two-way influence in every game. He’s been worth every penny the Bucks gave him last summer.
Middleton is thriving without Antetokounmpo on the floor
It’s easy to attribute Middleton’s success to playing on the same team as Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo is likely to win his second MVP in a row, and has been even more dominant this season than he was last year. He is the sport’s biggest supernova, demanding immense attention from the opposition for every second he’s on the floor.
That’s what makes this next stat even more remarkable: with Antetokounmpo off the floor, Middleton has a net rating of plus-12.9, which ranks in the 97th percentile of the league, per Cleaning the Glass.
It is worth pointing out the Bucks are also tremendous with all of their starters off the floor, as detailed by our Michael Pina earlier this month. Such is life for a team that sits at 41-6 after the win over Washington.
Middleton deserves appreciate without playoff validation
Who would have thought Middleton would get a moment like this?
It must be noted that the Wizards have the worst defense in the NBA by a mile, giving up 116.6 points per 100 possessions. The truth is Middleton has been crushing opposing defenses all season long no matter who he’s playing.
The Bucks know they will ultimately be judged by what happens in the playoffs. The reputations of Middleton, head coach Mike Budenholzer, and even Antetokounmpo hang on if the team can come out of the East and capture the franchise’s first championship since 1971. Whether it happens or not, it’s worth appreciating Middleton’s tremendous season.
Middleton might not be a brand name among casual fans, but his combination of efficiency, impact, and production deserves to be celebrated by die hards.