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Khris Middleton is a star who makes the Bucks, not the other way around

It’s time to recognize Middleton’s talent on its own merits.

Khris Middleton big head art.
Khris Middleton is doing it all for the Bucks.

“How have you been able to balance spacing the floor and operating in the mid range area?”

It’s a simple question posed to Milwaukee Bucks wing Khris Middleton during the 2019 NBA All-Star Game media availability. He’s spent the last two seasons trying to answer it. When head coach Mike Budenholzer was hired before the start of the 2018-19 season, he challenged Middleton to overhaul his shot profile, eliminating the steady diet of the mid-post touches he built his career on in favor of more three-pointers and attacking off movement.

That sounds like an easy change on the surface, but it was tough for Middleton, whose “long mid-range” frequency and three-point rate were nearly identical throughout the pre-Budenholzer era.

“It’s been a challenge for me this year,” Middleton said. “It’s just something I have to adjust to, find a rhythm with it. My mid-range is still there. I know I can fall back on it when I really need to. But right now, what I’m doing — and what the team is doing — is working so I really don’t have to do too much different.”

Middleton has seen the fruits of that change. While last year wasn’t exactly a breakout season for Middleton — he posted better per-game numbers the year before — it was a necessary step in the Bucks’ search for peak optimization.

This year, Middleton has found his personal nirvana. He was named an all-star for the second time in his career, but he’s been so much more than that, too. As the second best player on the best team in the NBA, Middleton is scoring with historic levels of efficiency for a team on-pace to win 70 games.

The Bucks are plowing through teams (50-8 record), having already clinched a playoff spot before March. While Giannis Antetokounmpo is the engine — and arguably the best player in the world — it’s important to note Middleton’s hand in the Bucks’ success. He’s in the midst of a career year, and has taken the leap from all-star to All-NBA candidate.

Middleton is a three-level threat

During the Bucks’ showdown with the red-hot Toronto Raptors Tuesday night, TNT analyst Stan Van Gundy called Middleton “the best all-around shooter in the NBA” this season. It sounds a bit far-fetched when you think of how many elite shooters are in the league right now. Middleton is one of 15 players (14 if you exclude three games of Dion Waiters) shooting north of 40 percent from three on over five attempts.

But Middleton isn’t just hitting triples at an elite rate (43.8 percent on 5.5 attempts), he’s draining shots — all types of shots — from everywhere at an elite rate.

He’s averaging a career-high 21.1 points while converting nearly 55 percent of his two-point shots, the aforementioned three-point clip, and 90.7 percent of his free throws. If his efficiency holds, he’d be just the fifth player in NBA history to post a 50/40/90 season while averaging over 20 points.

The jumper drives Middleton’s game. According to Synergy Sports, he’s generating 1.33 points per catch-and-shoot possession (92nd percentile), and 1.07 points per possession on jumpers off the dribble (89th percentile).

His high, compact release allows him to fling deep shots over opponents without much resistance. Late closeouts — heck, even on-time closeouts — don’t affect him on catch-and-shoot opportunities, which helps explain why he’s been deadly on contested shots (1.48 PPP, 98th percentile).

Middleton has always been able to quickly square himself for shots off movement. His balance, combined with his high release point, bodes well when he operates in high pick-and-roll:

It’s especially effective in isolation. Middleton has continued perfecting his step-back jumper. He doesn’t have Hardenian volume, but we’re approaching the third straight season that he’s made at least 50 percent of those shots (min. 40 attempts).

Middleton becoming a more versatile (and willing) threat from three has opened up the mid-range game even more. Among 70 players that have taken at least 100 mid range shots, Middleton ranks second in field goal percentage (52.8). Only the Point God, Chris Paul, outpaces him (54.3).

He’s confident coming off picks, snaking into the lane, and dropping in fading jumpers around either elbow. If teams drop their big back too far, he’s comfortable tossing in floaters (85th percentile, via Synergy). When matched up against a smaller defender, Middleton has no issue putting them on his hip and sprinkling in turnaround jimmies.

In the clip below, Middleton runs an inverted pick-and-roll with George Hill. Tony Snell (6’7) is originally defending Middleton, but the pick forces Bruce Brown (6’3) to switch. You can imagine how that ends:

Middleton has been mashing those mismatches all season long. He’s shooting an obscene 59.2 percent on post-ups, the third highest mark in the NBA among players with at least 50 post-up possessions.

Middleton excels without Giannis, too

Having a teammate like Antetokounmpo is obviously helpful. Opponents can’t afford to key in on Middleton because there’s a 7-footer ready to create a demolition derby at any given moment. The Middleton-Antetokounmpo pairing has a plus-17.9 net rating in 928 minutes this season, the second best two-man combo in the league behind … the Eric Bledsoe-Antetokounmpo pairing (plus-19.8).

However, Middleton’s improvement on the margins has turned him into a great creator instead of a good one. His scoring prowess enhances his underrated passing acumen. It’s why he ranks in the 75th percentile or better in pick-and-roll, isolation, and post-up possessions (passes included).

When Antetokounmpo goes to the bench, Middleton is empowered to anchor second units. He’s more than held his own in that regard, averaging 31-8-6 per 36 minutes with a 50-40-95 shooting split. The Bucks have outscored opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions in the 597 minutes Middleton has gone solo.

In the six games Antetokounmpo missed, Middleton led the Bucks to a 5-1 record while averaging 27.3 points (48/48/96 shooting split), 7.3 rebounds, and 6.2 assists. This included his 51-point masterpiece against the Washington Wizards.

In short: don’t let the Antetokounmpo factor distract you from how good Middleton is on his own merit.

Middleton’s case for All-NBA

Assuming Middleton will be listed as a forward on All-NBA ballots, the race will be tight. It’s safe to say Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard will occupy three of the six slots available. If Anthony Davis is listed as a forward instead of center, he’d take up another slot.

For the last two spots, you’d be looking at a field that includes, but isn’t limited to, Middleton, Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Pascal Siakam, and Brandon Ingram. From there, it may come down to what you prioritize.

If it’s winning, it’s hard not to go with Middleton and one of Siakam or Tatum. Middleton’s been a wildly important piece on one of the best regular-season teams ever. We don’t know if Ingram’s Pelicans will win 40 games, much less make the playoffs. Simmons has been fantastic on both ends, though his back injury may cause him to miss an extended period of time. That could be a tiebreaker in a race as close as this one.

Middleton’s per-game numbers fall short, but advanced metrics paint him in a much higher light — he laps them in PER, True Shooting Percentage, Win Shares, Win Shares Per 48, and Box Plus/Minus (BPM).

In a way, Middleton’s case has actually been hurt by Milwaukee’s success. His base numbers are lower because he’s averaging a shade under 30 minutes a night. His production per 100 possessions is on par with Siakam, and slightly better than Tatum’s once you factor in the assist (6.4 vs 4.0) and efficiency gaps.

Even if Middleton doesn’t make an All-NBA team, he’s (further) solidified himself as one of the NBA’s best wings. Of course, the more important question is if he can keep up this production in the postseason. We’ve seen him light the Celtics on fire; we’ve also seen him disappear as recently as the Eastern Conference Finals last season.

If this is the Middleton the Bucks get, it’s hard to imagine any team beating them in a series.