Being the second banana on a championship contender can be one of the most thankless jobs in the NBA. The No. 2 option tends to only get a small slice of credit if his team wins while the rest goes to the superstar playing next to him. Fall short and a team’s failures are often seen as a reflection of the shortcomings of the supporting cast — starting with the second star.
Khris Middleton knew this predicament as well as anyone before his brilliant performance in the 2021 NBA Finals. Before Middleton proved himself on the biggest stage, there were years of questions centered on if he was good enough for the job.
Milwaukee rose to the level of a championship contender out of thin air when they hired Mike Budenholzer as head dcoach ahead of the 2018-2019 season. The Bucks sprinted to the best record in the NBA in Bud’s first year, and they did it again in 2019-2020. Giannis Antetokounmpo was named MVP in both seasons, and won Defensive Player of the Year in the latter. The Bucks still fell short in the NBA playoffs, though: they blew a 2-0 lead on the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019, and then more or less got their asses kicked by the Miami Heat in a five-game gentleman’s sweep in the second round inside the bubble.
Antetokounmpo took his fair share of criticism after both eliminations, but his superstar bonafides were still secure. With his contract on the brink of expiring, Giannis’ future became the biggest storyline in the league. The thought was that if the Greek Freak wanted to win a championship, he’d have to leave Milwaukee. He simply didn’t have enough help on the Bucks, largely because Middleton wasn’t seen as good enough to be the second option on a title team.
Granted: Middleton was never supposed to be the second option on a squad with championship aspirations. The fact that he willed his name into that discussion is a testament to his remarkable growth as a player after entering the league as a second round pick (No. 39 overall) in the 2012 NBA Draft. Middleton spent one season with the Detroit Pistons, and was then considered a throw-in in the Brandon Knight for Brandon Jennings swap with Milwaukee.
Even after a solid debut season with the Bucks where he averaged just over 12 points per game, it was hard to see Middleton as anything more than a nice complementary piece. The Bucks were supposed to find their other star the next season as they landed the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Andrew Wiggins went with the first pick, which left Milwaukee with two choices: Kansas center Joel Embiid or Duke forward Jabari Parker. Embiid had major injury issues, and Parker had been seen as a phenom since his high school days in Chicago. Parker was a completely defensible pick at the time, but he ended up being a bust after two ACL surgeries in his first four years as a pro.
Meanwhile, Middleton just kept improving little by little. After his second season with the team, the Bucks awarded with him a five-year, $70 million deal. He paid them back with the best season of his career, but the Bucks fell out of playoff contention with a 33-win season. Disaster struck as Middleton entered the next year: he tore his left hamstring in preseason workouts and was sidelined for six months.
Middleton would come back in full force the following season, averaging 20 points per game for the first time in his career. The Bucks and Celtics would go on to play an epic seven-game series, and Middleton scored 24.7 points per game, made 61 percent of his threes (on six attempts per game), and finished with a ridiculous 71 percent effective field goal percentage. Antetokounmpo was now a full-fledged star, and Middleton had ascended to second option status. The Bucks were still going home in the first round for the third time in the last four years.
As Budenholzer was about to be hired ahead of the next season, the first thing he did was sit down with Antetokounmpo and Middleton for a now infamous breakfast. The Bucks may have been Giannis’ organization, but Middleton had a seat at the table. If Antetokounmpo was going to fulfill his destiny and become an NBA champion, Middleton would be at his side.
Budenholzer laid out his plan for how he would turn the Bucks into a contender. It would start on the defensive end, with Brook Lopez signed to a value deal to anchor the middle. On offense, it was all about spreading the floor around Giannis. For Middleton, that meant Budenholzer asking him to cut out the significant diet of mid-range shots that had defined his offensive profile to that point in his career.
Middleton was named an All-Star for the first time in his career as the Bucks got off to a 43-14 start by the break. It wasn’t always easy for him to find his spots in the offense, though. Middleton’s scoring efficiency was at its lowest since his first season in Milwaukee as his shooting profile was effectively overhauled. After taking at least 50 percent of his shots from mid-range each of the last four seasons, he was now taking only 39 percent of his attempts from that part of the floor. His percentage of shots from three-point range hit an all-time high, while his three-point percentage dipped below the 40 percent rate he was accustomed to.
Budenholzer would eventually see the beauty in Middleton’s mid-range game after the playoff exit to the Raptors. He ticked its mid-range frequency up to about where it was at before in the pre-Bud days last season. The result was one of the better shooting seasons in league history: Middleton came a handful of field goals away from a 50/40/90 shooting split while averaging a career-best 20.9 points per game. Nothing went right for the Bucks in the bubble, but Middleton did carry the team to its only win against the Heat, dropping 36 points in Game 4 after Giannis went out with an injury.
Middleton was now a two-time All-Star and one of the league’s best shooters, but it was clear the Bucks needed more help. They traded three first round picks and two pick swaps for Jrue Holiday to be the third star. Even as Holiday turned in an effective first season in Milwaukee, he didn’t solve the Bucks’ biggest problem of finding an offensive shot creator. Instead, that role again largely fell to Middleton when the games mattered the most.
The Bucks drew the Heat for a playoff rematch in the first round. Maybe Milwaukee’s spirits would have taken a major hit had they dropped Game 1, but Middleton hit a game-winner at the buzzer in overtime to hint at what was to come. For the next two months, Middleton was Milwaukee’s tough shot king in the clutch over and over.
Nobody hit more big shots than Khris Middleton in these playoffs. Clutch time superstar. pic.twitter.com/dSXaGGxH0a— Jonathan Gauthier (@jgauthier_23) July 22, 2021
It wasn’t always pretty: Middleton had many terrible games on the Bucks’ run to the championship. He scored 13 points on 23 shots in their Game 1 loss to the Brooklyn Nets in the second round, and then scored 17 points on 20 shots as Milwaukee fell into an 0-2 hole the next game. He had 15 points on 23 shots in the Game 1 loss to Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals, and 16 points on 17 shots in the Hawks’ series-tying Game 4 win after Giannis went down with a scary leg injury. As the Bucks dropped Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Middleton shot just 5-of-16 for 11 points against the Suns.
For every rough performance, though, Middleton always seemed to bounce back with an incredible scoring night. He saved the Bucks from falling into an 0-3 hole vs. Brooklyn by dropping 35 points and 15 rebounds in Game 3. He finished with 38 points and 10 rebounds on 11-of-16 shooting in Milwaukee’s critical road win against the Nets to force a seventh game. He had 38 points against the Hawks in Game 3, and 32 for the closeout win in Game 6. He dropped 40 points in a decisive Game 4 win in the NBA Finals that will mostly be remembered for Antetokounmpo’s block on Deayton Ayton in the final minutes.
Even as Giannis was having one of the great NBA Finals performances ever, Middleton was the player earning rave reviews from his peers. C.J. McCollum and Spencer Dinwiddie both suggested he should be in the mix for Finals MVP. ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins called him “Batman” for the Bucks (with Giannis as Robin).
When the Bucks needed a bucket late in their championship-clinching Game 6, it was Middleton running off a screen for a mid-range bucket. What else?
The Bucks will always be Giannis’ franchise first and foremost. They wouldn’t have won this championship if Middleton didn’t rise to become a legitimate No. 2 option on an NBA champion, though.
Middleton had so many trick-or-treat performances in the playoffs because he rarely gets himself an easy bucket. He fell to the second round of the draft in large part because he lacks a super quick first step to break the initial line of the defense. It’s not like he’s gotten much faster. Instead, Middleton leveled up to a historic tier as a shooter, using his big 6’8 frame to rip jumpers over the top of smaller defenders.
Middleton’s lack of burst showed up in his shot profile. During the playoffs this year, he took only 13 percent of his shots at the rim, which ranked in the 17th percentile of players at his position, per Cleaning the Glass. He took 49 percent of his shots from mid-range in the regular season and playoffs, and 25 percent of his shots on ‘long’ mid-range attempts. Those are supposed to be the worst shots in basketball, the shots an opposing defense want to concede.
Middleton still made those long twos at a 47 percent clip in the postseason, per Cleaning the Glass. Those extremely difficult shots represented the razor thin margin between the Bucks being champions and going home early, even with Giannis’ historic effort.
On the brink of his 30th birthday, Middleton has now answered every question. Antetokounmpo is the player who deserves most of the credit for bringing Milwaukee a title, of course. Giannis’ rise from a skinny teenager in Greece to the NBA’s most hulking presence is one of the great stories in the history of sports. Don’t overlook Middleton, though: a second round pick who willed himself into an All-Star, and came through on the biggest stage to be the second star Antetokounmpo needed to win a title.
“I told him the day you retire is going to be the toughest day in my career because I’ve been with you the whole time, and it’s been an unbelievable journey. He’s a great team guy, from where we started and where we are,” Antetokounmpo said during the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Bucks couldn’t have done this without Giannis, and Giannis couldn’t have done it without Middleton. No one will be questioning the value of the second banana this time around.