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Khris Middleton Is On Repeat
But is it enough to carry Milwaukee back to the top?
Khris Middleton’s numbers are as metronomic as you’ll ever see in an All-Star. Here are the basic stats for the last five seasons, his age 26 through 30 years:
You rarely see this kind of statistical consistency, for a variety of reasons. For one, players’ skill levels often change as they age or are injured. For another, role will change — a player might shift positions in the pecking order, or maybe he switches teams entirely.
Instead, Middleton has been the Robin to Giannis’ Batman (remember when that was a thing?) for five straight years, under the same coach and playing next to Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton for the most recent four.
Middleton has been the Bucks’ premier perimeter creator throughout that stretch. The narrative around Middleton is that he takes a backseat to Giannis during most of the game but rises to the occasion when crunch time hits. The heightened intensity of end-of-game defense and refs’ willingness to swallow their whistles means that perimeter shot creation is a must for late offense, and that has always been Middleton’s strength.
The “Middleton is Batman” nonsense came about precisely because of that narrative, although it’s overblown — Giannis has led the team in clutch scoring for three of the last four seasons and tied Middleton in the fourth.
But Middleton has hit a disproportionate number of big shots for Milwaukee, and it makes sense — Middleton is a top-tier jump shooter. Out of all 605 players who played in the NBA last year, he shot the 20th-highest share of shots from the short and deep midrange (32.9%) and hit them at a superb 46.1% mark (and he’s made 50% in prior years). He’s a career 39% shooter from downtown, too.
Khris is an excellent spot-up shooter, but he can hurt the defense in multiple other ways. According to Synergy Sports, he’s an above-average post-up player, isolation player, and pick-and-roll player, too. Being a jack of all trades adds up to an offensive player who is worth more than the sum of his parts: the Bucks’ offense has been better with him on the court for every year of his career.
All that said, Middleton has never really resonated with the masses. Coaches love his game, but fans and fellow players don’t share the feeling. All-Star voting is split between fans, media, and players. Khris came in an astonishing 32nd in player voting among Eastern frontcourt players, behind the likes of Lauri Markannen, Nic Claxton, Deni Avdija, and Goga Bitazde (player voting is extremely problematic; the Wizards and Pacers, among many others, seemed to vote mostly for their teammates). Fans picked him as the 14th-best frontcourt player in the East, behind LaMarcus Aldridge, who averaged 12.9 points and 5.5 rebounds and less than one assist per game last year in his inspiring return from medically-induced retirement.
Middleton has never done well in All-Star voting among players and fans, but luckily for him, the coaches pick the reserves, and they are unanimous in their praise for Middleton. It makes sense that the people in charge of game planning for him, and all the frustration that entails, are most appreciative of his gifts.
He’s most at home in the midrange, burrowing into defenders for the turnaround fadeaway like my cat burrowing into comfy pillows for a nap. Stymied here on his first move, he tiptoes the sidelines, settles in, establishes the position he wants, and then hits an absurdly difficult shot over a perfect contest from underrated Cavalier Dean Wade:
He has pristine balance and footwork, the brush and colors of every midrange artist. Each step is a stroke, and each stroke is a masterpiece: turnarounds and fadeaways, pullups and runners, stepbacks and stepthroughs, dropsteps and reverse pivots and whatever this is:
Middleton’s outside prowess has always made him the perfect complement to Giannis’ overwhelming physical presence in the paint. He is an elite shotmaker who has historically ranked alongside Chris Paul and Kevin Durant on high degree of difficulty attempts, and his well-rounded game lets him fill whatever role the team needs.
Middleton is an average to slightly better-than-average defender, which is more than acceptable when you’re also an elite bucket-getter. He’s an unselfish, underrated passer with good court awareness. Watch as he sneaks a glance downcourt before receiving the ball to zero in on a streaking Giannis, then launches the football pass on a dime:
Cheddar-domed Aaron Rodgers would be proud.
Like most players, Middleton’s efficiency has decreased in the playoffs, but he’s proven himself under the brightest lights. He scored 40 points in Milwaukee’s pivotal six-point win in Game 4 against the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals, and he cracked 30 twice during the Eastern Conference Finals against Atlanta.
The Bucks were a favorite to conquer the East once again until Middleton hyperextended his knee, spraining his MCL, in the Bucks' first-round series against Chicago in last year’s playoffs. Milwaukee then lost in seven games to Boston in a series that saw the Bucks get outscored by a combined 35 points during the fourth quarter of their four losses. It’s very plausible that a healthy Middleton would have helped the Bucks win the Eastern Conference, and then who knows what might have happened in the Finals?
And that brings us back to the present. Khris turns 31 in a week and had a slightly down year even pre-injury, like a clock slowly, almost imperceptibly, winding down. He also had offseason wrist surgery. Giannis, three years younger, seems to get better each season, but much of the roster is getting up there in years.
Middleton’s never relied upon athleticism, and his game should age well. If he can regain his consistent form, the Bucks are still a major championship contender. The Celtics may have wrestled away the title of East favorite after upgrading their roster over the offseason, but they want no part of a rematch with a healthy Bucks team. Milwaukee will have continuity and the best player in the world on their side. Although they aren’t as deep top-to-bottom as some other teams, they have some roster flexibility and a formula that’s proven to work.
I can’t stop thinking about this line from a Zach Lowe story about Middleton in the middle of Khris’ first All-Star campaign back in 2019: “He is not as good as the typical second banana on a title team.” A lot has changed since then. Whether he’s a typical second option or not, Middleton’s proven he can be an anchor on a champion, and he’s no longer a rising star — in fact, he’s going to start his descent sooner than later. With a generational superstar like Giannis and an able third wheel in Jrue Holiday, though, Middleton doesn’t have to be “as good as” the usual Robin. If history is any indication, he’ll be out there delivering 20/6/5 like a machine, humming along in the background — and that’s good enough.