The Milwaukee Bucks have been in free fall since just before the All-Star Game.
The team has lost 8 out of their last 12, their lone double-digit win in that span a win over the hapless and tanking Orlando Magic. Their point differential is down to minus-0.3 on the season, they’ve fallen to seventh in the East just above the equally anemic Heat, and they look an awful lot like they’re simply going to bow out in five games against the likes of Toronto or Boston come playoff time.
Against the backdrop of this underachievement is a team with a hyped “young core” that, again, is on a 36-32 team, leaving a lot of wide-open questions about just how good a core they’re supposed to be.
Or our subject this week…the AutoCorrect-foiling Khris Middleton.
Middleton is Milwaukee’s second-leading scorer, the only player on the team (through games of March 14) with over 100 made three-pointers, and the team’s second-leading performer by Win Shares.
Which leads to a very obvious question here…
If Khris Middleton is your second-best player, can you do anything in the playoffs, even in the East?
The answer would seem obvious (the Bucks being 36-32 and all), but they started 9-2 under new coach Joe Prunty and were coached by Jason Kidd, who couldn’t develop talent if you gave him a magical talent-developing ray and told him to point it at the players in practice.
But we work with what we have, so…
The Counting Stats
Middleton averages 20 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game, he’s shooting a career-best 46.7 percent from the field, and he’s even doing a better job of forcing his way to the line, averaging 4.3 attempts where he is a strong 87.1 percent shooter.
The bad news is that his three-point percentage has regressed badly now that he’s taking more shots from out there than ever before, however; he shot 43.3 percent last season on 3.6 attempts a game and is a career 39.1 percent shooter from long range. To drop to 35.1, where he is this year, is a massive dropoff.
His shooting this year has been powered by a surprising (and unsustainable) 57 percent shooting between 10 and 16 feet. He shoots 48.6 percent from that stretch of midrange for his career, but you don’t want a guy shooting that shot if you can help it; his eFG% on career-average threes is better than that superhuman accuracy on twos, making it a less efficient shot even when he’s hitting it four times out of seven.
Let’s not celebrate what amounts to a step backward in efficiency.
Along the same lines, his rebounding has remained fairly constant the past few years, as has his passing, but neither are particularly great. Seven rebounds per 100 possessions in a guy who’s increasingly being asked to play the 4 gives Milwaukee a disadvantage when they go small and get bullied on the boards by the other team.
The Advanced Stats
Let’s look at the Big Four, shall we? 17.0 PER, .109 WS/48, 0.1 BPM (1.4 offensive, minus-1.3 defensive, because Middleton couldn’t guard a dead man) and 1.3 VORP, a drop from his last injury-free full season total of 1.9.
Middleton looks to be wilting under the pressure of his role, serving less as a second star and more as a modestly capable NBA starter, the kind of guy you want as a third or fourth option in the lineup when you have a superstar like Antetokounmpo paired up with legitimate pieces of a Big Three (Bledsoe’s a good third man; Milwaukee needs an honest-to-gods second max guy.)
Then again, even with his three-point shooting falling off a cliff, Middleton’s True Shooting is a career-best .575, because of that attacking the lane and getting fouled thing we talked about earlier. He’s an effective scorer, and if his three-point stroke comes back from some quality work in the gym in the next offseason, he may yet emerge as a legitimate force on offense.
And lest anyone think that midrange jumper of his is due to judicious shot selection, fully 21 percent of his attempts are from that range, the highest such rate of his career. Either defenses are letting him have that shot or he’s going out and getting it. Either way, you simply don’t want a guy buttering his bread with midrange jumpers no matter how often they go in.
Which leaves us at a bit of an impasse. Because Middleton is a wretched defender, a questionably efficient shooter whose range seems to be deserting him, and a modest at best rebounder on a team that is dead last in the NBA in team rebounds per 100 possessions.
Is Khris Middleton that legitimate second option we asked about at the top? Not now. He’s an improving shooter, a guy with a weird ability to exploit a defensive gap that’s built into today’s smart inside-out defensive scheme, and a guy who can generate points and fight his way to the line.
He’s not bad enough to make this Busted; he’s nowhere near good enough for Confirmed. Which means the notion that Khris Middleton is any good is…Plausible.