The Bucks started winning as soon as Khris Middleton started playing. When Middleton returned on February 8 from a torn hamstring that had kept him out for the first three months of the season, Milwaukee was in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with a 22–28 record. In the past two months, the Bucks have gone 18–10 and jumped all the way up to the no. 5 seed. They were 14–4 in March, with a top-12 rating on both sides of the ball. Milwaukee essentially swapped Jabari Parker, who tore his ACL in Middleton’s first game back, for Middleton, and became a better team in the process. Giannis Antetokounmpo gets all the publicity, but Middleton is why the Bucks are the proverbial team no one wants to face in the first round of the playoffs.
Middleton has shown no rust since coming back. He is averaging six fewer minutes per game than last season, but is putting up almost the same statistics on a per-36-minute basis: 18 points on 45.5 percent shooting, 4.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.6 steals. He’s one of the smartest, most well-rounded wings in the NBA; he’s not an elite athlete, but his game is proof that that isn’t necessary to be a great basketball player. Middleton is easy to overlook because he doesn’t do anything spectacularly; the strength of his game is that he doesn’t do anything poorly. He’s just as dangerous off the ball as he is on the ball, and he can slide among three different positions on defense. Middleton fits into any lineup and makes everyone around him better, which is why Milwaukee has been able to integrate him into the rotation so seamlessly. He’s the connective glue that turns the Bucks from a mismatched collection of long limbs into a group that is better than the sum of its parts.
In the 787 minutes that Middleton has played this season, the Bucks have an offensive rating of 111 (which would be fourth in the league over the course of the season) and a defensive rating of 105.8 (which would be tied for 13th). Their net rating with him on the floor (plus-5.2) is the best mark on the team. The most impressive part of Middleton’s production is how much of it has happened without Giannis on the floor. Jason Kidd staggers the minutes of his two best players so that one is almost always on the floor. Opponents can’t take a breather when Giannis comes out, because the Bucks have been better with Middleton running the show:
At 6-foot-8 and 234 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Middleton has the size of a power forward and the game of a perimeter player. He’s one of the best shooters in the NBA — he shoots 41.7 percent from 3 on 3.7 attempts per game and 87.5 percent from the free throw line — and Middleton’s length allows him to fire when there isn’t any space to work with. Even if a smaller player is draped all over him on defense, the opponent can’t bother his shot. On plays like this, it’s as if Middleton is in an empty gym, shooting over a chair:
One of the Bucks’ favorite tactics is to run pick-and-rolls with Middleton as the ball handler to force a smaller player to switch on to him. Middleton knows how to use his size to his advantage, and he can create his own shot at any point in the possession. “Guys that are the higher-paid guys in this league that become max players … can go produce a shot or a double-team, and [Middleton] is one of those guys,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said before Dallas’s game against the Bucks last week. “He’s extremely difficult to deal with as well because they can just give him the ball and he’s great at creating a look, and he’s pretty good at getting fouled.”
Once he gets a guard on his back, the defense is in trouble.
Post play has fallen out of fashion in recent years. Part of the issue is how much the league has relaxed on illegal defense rules, which has made it much easier to pack the paint and prevent an easy entry pass to a big man; it also means that once a big man gets the ball, the defense can shade help his way and prevent him from getting much space to go into his move. Plus, in general, it’s really hard to score over the top of NBA big men, who have spent all of their lives battling offensive players in the post. None of those things apply when a wing like Middleton is playing with his back to the basket: Middleton can post 20-plus feet from the basket and create a high-percentage shot, while most guards don’t have nearly as much experience defending in the post as power forwards and centers.
Posting up Middleton will be a huge weapon for the Bucks in the playoffs, when the game slows down and defenses know the other team’s offensive sets and pet plays by heart, making one-on-one offense in the half court more important. The Bucks are one of the longest teams in the NBA, starting Malcolm Brogdon (6-foot-5 and 215 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan) and Tony Snell (6-foot-7 and 217 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) next to Middleton and Giannis, and that teamwide size makes it easy for Kidd to manipulate matchups in order to attack smaller guards on defense.
Middleton’s passing ability makes him even more dangerous with the ball.
That’s what separates him from Parker, and it’s a big reason the Bucks have gotten better in Jabari’s absence. Parker is a more explosive scorer, but he doesn’t have Middleton’s ability to read the floor at this stage in his career. Whether Middleton is in the post or in the pick-and-roll, he’s always looking to draw multiple defenders and set up his teammates. His ability to have offense run through him at 6-foot-8 is a huge weapon, because he can see over the defense and throw passes smaller players can’t even attempt.
Middleton would lose in a footrace to JaVale McGee 100 times out of 100, but he has ways of neutralizing his opponent’s athleticism. Middleton is adept at changing speeds, and below, he keeps McGee off-balance just long enough to create an opening for a pass. This is like watching Jamie Moyer throw an 80 mph fastball right past a major league hitter.
Middleton’s lack of explosiveness as he recovers from his hamstring injury has been more of an issue defensively, and the Bucks have given him less responsibility on that side of the floor this season. Brogdon usually takes the point guard and Snell matches up with the other team’s best wing, leaving Middleton to deal with the least-threatening perimeter player and play as a help-side defender. He occasionally gets beat off the dribble, but his combination of length, strength, and basketball IQ means he’s still able to hold his own. He also has the versatility to switch screens and match up with almost any type of player on a given possession. In this sequence, he winds up forcing Russell Westbrook to take a pull-up jumper, a huge win for a bigger and slower defender:
In this sequence, he’s able to fight off Dirk Nowitzki on the switch, preventing the 7-footer from establishing post position and forcing the Mavs offense out of the shot they wanted:
There aren’t many players in the NBA who can contribute to a team in as many ways as Middleton. He can threaten a defense as a spot-up shooter, a primary option, or as a playmaker, and he can switch screens and match up with almost any type of player on defense. Under Kidd, the Bucks play a fluid, positionless style of basketball that asks players to be Swiss army knives on both ends of the floor. No player fits his philosophy better than Middleton. Wing players have never been more important in the NBA, and Milwaukee has the league’s best one-two punch at wing outside of Golden State.
The playoff standings in the East are pretty jumbled at the moment. The Bucks are jockeying with the Hawks for the no. 5 seed, and the Raptors and Wizards are battling for the no. 3 seed. Both teams would much rather face Atlanta than Milwaukee. In a series against the Bucks, their best perimeter defender will have his hands full guarding Giannis, and their second-best perimeter defender will have little chance of stopping Middleton. Middleton missed all four of Milwaukee’s games against Washington this season, but he scored 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting in the Bucks’ 101–94 victory over Toronto on March 4. The playoffs are all about matchups, and matching up against a team with two elite wings is a nightmare. All of the focus at the start of the Bucks’ first-round series will be on Giannis. By the end of it, it could be on Khris Middleton.