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The Answer to the NBA’s 3s-and-Layups Era Lies Somewhere in the Middle

As teams increasingly program their offenses to generate shots from behind the arc or at the rim, midrange artists like Khris Middleton are becoming the checkmate piece every title contender needs

Brent Schoonover

There is a recognizable futility in attempting to beat Kevin Durant at his own game, trading iso for iso with the most unguardable player of his generation, and yet it’s become Khris Middleton’s responsibility to take an honest crack at it. Sometimes it can feel like trying to outrun the wind. Durant, after all, is an impossible basketball player—not just ahead of his time but beyond even basic human proportions. Middleton, in comparison, has built a career on a series of simple machines. His game is as ostentatious as a lever.

“I know that I’m not the fastest and most athletic guy,” Middleton says, “but I do have a lot of length where I can shoot over guys.” So he patiently works toward his spots, taking his time as he searches out scoring opportunities in the midrange—an area of the court largely abandoned by NBA offenses but critical territory for the league’s most deadly postseason scorers. “If I find a way to create a little bit of space or a little bit of an angle to get into my spot to raise up over, that’s what it takes: finding ways to get defenders off balance with my footwork … little setups just to get the defender a little off balance to create just enough space for me to get it off.” It requires a lifetime of craftsmanship to create the kind of opening that Durant, before he even begins to flex his unprecedented skill, can casually stroll into.

Which makes it all the more remarkable when a player like Middleton—a star to Durant’s blinding superstar—can outdo him in the balance of crunch time. The Bucks won Game 3 of their second-round series against the Nets with one hard-earned basket from Middleton after another: a bread-and-butter pull-up from 18 feet, a tough floater over two defenders, a layup Brooklyn could only stop by goaltend. Durant came up one make short in the closing stretch and five points shy of Middleton’s 35, though the fact that there was a duel at all is somewhat preposterous in context. With its season on the brink of abject disaster, a title-contending team cleared its savvy point guard off to the side, designated the two-time MVP as a screener, and gave the ball, over and over, to Middleton.

As a teenager, Middleton would stay up late to watch Kobe Bryant close out games from three time zones away. Kids around the country probably weren’t hanging on every dribble of Middleton’s crunch-time run against the Nets in quite the same way. His game is quieter. Softer. For a scorer with his own extended reel of clutch heroics, Middleton cuts an unassuming figure; it’s a version of stardom without the signal boost of a massive market or the thrust of mythology. Yet in the highest-leverage moments, Milwaukee leans on Middleton to create the kinds of shots that no one else on the team can.

“That’s what he does,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said after Middleton’s game-winning fadeaway to close out Game 1 against Miami. “Having a guy like Khris with the ball down the stretch, you know what’s gonna come.”

Defenses do too. Middleton didn’t shake loose because the Nets had only skimmed the scouting report. Every team knows where he wants to go and what kinds of shots he wants to take. But in a league where players have been trained to chase shooters off the 3-point line and protect the basket at all costs, there’s just not much that can be done when Middleton slinks into the space between the layers of the defense with one- and two-dribble jumpers. No one builds a scheme to take away the 19-footer, which is why in so many of the closest, hardest-fought playoff games, it’s often the shot that wins.

Any conversation about midrange shooting is framed by the fact that the NBA’s 3-point revolution is already over, and the long ball won. The team that proportionally took the fewest 3s this season (the Washington Wizards) would have led the entire league in 3-point-shooting frequency as recently as 2014. Yet the more that the NBA style is saturated with 3-pointers and layups, the more valuable best-in-class creators in the midrange game become.

“If you can shoot a 3, guys these days really aren’t gonna let you get a 3 off,” says Middleton, a 41 percent shooter from deep this season. “They’re gonna try to force you downhill. And now, with the way that you see a lot of schemes and coaches and the way they play, they want 3s or layups. So the defender’s thinking mostly that you’re going to the rim. So you sell your drive as hard as you can, and if you can stop on balance, it’s basically a wide-open shot because the defender thinks you’re going to the rim the whole time.”

The midrange jumper isn’t a correction, then, but a counter; teams need to rely on the most efficient shots until they can’t—until systemic ideals crash into playoff realities. When that happens, a scorer as versatile as Middleton gives his team hope of a way through. It’s a quality that the Bucks, in their original designs for how they wanted to play, almost took for granted.

Khris Middleton handles the ball against Kevin Durant during Game 2 of Bucks-Nets on June 7, 2021
Khris Middleton handles the ball against Kevin Durant during Game 2 of Bucks-Nets on June 7, 2021
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

A few hours before Mike Budenholzer was offered the job as the head coach of the Bucks in 2018, he met Antetokounmpo and Middleton for breakfast to explain his vision for what their team could be. That meal became a part of modern Bucks lore—presaging both the leap from 44 wins to 60 in Budenholzer’s first season and, more crucially, the unlocking of Antetokounmpo as the NBA’s purest expression of shock and awe. Those plans were predicated, in part, on Middleton accepting a role playing off to the side, dutifully spacing the court. In the system Budenholzer laid out, there was Giannis, and then there was everyone else. What followed was three years of negotiation.

After just a few months on the job, Budenholzer started making compromises. Middleton was too varied a scorer to fit such a rigid role, and lost the plot of his game when he tried. So Budenholzer sprinkled in occasional post-ups to help reconnect him with the player he was. Over the course of their first season together, those in-between attempts multiplied and spread to fill all the vacated space in Middleton’s shot chart, like a forest growing back after it had been cleared to stumps. Every season since, Middleton has taken more of his shots from the midrange, as have the Bucks. One of the most dogmatic offenses in the league has, with the gentle nudging of a few playoff letdowns, endeavored toward a more adaptive balance.

“I think we just had to get Bud comfortable with it,” Middleton says. “With him, he wants to look at the numbers and see if it’s a good shot and are you making it first. If you’re not making it, it’s probably not a good shot.”

So let’s talk numbers. The long 2 is characteristically, notoriously, unapologetically inefficient. In the modern NBA, to take those shots at all is often considered an act of stubbornness—a choice to leave points on the board by refusing to inch back behind the line for a 3. Sometimes, however, it can be purely pragmatic. Over the past two seasons, Middleton has made 49.5 percent of his long midrange jumpers according to PBP Stats, a mark unmatched among the league’s midrange enthusiasts save for Chris Paul (51.5 percent), who has spent the past few years—and the past few weeks in particular—on a one-man crusade against the drop defense. Durant (51.2 percent) is absent from that list only because he missed the entirety of last season and much of this one.

Otherwise, Durant, Middleton, and Paul are among the few scorers potent enough in the midrange game to grant its enduring function—to make the absolute most out of a shot the league has largely tried to expel. “Sometimes,” Middleton says, “that might be the best shot you might get in a possession. You’ve gotta be able to take it and not worry about saying I only want 3s or I only want layups.”

Even as the NBA has filtered out many of its lowest-calorie attempts and replaced them with 3s, the players with the most clout and the highest usage have continued to create their own midrange shots at pretty much the same rates they did previously. One of the perks of stardom is deciding how you eat. Everyone else more or less gets the prix fixe: pick-and-roll standards, open jumpers, and slashes to the rim when the opportunity allows.

The longer Budenholzer has coached the Bucks, the more room he’s made in his offense for Middleton to play like a star. Not only is Middleton getting the ball more often in the half court than any other Buck in this series against the Nets, but his tandem play with Giannis has become the most reliable framework for Milwaukee’s crunch-time offense. The looming threat of a pull-up jumper, in particular, is what makes their pick-and-roll dynamic such a challenging cover. Middleton will catch the ball at the top of the floor with a high screen at his disposal and force opponents to guess his intentions with every step—first to chase him out of a pull-up 3, then to track him closely through the midrange, and all without selling out to give Middleton a lane to the basket or a clear view of a teammate already en route there. Almost half of Middleton’s 5.4 assists per game in the regular season went straight to the rim, many of them lobs and pocket passes for the league’s most overwhelming finisher to dunk down with rim-snapping ferocity.

“He sees a lot of different coverages, and he does a great job of explaining what he sees and how to play out of that,” Middleton says of Antetokounmpo as a pick-and-roll partner. “All I do is trust him. If he says to throw it up, I know he’s gonna catch it for me. If he tells me to drive it, I know there’s something there for me to drive.”

Even when the Nets attempt to keep one of Middleton’s pick-and-rolls contained with a switch, they knowingly concede a mismatch he can happily exploit. So he takes his time, makes space with his footwork, and pulls up for a jumper that, for him, may be as good as a layup. “Those are the types of shots they want me to take,” Middleton said last week. “And I’m confident. I think I’m good enough. I worked on those shots a lot to knock them down.”

The NBA’s elite shooters are often elite decision-makers—they just happen to have a skill that is so heightened it can change the math behind those decisions. Middleton seems to relish nothing more than taking some diligent guard down to the block to prove to both them and the world how futile their efforts to contest his shot really are. Yet of all the times Middleton used a possession in the post this season, according to Synergy Sports, 86 percent came when he had a size advantage. A versatile skill set is only as useful as a player who knows which buttons to press. A killer midrange game is only as good as a shooter who understands when it’s most valuable to a modern offense.

The fully realized version of the Bucks was on display in the first round, when they conquered Miami’s walled-up defense by showing all the different ways to mount a siege. A more selective Antetokounmpo made for a more effective battering ram. Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee’s most significant addition, probed the defense for its most vulnerable points, his drives like the slow, telling zoom in every medieval epic, closing in on the rusty old sewer grate at the foot of the impenetrable fortress. And then there was Middleton, off in the distance, catapulting shots over the battlements that the Heat could do absolutely nothing about.

The Bucks were undone in their last two playoff runs by their steadfast commitment to a single style of play—and the numbers suggesting that style made Milwaukee the best team in the league. If nothing else, the Bucks ensured this season would be different—that they would be different. Trading for Holiday was a start, but the most encouraging proactivity came when Milwaukee willingly deviated from its cozy base defense in the regular season, experimenting with switches and ultimately trading for P.J. Tucker so it could switch even more.

Some of those efforts were sloppy and uneven, as one might expect from an entire team trying to communicate in its second basketball language. What was the league-leading defense by far in seasons past slipped somewhere closer to average. “I like, though, that we’re making adjustments,” Antetokounmpo said back in February. “I like that we’re open-minded now.” The spacing of Milwaukee’s offense shifted. Antetokounmpo’s defensive assignments changed. Middleton, who played 1 through 5 in high school, worked long shifts as the team’s functional point guard, and the Bucks found promise in crunch time by letting him (and Holiday) initiate while Giannis rolled into newfound freedom. Budenholzer is still a the-way-we-play kind of coach, but the way the Bucks play is evolving—even now.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Middleton says. “To not just say we’re gonna do it one way, our way.”

Cade Cunningham of the Oklahoma State Cowboys during the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on March 19, 2021
Cade Cunningham of the Oklahoma State Cowboys during the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on March 19, 2021
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The first text Bucks rookie Jordan Nwora received from Middleton before the team’s March flight to Los Angeles was a reminder to bring donuts. The second was a seating assignment: to join Middleton at the front of the plane to review the game film from the night before. It was an unusually bountiful bit of tape. After months of DNPs and late-game clean-up, Nwora had finally gotten a proper start and a full night’s work against a playoff-caliber opponent.

“I played 37 minutes, I think, in that game against the Knicks,” Nwora says. “We watched every minute.”

Middleton had been one of the first members of the Bucks to reach out to Nwora last November when Milwaukee drafted him with the 45th pick, just six slots lower than Middleton was selected in 2012. Scouts weren’t convinced that Nwora—a 6-foot-8, sweet-shooting forward who led Louisville in scoring while playing mostly off the ball—had the quickness or the handle to diversify his offensive game. He arrived in Milwaukee a natural scorer, but one whose game could badly use some of Middleton’s subtlety.

So Nwora and Middleton began working together during training camp, not just on moves, but on perspective; the All-Star forward preached patience, warning Nwora about the ups and downs of the NBA season and the perils of the rookie wall. He tried to help Nwora find his pace. They began a dialogue about what works at the NBA level and what doesn’t—one that continued at 40,000 feet when Middleton dove into Nwora’s every possession against the Knicks.

“He really broke it down with me,” Nwora says. “He was really trying to get me better.” The rookie played sparingly the rest of the way and, barring some extreme turn of events, won’t see any meaningful time in the playoffs. Frankly, he isn’t ready for it. Yet in the final game of Milwaukee’s regular season, Nwora scored 34 points and grabbed 14 rebounds while flashing the sort of control that separates benchwarmers from regulars. He took his time setting up his defender for stepback jumpers. He converted the kinds of in-between push shots that looked awkward for him in college. Where he might have rushed a 3-pointer in the past to beat a closing defender, Nwora waited out the contact and earned free throw attempts for his trouble. When a possible lane to the basket revealed itself, the rookie slow-played a drive in a fashion that was downright Middletonian.

If he were drafted onto a different team (or even this same team at a different time), Nwora might have been tracked immediately as a specialist. That’s where his game makes the most sense right now, in Milwaukee and otherwise, and yet Middleton didn’t take him through a film session to show him how to stand in the corner. He zeroed in on what had been Nwora’s highest-usage game to show him how to better pick his spots to score at all three levels. He showed him what he knew.

But somewhere out in the roster depths of the NBA is a prospect who, instead of being taken under the wing of a former All-Star, is being channeled in a more streamlined, more optimized direction, and made to be a flatter and less interesting player than they really are. If Middleton, for example, had come into the league even a few seasons later when the NBA’s 3-point bonanza was in full swing, would he—a second-round selection the Pistons tried out and gave away—have been allowed to become a star? Or would he have been reduced to a simpler life as a shooter, running the perimeter like Brooklyn’s Joe Harris?

Generally speaking, the panic over the alleged death of the midrange game is ridiculous, and the debate that’s sprung from it little more than ceaseless streams of monotone graphs and insistently huffing emoji passing each other in the night. It’s tired. I’m tired. The same lamenting about the lost art of the midrange game has floated around the basketball world for decades, to be repurposed as an explanation for anything perceived to be wrong with the culture of the sport. “Players work on the 3-point shot, which even at 20 feet is a tough shot, but no one pays attention to the midrange shot,” Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said 24 years ago, when he was coaching at the University of Florida. “Teams don’t have people taking midrange jump shots anymore. Kids just don’t shoot like they once did. They watch Michael Jordan soaring through the air for dunks and that’s what they work on.”

That wasn’t true then, and if Instagram sizzle reels are any indication, it isn’t now. The midrange is alive; it just lives in stardom. Yet if there are players who could be overlooked or misunderstood in the rush to evaluate complex prospects by 3-point percentage first, their game might look like Middleton’s when he first came into the league, or even Nwora’s when he left Louisville. The next Durant will always be allowed to make midrange offense for themselves, but what about the next Middleton? Who would look at a second-round pick and not only see a player worthy of creating their own offense, but one of the best midrange scorers in the entire league?

The opportunity to draft and develop that particular skill set is too important to miss. NBA playoff series turn on adjustments, but long wing players who can create offense for themselves are more impervious to those adjustments than anyone else. There is no secret buried deep in the game film that can stop Kawhi Leonard from pulling up at the elbow. Durant elevates that concept to anomalous truth. There are three inches of difference in listed height between Durant (6-foot-10) and Kawhi and Middleton (6-foot-7), but in those three inches are entire worlds of possibility otherwise untouched by man. The Warriors were the winningest team in NBA history and the curators of basketball’s most idyllic offense when they signed Durant in 2016. Upon his arrival, they immediately rejiggered their entire free-flowing approach so that KD could grind out turnaround jumpers, and they were absolutely right to do it. If Earth had only one chance to save itself from annihilation at the hand of an alien race that insisted on proving its point with isolation defense, we would nominate Durant and find our peace somewhere along the soft arc of his jumper.

“To be honest,” Middleton says, “I watch a lot of KD film. A lot of highlights of him, just to learn for myself.”

If Durant is the anomaly, Middleton is the more instructive example that proves the rule of three-level wing creators. Middleton is roughly the height of an average NBA small forward, and an unexceptional athlete by the standards of his industry. He was under-recruited, under-scouted, and undervalued. Yet now Cade Cunningham, the presumptive no. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft, pores over tape of Middleton like Middleton did with Bryant or does still with Durant. “I try to take a bunch of different things from a bunch of different guys,” the 6-foot-8 Cunningham told Sam Vecenie of The Athletic back in March. “Khris Middleton, Paul George, LeBron, Luka, all the big guards. Not even big guards, but big shot creators and playmakers who can get to a shot when they need to.”

It’s not Middleton’s job, per se, to score in incredible volume—though the Bucks wouldn’t argue with another 35-point outing. His job is to help run the team, to keep it at balance, and when the moment comes, to create the shots his teammates can’t. To get a bucket specifically, as Cunningham put it, when he needs to. There are great scorers who have failed that test in the playoffs: stars whose dominance looked just different enough in the light for opponents to take stock and find it suddenly manageable. Some are too reliant on moving freely at the 3-point line or getting deep into the paint. Some are too dependent on their teammates, or the refs, or the kinds of specific, hermetically sealed conditions that can be easily muddled in the playoffs. What distinguishes Middleton—and what makes him so crucial to the Bucks’ postseason survival—is that no matter what defensive scheme the other team is running or who is assigned to guard him, there is always a pivot. There’s always another action to try, another way to create.

“He can back anybody in and shoot over the top,” Durant said of Middleton in the lead-up to a 2018 game against the Bucks. “He can play in the pick-and-roll. He can pass. … He can catch and shoot [the] 3. He can shoot [the] 3 off the dribble. Either way, shoot the midrange. I mean, he’s complete to me.” Durant, of course, is himself all those things and more—a fun house mirror held up to Middleton’s own uncanny shot-making, immune to most defense and checked largely by prayer.

“When I’m guarding him,” Middleton says of Durant, “I just hope he misses.”


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