We (collectively) have talked a ton about this summer’s free agency class, and for good reason. Not only is this summer’s class filled with studs, their decisions may be swayed heavily by what happens in this round. Kevin Durant could be changing teams. Kawhi Leonard might not be long for Toronto. Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler finding new landing spots wouldn’t be a shock to anyone.
Khris Middleton’s name very rarely comes up in these discussions. He certainly doesn’t have the superstar appeal of the players mentioned above. Middleton has flown under the radar, which seems fitting considering his career arc.
People shouldn’t sleep on him as a potential max guy, however.
Middleton is one of the NBA’s best-but-still-underrated Robins. He finally began to get his flowers during last year’s postseason. For seven games, he terrorized the Boston Celtics to the tune of 24.7 points with a 71.9 True Shooting Percentage. Through two games in their current series, he has continued to be a thorn in the Celtics’ side, carving them up from all three levels.
The Celtics have been shrinking the floor against the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s a smart tactical move to slow down Giannis Antetekounmpo, but it also serves as a dare.
“We’re going to let those other guys beat us.”
The issue is that Middleton isn’t your ordinary “other.” He’s a bonafide star and should be treated as such. At this rate, he’ll certainly be paid like one.
loosening the defense
Middleton’s calling card is his shooting ability. He’s a career 38.8 percent marksman from deep on 4.3 attempts. His shift to a higher volume role has led to a slight dip in accuracy—he’s converted 36.9 percent of his 5.5 attempts over the past two seasons—but that’s also put more pressure on opposing defenses.
He especially possesses a high-and-quick release. It allows him to fire with minimal airspace, putting even more strain on help defenders.
You have to get out on him quickly in hopes of affecting the shot, and even that doesn’t matter sometimes. He’s been especially lethal as a corner shooter (43.1 percent, via Basketball-Reference) because of it:
Here, we have the Bucks pushing the ball after a miss. They’re in a 3-1 alignment, overloading the right side of the floor to give Giannis space for a lefty-attack. Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown drop down to help form a wall. Giannis recognizes this, and the fact that Irving hasn’t gotten back yet, and swings the ball to Ersan Ilyasova.
Hayward and Brown are now caught defending three players. Brown has to “split the difference”, meaning play between two players, with Pat Connaughton and Middleton. He pretty much ignores Connaughton and rotates to Middleton as the ball swings.
He still gets burned by K-Mid’s quick trigger. Giving him time to breathe is essentially a death sentence in close quarters:
The Bucks go to a small-on-big pindown set to get Giannis free. With Al Horford behind the play, Irving anticipates an entry pass and attempts to jump it like a greedy cornerback.
Only the pass never comes. Nikola Mirotic instead swings it to Eric Bledsoe, setting up a 2-on-1 situation. Brown leaves Middleton to rotate over to Bledsoe. Bledsoe swings it to Middleton, who makes himself a cup of tea before draining the three-ball.
Via Second Spectrum tracking data, Middleton is hitting 57.6 percent on “open” or “wide open” threes this postseason.
But he’s shooting a preposterous 76.9 percent on those looks in this series.
taking matters into his own hands
Middleton isn’t just a spot-up shooter, though he functions near an elite level in that role. His ability to create his own shot is what separates him from the traditional 3-and-D archetype—and what makes him more of a 16-game player.
At his core, Middleton is more methodical than reactionary. He’s a mid-range savant and an underrated passer. Setting up shop for three is nice, but he’s at home when able to probe the mid-range area and survey the floor before making his move. It’s what made his partnership with head coach Mike Budenholzer a rocky one at first.
Middleton was eventually able to find middle ground this season in terms of his shot profile. Via Basketball-Reference, he posted a career-high three-point rate (41.3) and career-low rate of long-twos (11.2). Instead of probing for 19 footers, he made the pull-up three a full-time part of his arsenal.
That’s been on full display in this series: Through two games, Middleton has knocked down 4-of-7 pull-up triples.
He’s still been able to be himself. The Bucks allow him to run the show when Giannis is off the floor, (or whenever he needs a break from being the team’s battering ram). In those moments, the Middleton of old offers a nice change-of-pace.
If you look at Middleton’s pending free agency with a 10,000-foot view, it’s easy to make the case for him making max dollars. He’s a 6’8 wing that can shoot threes, create his own shot, finish at the basket, and has the size and smarts to defend three positions when he’s engaged.
Look a little closer, and the case becomes harder to ignore. He’s one of 12 players (excluding rookie Luka Doncic) to average 19-5-4 over the past two seasons. If you add in a 36-percent-from-3 qualifier, Middleton is in a class with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Victor Oladipo.
If that isn’t enough to sway people, Middleton’s postseason play should prove it. He’s now averaging 22.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists over his last 13 playoff games. He’s knocked down 58.2 percent of his threes on 6.2 attempts. Maybe that’s just a “Boston has nothing for him” thing, but if a team with that many credible defensive wings can’t hold Middleton, how many can?
Middleton’s ascension from a relative unknown to trade throw-in (thanks, Detroit), to All-Star and bonafide Celtics Killer has been one of the NBA’s quietest/wildest stories over the past decade. Regardless of how this postseason ends, Middleton is in position to make himself a lot of money this summer.
The Bucks should lock him up, but there will be no shortage of suitors if they don’t.
All stats are updated through games played on May 1st
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.