Player Profile: Khris Middleton is the Reserve that the Eastern Conference (And America) Needs

Like most NBA fans, I was dismayed to hear that Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall would miss six weeks recovering from knee surgery. Before the NBA announced Pistons center Andre Drummond as the All Star Game replacement player, I saw a tweet from John Henson that made me think of an argument I had with my friends in 2016.

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Khris Middleton is not exactly a household name. The 26 year old swingman out of Texas A&M has been a very solid player for Milwaukee for the past 5 seasons after being traded from Detroit in 2013. Middleton is a classic example of an excellent basketball player who gets overlooked by today’s NBA fan; he’s not super exciting, and you won’t see any dunks of his on Instagram highlight accounts the next morning, but he’s one of the most fundamentally sound basketball player in the league today, and if he can’t be the 13th man for the Eastern Conference All Stars, maybe there is another All-Star team where he’d fit in.


Arguably the most important part of Middleton’s game is his shooting, which is why it’s important to do somewhat of a deep dive into his 3 point numbers.

He’s shooting 35% from 3 this year, which is not great. He’s a 39% career 3 point shooter, with his best shooting season coming last year, where he shot 43% in limited minutes. His 39% career clip is enough to make him the 59th best 3 point shooter in NBA history by career 3 point percentage.

The biggest reason for his decline in shooting percentage (aside from the fact that the sample size is relatively small) has to do with the most coveted shot in basketball, the corner 3.

Last season, 27% of his 3 point attempts came from the corner, this year that number is down to just 16%, a career low. Additionally, before this year, 94% of his made 3 point shots were assisted, as opposed to just 81% this year. Both of these statistics point to something that is fairly obvious if you’re watching Bucks games; Middleton has taken a bigger role in the offense this year, creating his own shots more often, and as a result it has led to less efficient 3 point shot attempts, hurting his 3P%.

Middleton’s been dribbling a lot more this year, and has been running pick and rolls as both the ball handler and the roll man. When Middleton runs the pick and roll as the ball handler, the Bucks score an average of 1.017 Points Per Possession, one of the best marks for an individual in the NBA. For comparison, James Harden scores .859 Points Per Possession as the ball handler in the pick and roll, per Synergy.  

Middleton’s improved shot creation has been a big reason for the Bucks’ offensive success this season. They currently hold the NBA’s 8th best offense and the 5th highest eFG% in the NBA. When Middleton is on the floor at the same time as Bucks’ superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks score 1.151 PPP, a rate that would translate to the best offense in the NBA. When Giannis is on the court and Middleton is off, the offense falls to 1.07 PPP, and the defense allows 1.13 PPP as opposed to 1.07 when Middleton is off the floor.

Offense (Would rank __ in NBA) Defense (Would rank __ in NBA)
Middleton ON, Giannis ON 1.15 (1st) 1.076 (23rd)
Middleton OFF, Giannis ON 1.07 (10th) 1.131 (30th)
Note: all numbers in Points Per Possession, all stats courtesy of NBAWowy

The Bucks’ defense has struggled this year for reason that have little to do with Middleton. They currently hold the NBA’s 19th best defense, the worst mark for any Eastern Conference playoff team except for the Cavaliers. Middleton allows just .795 PPP when defending isolation situations, one of the best clips in the NBA. His pick and roll defense could use improvement, but his individual defensive pick and roll metrics can be misleading since the Bucks are notorious for switching almost every screen.

Middleton Switch .gif

Watch Middleton pick up Demar DeRozan from the logo, only to switch with Eric Bledsoe when Kyle Lowry sets a screen. Middleton switches onto Lowry and Bledsoe proceeds to get shaken by DeRozan. The Bucks love to switch pick and rolls because they have a bunch of players who are all similarly sized and who can defend a multitude of positions. The mid-season addition of Bledsoe impedes this perfect switchability, as the 6’1” Bledsoe has trouble defending larger shooting guards like Derozan.

Middleton has also demonstrated great passing ability and court vision. On hard double teams in the post, Middleton is able to find the open man, averaging a stellar 1.438 Points Per Possession on those hard double teams.

Middleton hard double .gif

Middleton takes the ball up to find the smaller Goran Dragic guarding him, he posts him up trying to leverage his height advantage, and Kelly Olynyk helps off Matthew Dellavedova to double Middleton. Middleton immediately finds Dellavedova in the corner, who swings it to Tony Snell who knocks down an open three. These types of mismatches that Middleton creates with his size frequently leads to open shots, as the Bucks always try to space the floor as much as possible.

Middleton missed most of last season with a torn hamstring, but he has not appeared to have lost a step offensively. His 6’8” frame and long wingspan makes him a nightmare when he’s locked in on the defensive end, and an automatic mismatch on offense when facing smaller lineups. He’s the second best player on one of the best teams in the East, and though he doesn’t put up tons of exciting highlights or phenomenal stat lines, he’s a very complete player who gives his team many advantages on both ends of the floor.

Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic were voted by the NBA into the All-Star game as reserves, and that’s fine. They’re both having a great seasons and probably deserve to be All Stars, but there has to be a team, outside of the Bucks of course, that could use Middleton’s All-Star level skill set. I think I have found that team.

 


 

2016’s Team USA Olympic team stomped the competition, finishing 8-0 and taking home the gold medal. To refresh your memory, here is the stacked roster from the 2016 Olympic games:

  • Carmelo Anthony
  • DeMar Derozan
  • Kyle Lowry
  • Demarcus Cousins
  • Paul George
  • Jimmy Butler
  • Kevin Durant
  • Draymond Green
  • Klay Thompson
  • Harrison Barnes
  • Kyrie Irving
  • Deandre Jordan

Harrison Barnes is the only player on the olympic roster without an NBA All Star appearance. He played by far the least out of any player on the roster, scoring 17 total points and seeing less than half as many minutes as the player with the next lowest minutes total on the roster.

Barnes is hugely important to the success of the Dallas Mavericks, and is an integral part of their offense. However, when it comes to Team USA, he plays a role similar to that what Kyle Collinsworth plays on the Dallas Mavericks. There is no doubt that Barnes is a talented player, but is he really who you would want as the last man on your Team USA rotation?

In 2016, I vehemently argued to my friends that Khris Middleton should make the national team over Harrison Barnes. Now, two years later, I finally have a forum to project my ultimately meaningless opinion into the endless abyss of the internet. So here it goes.

For the 12th man on the USA team, you don’t need someone who can dribble and create their own shot. You want someone who is an excellent catch-and shoot 3 point shooter, as well as a versatile and reliable defender and a willing passer. Using the eye test, Middleton appears to check all those boxes more than Barnes, but the numbers can tell us more.

Barnes and Middleton are both in their 6th season and are both 26 years old. Despite his regression in shooting percentage, Middleton is still shooting a higher percentage from three and averages almost double Barnes’ assists per 36 minutes. In previous seasons, Middleton was a far better defender than Barnes. But Barnes is having his best defensive season yet, allowing only .82 PPP on isolation situations, as compared to Middleton’s slightly better .795.

They’re more similar than most NBA fans would tend to believe. You could swap them straight up and both the Bucks and Mavericks could see improvements or regressions, but in my opinion, it comes down to the kind of player you want as your 12th man.

Do you want someone who, when playing at the same time as Carmelo, Kyrie, Butler, and Durant, will take minimal shots off the dribble and will space the floor while playing solid defense? Or do you want someone you can use the way that Team USA used Harrison Barnes- as mostly a bench warmer checking in late in blowouts. Harrison Barnes has showed that he can be an okay first option on a bad team, or a fourth option on an all-time great team. But by playing only 31 minutes in international competition, he has demonstrated that there is minimal need for someone with his skillset on a team as stacked as Team USA.

The ideal 12th man isn’t someone who can come in and run your offense late in blowouts. The ideal 12th man is someone who can play with the rest of your team while not detracting from the massive amounts of talent you have on the floor. The ideal 12th man is someone who actually makes their teammates better by playing solid team defense, taking a backseat on offense while spacing the floor with his 3 point shooting. Maybe Harrison Barnes could be that player for Team USA one day, but he was not that player this past Olympics season.

So let’s take John Henson’s suggestion and run with it. Maybe Middleton can’t be an NBA All Star just yet, but there’s still time to get him on the 2020 Olympic roster. Let’s do the right thing, USA, and give Khris Middleton the chance to be the role player that the country has always dreamed of.

 

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Demarcus Cousins, and the Future of the Stretch Five

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Minnesota Timberwolves

First, a word: I wrote this in June of 2016 and it’s been sitting on the ‘pending publish’ screen of this WordPress page for a little over a year now. I don’t know why I decided to start this “blog”, or why I decided to not post this after researching, making graphs, and writing 1,000 words. I guess Jacob from June of 2016 decided that this post was worth writing but not publishing. But Jacob from October of 2017 feels like this should be published as a method of motivating me to write more. It should be noted that a lot of the stuff in here will seem dated (16 months is decades in NBA time) but it’s worth a publish anyway. Maybe it’ll make sense, maybe it won’t. Either way, don’t hold Jacob from December of 2018 accountable.

P.S: Welcome to StretchFive.com.

Power forwards who can shoot threes (known as Stretch Fours) are one of the hottest commodities in today’s NBA. Teams are realizing that having four 3-point shooters on the floor increases spacing and leads to a higher offensive output. Power forwards who can’t shoot, despite being useful in other areas, are an endangered species, and this trend begs the question; is the Stretch Five the next step in the NBA’s evolution?

While the 3-point shooting center is not a new development, lately more and more bigs have been testing their range trying to spread the floor. 11 centers took one or more threes per game in the 2015-16 regular season, a feat that was only accomplished by six players in the entire 2000s. The majority of these players were power forwards who played some minutes at center, (See: Rasheed Wallace), whereas some of the bigs who are taking 3s today are more typical centers, like Demarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol. Though none of them are great three point shooters (most hover between 32 and 37 percent) even just the threat of shooting can space the floor and lead open up the offense.

Many teams are reaping the benefits of shooting bigs. The Cavaliers’ best offensive lineup consists of Channing Frye at Center with Kevin Love at Power Forward; having two bigs who can shoot from deep opens up the lane for LeBron to drive. The Warriors slaughter teams with their patented ‘Death Lineup’ consisting of Draymond Green at Center and Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes at the forward positions, a lineup that scored a staggering 1.4 points per possession in the regular season (per NBAwowy).

Perhaps the most interesting element of the rise of Stretch Fives is the growing pool of young talent. Of the 11 centers (or power forwards who often play center) who shot more than one three pointer per game, four are rookies and six are under 24 years of age. Two of the most interesting young prospects in this pool are Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns. Though Porzingis is considered a Power Forward, at 7’3”, he has plenty of height and rim protection abilities to play the center position. Porzingis has the ability to stretch the floor at the center position, though New York’s glut of big men is stifling that development. 

Towns, who was voted unanimous Rookie of the Year, is already a star in the NBA, as his rim protection, coupled with his inside-outside game, makes him one of the league’s most dominant centers at only 20 years of age. Porzingis and Towns represent the spectrum of young stretch 5s. Porzingis takes 2.4 more three pointers per game, but Towns’s rim protection and offensive rebounding is far above Porzingis’s level (more on offensive rebounding later).

Porzingis also needs to improve on his 3 point shooting percentage in order to be effective in that area long-term; 33% is not bad for a rookie, but if that number doesn’t rise, it won’t be his most efficient form of offense. If Towns is willing to take more 3s per game (right now he’s only at 1.1), he could develop into a multi-faceted offensive weapon the likes of which the NBA has never seen. Towns already has a well-developed post game, and shot an encouraging 51% on long two pointers, indicating that his range can extend a few feet to beyond the arc.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 8.18.06 PM(shot contest % courtesy of Nylon Calculus)

Demarcus Cousins joined this group of Stretch Fives seemingly overnight. Cousins went from taking 0.1 threes per game to 3.4 per game in one offseason, and shot a surprisingly high 33% on those shots. Cousins’s points per game and effective field goal percentage both increased, and led to a more productive offense all-around.

Cousins’s added long-range jumper doesn’t only create better looks for himself, it helps create open looks for teammates, as shown in an assist from a November game against Dallas.

Dc assist try a million.gif

Cousins’s man, Zaza Pachulia, briefly gets switched onto Rajon Rondo, leaving Cousins unguarded at the top of the key. Wesley Matthews notices this, and has to come off his man, Rudy Gay, enabling Cousins to make an easy pass to the open man.

Had Cousins, who attempted eight three-pointers in that game, not been willing to take that open look, Matthews would’ve rightfully stuck on Gay. But while Cousins’s jumper has certainly elevated his offensive game, it has hurt him on the glass, decreasing his offensive rebounds and total rebounds per game.

This is the biggest down side to the use of Stretch Fives. 204 of Cousins’s 210 threes came above the break, and that’s 204 more shots where he is out of position to get an offensive rebound. Teams often shoot their highest percentage on putbacks following offensive rebounds, and while Cousins’s offensive rebounding percentage dropping from 10.8% to 7.7% may not seem like much, the Kings are losing efficient putback opportunities and are often giving up high percentage looks in transition as a result.

Aside from the fact that there aren’t that many 7 footers who can shoot from deep, the offensive rebounding problem that Cousins demonstrates is exactly why some teams have hesitations with using 3-point shooting centers. It’s always nice to have an extra shooter on the floor, but having a center shoot tons of threes takes him away from the paint, the place where he’s most effective and efficient. In addition, players like Meyers Leonard and Frank Kaminsky present possible problems on the defensive end, and teams often have to compensate by coupling them with a power forward who can protect the rim.

Centers who can play good interior defense and alter shots at the rim will always be of value in the NBA, even with limited range. Deandre Jordan took 7 shots outside the paint in the last 2 seasons and signed a max deal last summer. He’ll likely live up to that contract on defense alone, because when it comes to centers, rim protection is a more valuable asset than shooting.

While the future of the stretch five is still uncertain, one should expect more and more bigs to come into the league shooting threes. As long as these bigs can knock down their shots at a high enough clip to negate the loss on the offensive boards, these players will have a place in an effective offense.

 

 

Jacob Mooallem (@jacobmoosf) is a sophomore student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team.