Milwaukee Bucks: Analyzing the ‘inconsistent’ label for Khris Middleton

Jul 14, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 14, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /
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Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mike Budenholzer, Khris Middleton
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JUNE 19 (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Khris Middleton has always had to adjust under head coach Mike Budenholzer

To be sure, any criticisms of the limitations in his overall game are perfectly warranted and valid. The inability to slash and finish strong at the rim coupled with Middleton’s pronounced lack of a quick first step both seem to be precisely what fueled the narratives earlier on with the Bucks. That’s certainly all on Middleton, but at this point, he is who he is.

On the other hand, it is also true that Middleton has never been known to beat his man off the dribble with slick ball-handling and all-world athleticism and yet has still produced despite these holes. Instead of the aforecited skills, his game has always been predicated on crafty fundamentals, opportunistic patience, and a patented set jumper that swishes with consistency from anywhere on the basketball court by way of masterful footwork coupled with the advantage a 6-foot-7 frame affords shooters. He’s also always been something of a volume shooter who’s needed a bit of heating up before exploding on opposing defenses.

But then comes the “nurture” side of things. How much of these struggles have to do with Middleton’s actual ability, and how much is linked to external factors?

Exhibit A: Middleton’s adjustment to the Budenholzer system in his first year at the helm is well-documented yet hardly mentioned. The arrival of Bud’s coaching regime came at a time when the NBA as a whole began turning away from the ostensibly less efficient mid-range shot, and thus, Middleton’s typical bread and butter shot diet of mid-range jumpers was largely replaced with a steady diet of shots inside the paint or behind the three-point line.

This only means that the overall debate should also be informed by an analysis of the scheme and situation around him. Khash Money acknowledged this shift himself, after all, and most overlook that the shift is a continuing one with another shot-creating star added to the mix this year in Jrue Holiday.

First written by Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Middleton talked about the transition he made in his game from near-elite isolations from mid-range to the analytics-heavy threes-and-layups system characterizing the modern NBA.

"“I’m not going to just throw my mid-range away,” Middleton said. “That’s my strength right now. But instead of just taking one or two dribbles in, (I’ll) just go ahead and take that three. It’s been there in the past, I’ve always just taken one or two more dribbles inside. … Most of the time that step-back three or catch-and-shoot three is going to be there. Just got to be confident and let it go.”"

It’s a question that is absolutely worth asking: is Middleton inconsistent or just misused?

The numbers, after all, prove how monumental this adjustment was. According to Cleaning the Glass, Middleton took more than half of all his shot attempts from the mid-range area under former coach Jason Kidd. In Budenholzer’s first year, this shot down to just 39 percent of attempts from mid-range. Only in the following year did it increase to 48 percent frequency.

Naturally, this affected his overall production. Per Cleaning the Glass, Middleton scored 112.9 points per 100 shot attempts (PSA) in his first year with Budenholzer, a number that was good for just the 70th percentile in his position. In year two, his PSA skyrocketed to 125.3 points per 100 (93rd percentile), only for it to plummet back down to 118.7 (71st percentile) the following year with the arrival of Jrue Holiday.

Consequently, it should come as no surprise that Middleton’s best season yet under Budenholzer came when the team’s tactician accounted for the small forward’s mid-range game within the Bucks’ offensive attack. Middleton’s 2019-20 campaign—where he put up norms of 20.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.2 assists on .546/.415/.916 efficiency and 57.5 effective field goal percentage—remains his finest outing to date.

Middleton’s continued adjustment speaks to his value as a team-first player, but this also means that his on-court performances are still not yet an accurate picture of the totality of his skillset. For this writer, the talents of the latter have still not yet been fully unlocked within the Bucks offense. The eye test, though purely empirical, says that Budenholzer still hardly runs plays solely to get Middleton going.

For instance, Khris Middleton scored more or less the same points per possession on post-up plays as Nikola Jokic and LeBron James. The difference was that those two posted up for 24.6 and 14.0 percent of their offensive possessions, respectively, while Middleton only did so on 6.5 percent frequency despite being in the 74th percentile on those plays among other players in his position.

This was the case with other plays, too. Most of Middleton’s offensive usage came in the form of ball-handling in the pick and roll (26.8 percent frequency), transition plays (15.7percent), and isolation plays (13.3 percent), where he is in the 72nd, 18th, and 67th percentiles, respectively. However, Middleton is also in the 82nd percentile on hand-off plays and, interestingly, 88th percentile on putbacks, both of which only constitute 5.4 and 2.3 percent of his offensive plays.

It should make sense on paper: Middleton’s size and versatility should give him a decisive advantage on post-ups and put-backs, while his inside-out game makes him a prime candidate for more hand-off actions in Budenholzer’s system.

This is only to say that another year of gelling with the still-new system should give Middleton some more experience in his role. Budenholzer, too, should be consistently adjusting to what Middleton brings to the floor, especially after a season that saw an offense still largely reliant on Antetokounmpo, with Middleton largely relegated to final possession isolations.