The moment that NBA players could officially agree to deals with teams on July 1, 2019, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN pressed send on a tweet that laid out the terms of a deal with serious boom-or-bust potential for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Free agent Khris Middleton has agreed to a five-year, $178M deal to return to the Milwaukee Bucks, Excel Sports agent Mike Lindeman tells ESPN. Deal includes a player option.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 30, 2019
Khris Middleton is a very, very good basketball player, but on the heels of a subpar performance in the Bucks’ Eastern Conference Finals defeat at the hands of the Toronto Raptors — he averaged 13.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists on 41.1 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent shooting from three — giving him near-max money raised some eyebrows. Complicating things is that Milwaukee is not known as a team for forking over monster contracts, and oh by the way, Giannis Antetokounmpo is getting a supermax deal put in front of him exactly 12 months after word spread of Middleton’s deal.
The possibility of Antetokounmpo saying no and the Bucks having to consider a hard reset has been floated for months, and to be 100 percent clear, much of it is speculative and a way to serve as a bridge between the off-court stuff that captivated fans in the lead-up to 2019 and the potential off-court stuff that will captivate fans in 2021 regardless of what Antetokounmpo decides to do. But in the event Middleton did not live up to that monstrous deal, things stood to get really weird, really quickly in the Cream City.
Fortunately for Milwaukee, Middleton has been out of his mind this season. The latest example of this came on Monday night, when Khash Money scored 40 points on 15-for-28 shooting with five rebounds, five assists, and three steals in 41 minutes of action against the Washington Wizards, giving the Bucks a counterweight to an absolutely thermonuclear performance out of Bradley Beal.
— NBA (@NBA) February 25, 2020
Middleton excels at making the extremely difficult task of scoring a whole lot of points look effortless. He has taken that to a new level this year, as he’s the only qualified player this season to hit 50 percent of his shots from the field, 40 percent of his attempts from three, and 90 percent of his free throws. Making the 50-40-90 club is rarified air, even more impressive is that, should he continue for the rest of the season, he’d be one of five qualified players in said club to have a usage rate of at least 25 percent. The others: Larry Bird (twice!), Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki.
Putting that kind of high-efficiency, high-usage weapon next to a player the caliber of Antetokounmpo — along with a bevy of good passers in Mike Budenholzer’s system that encourages passing to get teammates looks — is like giving the most powerful military in the world a nuke. But much like global nuclear disarmament, Middleton getting to fly around and put up big numbers in this system is a very good thing.
Part of the reason why is because Middleton has been a catch-and-shoot killer this season. He leads the team with 4.9 points per game on catch-and-shoot opportunities and has a ludicrous effective field goal percentage on such looks of 67.9 percent. And unsurprisingly, Antetokounmpo looks for him a ton — only Eric Bledsoe receives a higher share of passes from the reigning league MVP, and when Middleton gets a look from three off of a pass from Antetokounmpo, odds are a little better than a coin flip that it’s going in. Funny enough, Middleton receives the same percentage of passes from Bledsoe that he does from Antetokounmpo. He takes 1.1 threes per game off of passes from Bledsoe — the same number as Antetokounmpo — and wouldn’t you know it, he’s hitting half of those, too.
Middleton’s no slouch when it comes to sharing the ball, either, as he has an assist percentage of 21.6 percent. But he makes his money as a scoring threat alongside Antetokounmpo, and wouldn’t you know it, among players with an assist percentage of 20 percent who attempt at least 15 shots per game (i.e. guys who shoot the ball a lot and set their teammates up a decent amount), Middleton is the best shooter and sits in seventh in win shares, behind a whole lot of guys who we all know by one name.
Additionally, Middleton is able to keep Milwaukee afloat when Antetokounmpo is off the floor. Budenholzer is, some would argue to a fault, a huge believer in the power of having a rotation. Perhaps Budenholzer would argue that teams cannot stop Antetokounmpo when he is rested and their legs are tired, and as such, it’s worth not running him into the ground. There is a ton of merit in this argument, but it is dependent on the Bucks being able to stay afloat in the minutes he’s on the bench.
That was not the case in the series that Milwaukee played against Toronto last year. In the 231 minutes Antetokounmpo was on the floor, the Bucks had a net rating of +2.5, which is fine, even if it’s not the level to which we expect to see out of a player of his caliber. In the 67 minutes he was off the floor, the team collapsed, “boasting” a net rating of -10.3. As for Middleton, the team had a net rating of -5 in the 221 minutes he played and a net rating of 11.5 in the 77 minutes he did not. And here are the numbers, via NBA.com, of what happened in the limited minutes when Middleton played without Antetokounmpo. Spoiler alert: not good!
Now, is it smart to make gigantic, sweeping decisions based on what happens in such a small sample size? Usually no, but narratives form very easily, and if there is one thing that teams really, really hate, it’s when narratives outside of their control pop up. For the Bucks, one such narrative — something that entered The Discourse™ soon after Middleton agreed to his extension — was that this is a good regular season team, but questions exist about whether or not they can replicate their success in the postseason.
Milwaukee, in turn, opted to stay the course, choosing to keep a level head and bet on this group (sans Malcolm Brogdon, who got a whole lot of money from the Indiana Pacers this past summer) being able to get the job done come playoffs. We won’t know for sure how that ends up working out until they run into one of the Eastern Conference’s elite squads — this phrase can or cannot include the Philadelphia 76ers, if you’d like it to — in a seven-game series, but at the very least, the team has still been quite good with Antetokounmpo sitting.
According to Cleaning the Glass, lineups with Middleton on the floor and Antetokounmpo on the bench are putting up 117.2 points per 100 possessions (the 93rd percentile of all lineups) and are allowing 107.6 points per 100 possessions (75th percentile). That’s good for a point differential of +9.5 points per 100 possessions, putting Antetokounmpo-less groupings that feature Middleton in the 94th percentile of all lineups. Middleton also has the ball in his hands a whole lot more in these situations, as his usage rate jumps up to 32.2 percent, per NBA.com’s internal stats. He connects on 49.7 percent of his field goals, 40 percent of his threes, and 94.7 percent of his free throws when this happens.
Last year’s team was also very, very good when Middleton played and Antetokounmpo sat, and, unsurprisingly, they’re at their best when they share the floor. But all the team can do is bank on what works, and for the last few years, over an increasingly large sample size, having Middleton play and letting Antetokounmpo rest and stay fresh has worked out extremely well.
This entire Bucks season has been viewed through the lens of whether or not we’re within the final year or two of Antetokounmpo’s tenure on the team. That’s been unfair for a whole lot of reasons, with one of the primary reasons being that it’s led to people ignoring that his top deputy has gone from an All-Star to a legitimate superstar this season. And if Middleton can keep this up during the postseason, Milwaukee’s dreams of seeing the Bucks win their first championship since 1971 could very easily become a reality.