The Bucks' roster has provided more than its fair share of compelling storylines this year. Jabari Parker's already-in-the-bag Rookie of the Year award campaign and his subsequent soul-crushing injury. Giannis Antetokounmpo the highlight factory, Larry Sanders shocking the NBA world by stepping away from basketball. The Bucks even traded their starting point guard and leading scorer. But there may be no more surprising player-related story than Khris Middleton making a rapid development from ancillary role player into primary scoring option and cornerstone of an elite defense.
We've talked about Middleton's rapid rise quite a bit already this year. People outside of Milwaukee are taking notice, and on Monday Grantland.com's Zach Lowe published a Q&A with the Bucks' rising star. In it, Middleton discusses his standing in advanced metrics, upcoming free agency, and his team's performance this season.
In keeping with his soft-spoken persona, many of Middleton's answers are a bit lacking in substance, but there are a few useful insights. Let's examine a few of the more interesting responses.
Imagine Jason Kidd comes to you and offers you the chance to do lots more of one of these things, but not both: Would you like to post up more, or run more pick-and-rolls?
Probably post up more. I just create a lot more problems posting up. I get to my spot and force teams to help. I can create some problems down there.
Strong and standing 6'7", Middleton is definitely capable of creating mismatches when he plays on the wing against smaller defenders, and he's got a decent pull-up shot to fall back on. Conversely, Khris' ball-handling skills aren't on the same level as his shooting and defense, so putting him into the pick and roll a ton seems risky. There's value to having a good shooter running P&R since it prevents defenses from dropping the extra defender into the paint with impunity, but Middleton is probably better off as a spot-up option creating space for other guys to run such plays. His off-the-dribble shooting numbers seem to bear that out: according to NBA.com Player Tracking, Middleton's eFG% drops from about 60% on catch-and-shoot chances to 47% after one dribble, and 34% after two.
Someone with the team told me everyone has been on you to take the first good shot instead of passing it up to look for a teammate. Is that a conversation you have with coaches — to be a bit more selfish earlier in the shot clock?
Yeah, many times. Players, coaches, the front office — they’re always on me when I pass up a good shot to try to be unselfish and make a play. They want me to take that first shot when it’s available.
They're not the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, but the Bucks aren't afraid to shoot early in the clock in the service of their favored up-tempo style. Sometimes that means taking a jumper early in the clock, or even in transition, and while those shots aren't always ideal, they can often catch defenses by surprise. What's more, getting shooters in space on the break opens up "secondary break" opportunities where players like Giannis Antetokounmpo thrive. Off-ball cutters can take advantage of disorganized defenders scrambling to cover open shooters and look for clear lanes to the rim. But that means the shooter in these situation needs to have good court vision, sometimes while on the move, and an ability to make smart decisions about when to give up the ball versus taking the shot himself.
You guys play a very different defensive scheme from most teams — or at least an amped-up version. You send extra guys to the strong side, rotate a ton, and generally fly around out there. It’s like an anti-Bulls defense. Is it hard to learn?
It takes time for a team to come together and play that way. You have to know your teammates and trust them. You have to trust that if you get beat, somebody is going to be there for you. It’s a good system. It’s worked for us really well. I actually don’t think it’s a tough system to learn, as long as you have trust and team chemistry.
If anybody is going to have a favorable opinion of Jason Kidd's defensive system, it's Khris Middleton. Under Larry Drew's "Let's send weak doubles on EVERYBODY and give up tons of open threes" system, Middleton ranked as one of the NBA's worst defenders. This season, he's been identified by those same metrics, and lots of NBA observers, as one of the best. He's got the physical tools--and the smarts--to excel in a system that relies on athleticism and communication to shut down opponents.
His comments about it being an easy system to learn actually aren't hard to believe either. Milwaukee's defense didn't take long to manifest, and it's been pretty consistent all season despite changing personnel. That speaks to solid coaching, a roster eager to learn and improve, and plenty of sheer effort. There have been trying stretches this season (Milwaukee is in the middle of one right now), but they haven't been accused of lacking energy nearly as much under Kidd as they were when Larry Drew was in charge. Similar story where trust and chemistry are concerned--Drew's squad was lacking in leadership and direction. Perhaps that was inevitable amid a lost season, but the Bucks looked motivated to begin this season despite minimal expectations of winning. Sometimes you have to make your own luck, and the Bucks, Middleton chief among them, have done that quite a bit this year.