With their first order of business in a very busy July, the Bucks signed Khris Middleton to a new deal that will pay him an average of $14 million per year over the next five seasons. The move has been largely lauded by experts in the two months since then, though assessing his contract is not the aim of our discussion today. Instead, I would like to tackle a far more practical topic: how to maximize Middleton’s value going forward. And if you’ve been around Brew Hoop this summer, my suggestion will not surprise you.
Khris Middleton should shoot more threes.
Granted, it's easy to say that a guy who shot 40.7% from three should take more of them. But I'm all about providing solutions, so let’s take a look at how the Bucks could actually pull that off next season. For starters, Middleton is coming off a season in which he took 3.4 threes per game, roughly splitting the difference between his three point attempts before the All-Star Break (3 per game) and his three point attempts after the All-Star Break (4.1 per game). However, that increase was effectively just a function of his playing time, as he also saw a sizable bump from 27.1 to 35.4 minutes per game after the break.
On the season, 105 of Middleton’s 107 three point makes were assisted, with a whopping 101 of those coming off catch-and-shoot opportunities. Via NBA.com, he ranked 11th in three point percentage (42.4%) and 18th in eFG% (58.9%) in catch-and-shoot situations. Middleton is also an excellent shooter off one bounce (46.9%), which is no surprise for anyone who has seen him play. Still, taking a dribble virtually guaranteed that he was taking a two rather than a three, so there's a balance to be struck. No surprises thus far.
What is surprising, though, is the seeming lack of effort the Bucks gave to creating these catch-and-shoot three point opportunities throughout the season. Middleton was a popular target for floppy actions that created midrange opportunities (more on that in a moment), but rarely if ever did the Bucks’ look to set a flare to get Middleton an open three, or a hammer set to get him to a corner, or even try a split cut after dumping it to Zaza Pachulia. So it's perhaps not surprising that Middleton took relatively few threes compared to his peers. Among the league's top 20 shooters in three-point percentage, only Harrison Barnes and Courtney Lee attempted fewer threes per minute than Middleton. Some of that stems from Middleton's willingness to take a dribble or two rather than fire away from deep, but much of it is a matter of play-calling as well.
In viewing highlights from three of Middleton's high-scoring post-All Star Break games against Washington, Orlando, Toronto (h/t to Down to Buck), it becomes quite obvious that a large majority of Middleton’s threes came from basic basketball movement. Middleton is fantastic at moving to open space, getting his feet set, and using his quick, compact release to get a quality shot off. If a driver attacks towards him, he has a keen ability to read the defense and rotate to open space, whether that is in a corner or on the wing.
Another area in which Middleton was able to find quite a few threes was in transition. Middleton did a really nice job either delaying his lane in transition to let defenders go by or simply getting out front of the pack and stopping at the three point line for a catch and shoot opportunity.
(Aside: As a team, they shot the ball extremely well on transition threes at 41.5% (6th in the NBA). Despite the high percentages, they shot just the 18th most transition threes as they mainly focused on catch-and-shoot threes with 82.5% (6th) of their transition threes coming in that form as opposed to pull ups.)
The final subset of actions used to get Middleton three point looks came on out of bounds plays. The ones that come to mind often happened at the end of games, but the Bucks also did a fantastic job of slipping some easy three point looks for Middleton into some of their sideline and baseline out of bounds plays.
It was quite rare though for the Bucks to run any sort of half court action or set that got Middleton a chance at a three point shot. Instead, almost all the action the Bucks ran for Middleton last season created opportunities for him near the elbows and short corners, especially on the left side of the floor, which gave him the chance to naturally move into his shot as a right-handed shooter.
Time and again in the video above, the Bucks ran something that gets Middleton open from the mid-range. It's always great to get a shooter of Middleton's caliber open, no matter where he is on the floor, but sometimes getting Middleton open from just a little bit further away would have required a very simple change. It could have been Pachulia setting a screen from just a few feet further back. Jared Dudley could have changed the angle of his screen by the slightest amount. Or Bucks' point guards could have just delayed the slightest moment before passing Middleton the ball as he cut to the corner.
If the Bucks really want to maximize Middleton's production next season, they'll need to find ways to create more shots for him behind the three point line. That increased volume may result in a dip in his overall accuracy from deep, but it should still be a very good thing for the Bucks' offense. Just as importantly, creating these shots should not be incredibly difficult, and could require only slight changes to much of the action the Bucks ran regularly last season.