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Clutch Khris: How Middleton’s absence affects the Bucks in close games

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Middleton may have been an inefficient chucker in the clutch last year, but do Jabari or Giannis have the potential to improve their late game efforts?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Milwaukee was the epitome of “meh” as a team in clutch situations (games where the Bucks are tied, ahead or behind by five points in the last five minutes). Posting an even 20-20 record with a -.2 plus-minus, the Bucks record basically reflected their overall performance, unlike some teams ripe for regression, *cough* Bulls at 27-19 with a -.5 differential *cough*.

The majority of the Buck’s offense in those situations centered on isolating Khris Middleton, who gobbled up clutch possessions like Pac-Man to the tune of a 32.7% usage. But despite his gaudy overall shooting numbers, a closer inspection reveals that Middleton’s clutch numbers looked more like those of an inefficient chucker. His absence now begs the question: who will be taking those shots and will they be more efficient shot attempts? The prime candidates to answer both questions, as per usual, are Jabari and Giannis.

MORE: Jabari Parker the playmaker? | Value in the NBA: Expectations for the Bucks

Before that though, let’s examine Middleton’s clutch performance as a baseline. His astronomical 32.7% clutch usage ranked a few ticks below Isiah Thomas (33.2) and Kyrie Irving (33.9). That puts him in the top 10% in the league, and far above the Bucks second ranked player, Greg Monroe (20.7%). Some might argue there’s inherent value in having a player who wants the ball in those situations. If that player fires up shots cavalierly though, that value dwindles faster than free food at a college function. Middleton’s end of game shots typically fell into three categories: drives to the paint, catch and shoot, and a one-way ticket on the Tough Shot Express (trademark Steve Von Horn) from mid-or long range. The latter is what led to a lot of Middleton’s ghastly 35.1% FG percentage and nauseating 18.8% on 3-pointers. All aboard!

In his defense, the Bucks didn’t do Middleton any favors with their non-existent late game offense. Even a high pick-and-roll felt exotic. Although they ran Khris off some screens or had him cut to the basket, his prevailing late game offense was a contested rim-rocket like those above. The numbers bear that out too, as 65.4% of Middleton’s field goals were unassisted. Look at just 2-pointers, and that number balloons to 80 percent. The NBA is an isolation league in clutch time though, and Middleton’s percentage of unassisted field goals was only in the top 20% of the league. Superstars charged with winning a game like Chris Paul, Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony all post higher unassisted rates in clutch situations, so it’s not an issue unique to Middleton and the Bucks.

Still, the numbers don’t lie, and players like Monroe, MCW, Giannis and Parker all shot the ball better than Middleton in the clutch. Monroe was sneakily one of the NBA’s best offensive closers last year, but his defensive liabilities and murky future inMilwaukee make it an open question whether he’ll always be on the floor in crunch time. MCW’s numbers were actually fairly positive across the board, shooting 43.5% and posting a positive net rating, but his inability to space the floor hampers his fit with Giannis and Jabari hopefully dominating the ball.

The real potential, as is the case with most offensive categories this year, lies in Giannis and Jabari. Parker’s measly 13.7% clutch usage ranked beneath even Jerryd Bayless among those with at least 50 clutch minutes played. Giannis is only slightly better at 18.1% usage. Expect both of those figures to increase drastically.

Giannis shooting numbers were pedestrian. His 41.9% field goal percentage, albeit on only 31 shots, isn’t a great harbinger of a player ready to load up for a team in need of a clutch scorer. For all the Point God Giannis truthers out there, that includes shooting 15.4% post-ASB. What buoys Giannis is his innate ability to get to the rim, where he managed 34 free throws on those 31 attempts compared to Middleton’s 46 FT on 74 FG attempts. His end of game offense consisted mainly of cutting to the basket off feeds from Middleton or slinking his way through the defense to force a path into the paint. Only eight of those attempts were jumpers, just one of which looked anything like one of Middleton’s contested releases. Giannis’s reticence to hop aboard the TSE with Middleton is encouraging, but when defenses clamp down on him late in games he’ll have to be a willing bombardier or kick out to open shooters from the paint.

Jabari’s surface level numbers are more promising. Small sample size alert, but his +8.8 clutch net rating is a far cry from his overall -3.4 net rating. He also shot 47.2%, one of the highest marks on the team. His usage rate was staggeringly low though, and most of Jabari’s late game buckets were created by others or thrown up near the basket as illustrated in his shot chart below. 80% of his clutch field goals were assisted, the highest mark on the team among those who attempted at least 20 shots. We’ve covered Jabari’s lack of efficient isolation scoring already, but he has always looked more comfortable than Giannis in creating jumpers off the dribble. That will come in handy this year, but he’ll have to knock those down more regularly or we may be discussing Jabari wearing a members only jacket from the Tough Shot Express VIP club.

One potential upside to Giannis and Jabari taking over the show is it may force the coaching staff to, you know, actually create some semblance of a late game offense. The more likely scenario is they revert to iso-ball. Look for Giannis to drive and dish to Parker, Dellavedova or others on the perimeter. Late game deference is an oft-maligned trait of potential superstars, but it plays into both Giannis and Parker’s strengths at this point.

Despite fans clamoring for more G&J clutch possessions, the reality is that Middleton still hit a damn impressive amount of difficult late game shots. Imagining Jabari or Giannis attempting those same shots is aneurysm-inducing, so it’ll be up to the coaching staff to find a better way to maximize their young guns’ skill sets. Once defenses start bearing down on them, we’ll see whether their propensity for shimmying into the lane continues. Otherwise, there’s a prime seat open aboard the Tough Shot Express.