Khris Middleton, now in his sixth season in the league and his fifth as a Buck, remains one of the more polarizing players amongst fans. When attempting to gauge the temperature of the Milwaukee fan bases opinion of Khris, it feels like you can only be on one of two sides. You either love him or you think he’s overrated. The smooth moving Middleton, out of Texas A&M has for several years now been a key cog in the Bucks offense, and with the teams rising expectations, the bar has been set at a higher level for what is required from Khris.
After steadily building each season, the 2016/17 season many had thought, or hoped, that Khris could take the next step to become an All-Star calibre player. Unfortunately that hope, and inturn the Bucks season was thrown on it’s head just weeks before pre-season action was set to tip off. News filtered through that Middleton had suffered a serious hamstring tendon injury in an innocuous training incident that would sideline him for up to six months. Middleton eventually returned in February that year to spark the Bucks to a late season run and eventual playoff birth.
With a full off-season under his belt, and a clean bill of health, this season became a vital one for Khris in attempting establish himself amongst the top wing players in the Eastern Conference. After a now typically frustrating slow start, Middleton has begun to find his three point shot and become more efficient from the field. After a recent nice game from Middleton, I came across several fans on twitter bemoaning the fact that Khris never seemed to be able to deliver his best performances against good teams. This was an interesting thought to me. I wanted to explore this idea further and do a bit of digging into Middleton’s numbers offensively relating to strength of opposition.
Traditional Box Score Stats: We are just over a quarter of the way through the regular season, so whilst you can find statistics are still quite noisy and can vary widely from night to night, I feel after 22 games we have a decent enough sample size to analyse.
The Bucks have played 12 games against opposition currently .500 or above and 10 against opposition below .500. I have formulated a graph which gives a clear indication of Middleton’s early season performance against good and bad teams.
It doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture. Middleton drops off in basically all traditional box score stats with a drop of 4.6 points per game, though only 1% from all field goals there is a staggering 25% drop from deep. The Bucks currently hold a 5-7 record against teams above .500, Middleton’s drop in production playing a big part in that. He has 9 games of 20+ points so far this season, only two of those coming against teams with winning records.
I’ve added Middleton’s numbers from last season to the graph and whilst the difference in traditional statistics certainly isn’t as drastic, Khris still tended to suffer a drop off in performance against better sides.
Advanced Stats: Advanced analytics are everything in the modern NBA. No longer can box score beasts get away with their previously hidden weaknesses. The early season stats don’t do him any favours in this regard either. Middleton’s offensive rating against teams with losing records is currently 112.7. Against teams with winning records this drops all the way down to 102.8. From a true shooting percentage perspective it doesn’t get much better, with a ten percentage point drop from .600 to .522 when playing against winning teams.
A widely spoken about frustration with Middleton is his knack of appearing to be trying to do to much on offense, over handling the ball resulting in a bad shot. The numbers don’t quite stack up with this theory though. Middleton’s usage rate against winning teams when his number are far worse sits at 23.8%, and against worse teams this rises to 25.6%. This figure did come as a surprise to me as it feels when Khris is at his best the ball is in his hands less, and he receives more catch and shoot opportunities.
Shot selection: Whilst we are talking about Middleton appearing to do to much with the ball, lets check out the early season numbers and the types of shots Khris is taking and the location on the floor. I’ve long believed that Middleton is at his best receiving the ball with his feet set and in position to launch. The stats are suggesting this may not be the case so far, somewhat surprisingly.
-0 to 10 feet: 96 field goal attempts, making 54% and 48.6% assisted.
-10 feet to three point line: 139 field goal attempts, making 51% and only 33.4% assisted.
-3 point and beyond: 111 attempts, 35% made and 82% assisted.
From those numbers we can see that Middleton lives in the mid-range area. And from 10 feet out to the three point line he likes to go to work, often finding a mismatch and using his size to get a good shot off. We’ve seen on endless occasions Middleton work with his back to the basket, with a smaller guard defending him and Khris simply works to the spot he wants to be, and knocks down a turnaround jump shot. On all turnaround shots in the mid range so far this season, Middleton is shooting 57% from 21 attempts. That is a money shot for Khris.
The video linked here is a demonstration of Khris is this type of action, with Detroit’s Kennard rendered useless against the taller, stronger Middleton.
Without doubt though the number one area the Bucks need Middleton to revert back to career norms is his three ponint shooting. A career 40% shooter from the outside, he is still languishing down at 35% and simply knocking down his triples in big games will go a long way to Milwaukee winning those match ups. Giannis is the absolute star of this team but how Khris Middleton performs typically goes a long way to deciding the result. In wins this season Khris knocks down 43% of his triples, in losses that drops to 26%.
The Bucks typically go as Middleton goes.
Playoff History: Unfortunately for Bucks fans, playoff opportunities have been brief in recent seasons, despite this Khris has played in 12 playoff games for Milwaukee. Middleton averages 15.2 points per game on 34% shooting from deep and and a .489 true shooting percentage. For a guy with a 40% three point percentage and .557 true shooting percentage over his career he certainly hasn’t performed as he would like on the post season stage.
Now a disclaimer on this would be that in the 2015 playoffs Middleton and the inexperienced Bucks were going through their first playoff campaign as a group. Despite a rough series overall, Middleton was huge in the game 5 road win in Chiacago, with 21 points on 50% shooting from both the field and beyond the arc. Then in the 2017 post-season, Middleton appeared to simply run out of legs after only beginning his season in February and carrying a heavy work load down the stretch after his major hamstring injury.
Possible Reasons For Performance Drop: Without knowing what exactly is going through Middleton’s head leading into each game we can only speculate on what could be the reasons for the drastic drop in input against better teams. The most obvious statistically quantifiable reason to asses is simply the quality of the opposition defense. When looking at the seven teams the Bucks have played that are above .500 right now, six of them rank in the top half of the league defensively. Four of them, Boston (1), San Antonio (2), Portland (4), and Utah (6), rank in the top six. The only outlier in the group is Cleveland which rank 24th but the Cavs are clearly as a team, elite opposition.
Whilst on the other side of the fence, four of the eight teams below .500 the Bucks have played rank in the bottom half of the league defensively and three of them in the bottom five. Quite simply, bad defensive teams are going to have a hard time defending a player of Middleton’s calibre when they are struggling to stop Milwaukee’s number one option in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The lesser attention, will result in more open looks, particularly from deep and explains the crazy leap in three point percentage against those teams.
The other, more human element could simply be Khris not handling the pressure and expectation that playing good teams brings. Milwaukee have enjoyed a far greater presence on National TV this season, featuring in two ESPN games and one on TNT, already topping most seasons totals in the first quarter. With the expectations rising for Milwaukee hopefully this isn’t the case, as more marquee matchups and hopefully playoff appearances are on the horizon.
Looking Forward: Moving forward this will now be a key point of interest for Bucks fans to track. After a typically cold start, Khris has now started to find his groove against bad teams. The Bucks will desperately need him to start to get it together in big games. Over the last two games against Portland and Boston, Middleton has performed well, averaging 22.5 points and also shot the ball well, connecting on 50% of his triples. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.
When I referred to Bucks fans only being in one of two camps when it comes to Khris, I am firmly in the positive camp. I remain bullish on his chances at gaining an All-Star birth in Los Angeles this February but more importantly I’m confident he can prove the doubters wrong and be a major contributer to a successful Bucks season. I must admit the depth of his struggles against good teams has shocked me. I probably have watched in frustration as we failed to match it with top flight opposition without realising how poorly he has played in those games. The Bucks face a bare minimum pass mark of reaching the second round this year and a lot of that hinges on the ability of Khris to play at his best. Coming off major surgery last season he was afforded a pass for his post season play but the excuses are gone. The time is now for both the Milwaukee Bucks and Middleton to make a move in the East. Chances are that only happens if Khris can snap his trend of poor play when the quality of opposition rises.
Time will tell if he is up to it.
Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus
*Note: All numbers are totals before the Detroit game at home.
** All stats from basketball-reference.com and nba.com