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Khris Middleton Is The Best At Making Basketball’s Worst Shot

Despite a short-handed loss to Denver on Monday night — their fourth defeat in their last five games — the full-strength Milwaukee Bucks still look a whole lot like the best team in basketball. That might sound bold, but the team’s resume is pretty unimpeachable: The Bucks’ 53-12 record is better than that of any other team by 2.5 games; until last week, they were on pace to become only the third team ever to win 70 or more;1 and the difference between their plus-11.2 point differential and that of the second-place Los Angeles Lakers is nearly equal to the distance between the Lakers and the seventh-place Houston Rockets.

We know all about the reigning and probable repeat MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, a player who all but guarantees a top-flight offense in coach Mike Budenholzer’s system. Milwaukee also has the NBA’s best defense by a mile. But the Bucks would not be where they are right now without the somehow-still-underrated contributions of Khris Middleton.

Middleton, who was a healthy scratch in Monday’s loss, checks in at 13th in the NBA in overall RAPTOR, tied with Jayson Tatum and mere decimal points behind Damian Lillard, Paul George and Nikola Jokic. He is also doing something this season that has been done by only one other player (Kevin Durant) in the history of professional basketball: averaging at least 20 points, six rebounds, four assists and two made 3-pointers per game while also connecting on better than 40 percent of his attempted threes.

But what stands out about the Bucks’ second star even more than his overall level of play is his sparkling scoring efficiency. His 21.1 points per game, through Sunday, are coming courtesy of a shooting clip rarely seen before: He is on track to become just the 11th player in NBA history to use at least 26 percent of his team’s possessions and post an effective field-goal percentage of 57.5 or better.

While Middleton, who made his second successive All-Star appearance last month, has always carried the reputation of a shooter, his current level of efficiency is nonetheless out of character. Prior to this year, Middleton had typically posted an effective field-goal percentage right around the league average. In six of his seven previous seasons, his eFG% was within 1 percentage point of average, and in four of those six it was within half a percentage point. This season, however, Middleton’s 57.7 percent mark is 4.9 percentage points better than league average.

Middleton had been an average shooter … until this year

Difference of effective field-goal percentage by season between Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks and the league average

Season Middleton NBA Average Diff.
2019-20* 57.7% 52.8% +4.9
2018-19 51.9 52.4 -0.5
2017-18 52.4 52.1 +0.3
2016-17 51.8 51.4 +0.4
2015-16 50.7 50.2 +0.5
2014-15 53.0 49.6 +3.4
2013-14 51.1 50.1 +1.0
2012-13 48.9 49.6 -0.7

*Through games on March 8.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Typically, you’d associate such a dramatic increase in efficiency with a healthier shot distribution — exchanging midrange attempts for those at the rim or from beyond the arc. But that’s not the case here. In fact, Middleton has actually gone in the opposite direction.

But let’s back up a bit. Prior to last season, Middleton was an extraordinarily midrange-heavy player. The Second Spectrum tracking database stretches back to his second season in the league, and between then (2013-14) and two seasons ago (2017-18), midrange attempts made up 39.2 percent of his shot profile. Among the 149 players who attempted at least 2,500 total shots during that five-year span, his midrange share was 12th-highest.

Then, Budenholzer showed up in Milwaukee. He encouraged the Bucks both as a team and individually to nudge their shot distribution in a Rockets-esque direction, eschewing the midrange for more layups and threes. Milwaukee’s offense took off and ranked fourth in the league last season in efficiency. But while the team’s success helped Middleton make his first All-Star game, he actually scored less efficiently than he had the year before.

So, this year, Budenholzer has allowed Middleton to jack his midrange rate back up. After dipping to 22.8 percent last season, midrange attempts now account for 34.7 percent of Middleton’s shot profile. That share is fifth-highest among the 134 players who had taken at least 500 shots this season through Sunday, according to Second Spectrum.

So how, then, has Middleton managed to have the most efficient season of his career while repeatedly hoisting what is widely considered the worst shot in the game? By outperforming expectations on those shots by a wider margin than almost anyone in recent memory.

According to Second Spectrum, Middleton’s expected effective field-goal percentage on his midrange attempts this season is just 36.97 percent, the kind of mark that ordinarily exemplifies why so many coaches don’t want their players taking those shots. But Middleton has proven that he’s the exception to the rule, connecting on those low-value attempts 51.55 percent of the time.

Middleton’s 14.57 percentage-point differential between his expected and actual effective field-goal percentage is the fourth-largest for any of the 491 player-seasons with at least 200 midrange shots2 in a given season over the past seven years.3 The only players even in his league are three masters of the midrange: Durant, Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki.

Middleton rates among the midrange greats

Top five seasons by player in difference between expected and actual effective field-goal percentage on midrange shots, since the 2013-14 season

Rank Player Season Expected EFG% Actual EFG% Diff.
1 Kevin Durant 2018-19 37.04% 53.23% +16.20
2 Kevin Durant 2015-16 35.47 51.52 +16.04
3 Chris Paul 2017-18 40.23 55.17 +14.94
4 Khris Middleton 2019-20* 36.97 51.55 +14.57
5 Dirk Nowitzki 2013-14 36.84 51.17 +14.33

*Through games on March 8.

Source: Second Spectrum

Befitting his status as the game’s current preeminent midrange sniper, Middleton has displayed the ability to take pieces from each of those stars’ games.

Like Durant, he has displayed an impeccable isolation package. There’s the rocker-step pull-up jumper, which enables him to shake free from a defender in short areas to rise and fire. When staring down a smaller defender, he’ll rise up right over the top or press his way toward the lane and then spin away for a turnaround jumper. In the open floor, he can push the ball up the court to get his defender on his heels and let it fly at any time. He has the “hesi pull-up jimbo,” as Durant himself would say, as well as a complete repertoire of jab-steps, sidesteps and step-backs to create additional space at the elbow or on the wing.

Middleton also has a full bag of CP3-esque pick-and-roll jumpers. Against drop coverage, he’ll pull up at the elbow or sidestep to the wing. If the big man tries to meet him at the level of the screen and box him in near the elbow until his man recovers, Middleton can snake it back to the middle to create additional room for his jumper. When his defender tries to cheat because he knows a screen is coming his way, Middleton is more than willing to veer away from the pick to rise up. Even when he’s well-covered coming around the screen, he can either pull up anyway (which he can do moving right or left) or use a nasty behind-the-back crossover to send his man flying.

Finally, Middleton can use his size (he’s 6-foot-7 with a 6-11 wingspan) to shoot directly over the top of defenders from the post, Nowitzki-style. He’s comfortable on both the right and left blocks, as well as in Nowitzki’s office at the nail. His footwork and shoulder-fakes are instructional video-perfect, and he can turn over either shoulder from either side of the floor, which keeps defenders guessing about which version of his turnaround fadeaway is actually coming at them.

Is it sacrilegious to say Middleton has a midrange game that resembles those of three all-time greats? Maybe. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. There aren’t all that many players capable of turning the midrange into a dependably high-value area for the offense. And with defenses increasingly focused on forcing these types of attempts while making all-out efforts to defend the paint and the 3-point line, having a player who has perfected the worst shot in basketball comes in pretty handy for the Bucks.

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Footnotes

  1. They’ve gone 0-2 without Giannis Antetokounmpo since he suffered a knee injury on Friday.

  2. Through Sunday’s games.

  3. The Second Spectrum database only goes back to the 2013-14 season.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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