MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN – DECEMBER 19: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers works against Khris … [+]
Even if the NBA All-Star game doesn’t serve any functional purpose, it’s a source of pride for players, teams and their fans. When a player is elected, it can be a verification of their hard work. And, every year, the debate rages on about who has done enough to earn a nod playing alongside the best of the best—with the final roster spot or two filled by the thinnest of margins, and on the most subjective of criteria.
Make no mistake about it, this isn’t an article about slim margins, however, as Milwaukee Bucks’ forward Khris Middleton has played well enough to solidify his spot in the 2020 All-Star game.
When dissecting Middleton’s All-Star case, per game numbers don’t do him justice. He’s averaging only 28 minutes a game—far fewer than the peers he’s being compared to. Similar to Giannis Antetokounmpo in the MVP race, the Bucks’ second star shouldn’t be punished for his team’s greatness. In order to level the playing field, it’s best to stick strictly to per 36 minutes or advanced stats
A first-time All-Star in 2019, he found himself falling behind in the early social media debates about who belongs in this year’s game. A supremely efficient five weeks (and counting) has changed all that.
Since returning from injury on November 27th, he’s been the true second star the Bucks need to push them over the edge and into an NBA Title. He’s one of only four players averaging at least 26 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists per 36 minutes over that span. The other three—Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and Kawhi Leonard—are in the thick of the MVP race. His 50/40/90 line during that time is icing on the cake.
The Bucks are a much better team when Middleton is on the court—outscoring opponents by 5.3 points per 100 possessions according to Cleaning the Glass. They shoot the ball more efficiently and turn the ball over less. He constantly draws attention from the opposition and makes life easier for his teammates.
Middleton is one of the rare players who can create his own shot at all three levels. He’s a sniper from behind the arc, proving to be lethal in just about every scenario whether it be spotting up (43 percent) or pulling up in his opponents face (37.1 percent). He’s a mid-range killer, ranking in the 91st percentile among forwards according to Cleaning the Glass. Finally, he’s taken his game around the rim to the next level, currently connecting on 61 percent of his shots within four feet of the hoop.
He’s turned into a matchup nightmare.
If a defender’s bigger and slower than him, he’ll take him off the bounce. If he anticipates the dribble-drive, he’ll calmly pull-up behind the arc. If his man’s smaller, he’ll back him down and hit one of a bevy of post or mid-range shots he’s refined through the years. If the defensive player’s just the right size, Middleton’s sweet footwork provides the recipe for success.
If there’s one weakness in his game it’s his inability to get all the way to the hole on a drive. He lacks explosiveness and quickness to get to the hoop on a regular basis. Still, he compensates with his sweet shooting touch and beautiful footwork.
His defense is also a plus even if he isn’t the same wing defender he once was. With the addition of Wesley Matthews, Milwaukee no longer needs Middleton to defend the enemy’s best forward night in and night out. This has allowed him to pick and choose his spots on defense and focus more of his energy on the other end of the court.
Even given his reduced defensive expectations, the Bucks are still better at limiting the opposition with their All-Star on the court. According to Cleaning the Glass, opposing teams score 2.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Middleton on the court. Although defense doesn’t typically play a huge role in All-Star voting, it should at least be noted in his favor.
It’s safe to place forwards Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and Bradley Beal in the All-Star game at this point. Middleton’s primary competition for a spot on the roster appear to be Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Pascal Siakam. Siakam may seem like a surprise entry on this list, but he’s cooled way down after a scorching start to the season. His defense is superior to Middleton’s, but the Bucks’ forward has had a more favorable offensive season to this point.
How Khris Middleton stacks up against the competition in per 36 minutes statistics.
Stats from Basketball-Reference
Tatum and Brown are both great players in their own rights. The former has taken strides to improve his defense, while the latter has leapt forward in his offensive game this season. Regardless, Middleton is still a better player on both ends of the court.
With the All-Star game still over a month away, a lot can happen between now and then. All it takes is a streak of any variety from select players, and the voting process can get turned on its head.
We’ve seen these hot streaks from Middleton before, but never to this level. It’s safe to say he’s playing some of the best basketball of his career. When you combine that with the major contributions he’s made in leading the Bucks to the NBA’s best record, his second straight All-Star selection should be a lock.