Khris Middleton: The Return
Early in the fourth quarter of the Milwaukee Bucks’ second game against the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs last season, Khris Middleton left the floor with an MCL sprain. Without one of the premier midrange scorers in the NBA and one of the team’s two high-efficiency 20-point-per-game scorers, the Bucks dispatched the Bulls in five games but fell to the Boston Celtics in seven the next round.
Milwaukee entered the 2022-23 season with the same gaping hole that contributed to its playoff defeat. Middleton is one of the foundational pillars of the Bucks’ identity, particularly on the offensive end. The team had a preference for playing slow basketball with little ball or man movement. Because Middleton is such an efficient player from every area of the court -- he was five made shots away from joining the NBA’s 50/40/90 club in 2019-20 -- he was crucial to the profitability of that approach.
Innovation, both from the team’s structure and from individual players, was Milwaukee’s recourse to turning the loss of Middleton into a lesson for the future. So far, both have worked in Milwaukee’s favor.
To some extent, the Bucks have modernized their offense this season.
Teamwide offensive changes for Milwaukee from 2021-22 and 2022-23, per game (league rank)
|2022-23||277.2 (22)||9.76 miles (16)||5.9 (24)||7.8 (4)|
|2021-22||256 (30)||9.57 miles (10)||9.8 (4)||4.6 (26)|
Last season, the Bucks finished fourth in the league in frequency of plays that ended with shots or turnovers out of isolations. They were efficient, with the seventh-highest points per such possessions. This year, the Bucks are down to the seventh-lowest frequency of plays that end with shots or turnovers out of isolation. They’ve cut away almost four possession-ending isolations per game -- which doesn’t include the isolations that begin possessions but don’t end in shots or turnovers.
Why? Likely because the Bucks are now the second-least efficient team in such scenarios. Not only have they lost Middleton’s isolation skills with the ball in his hands, but they’ve also lost one of the premier catch-and-shoot shooters on the team, whose presence provided much-needed spacing when his teammates isolated.
Instead of isolations, the Bucks have revamped their offense by adding components of modern principles of movement and passing. They are now collectively moving the 10th-furthest distance per game as a team on the offensive end this season after ranking 16th last year. As a team the Bucks are completing 21 extra passes per game this season, moving from dead last in 2021-22 to 22nd this campaign in passes per game. Neither of those qualities are inherently positive or negative but simply reflective of a structural shift. The Bucks haven’t entirely become the Golden State Warriors this year, eschewing individual play to weaponize high-movement approaches like cutting, but nor are they standing in opposition to that approach anymore, either.
The playtype that’s received the most love from the Bucks this season is the handoff. They are fourth in the league in possessions that end in shots or turnovers out of handoffs per game after ranking 21st last season. A handoff is a more dynamic approach to initiate offense than isolation, involving multiple players, and in many ways simulating a pick and roll.
Jevon Carter has morphed into more of a point guard for the Bucks. His assist rate is the highest of his career. He’s always been a shooter, connecting on 42.3 percent of his shots from deep this season which is only just ahead of his career 3-point percentage of 38.7. But his touches per game are way up, and it’s not just extra playing time -- he’s averaging more touches per minute, as well. He’s spending more time with the ball, averaging more dribbles and more seconds per touch. He’s running more pick and rolls for the Bucks, and he’s more frequently using them to create for teammates rather than himself.
Jevon Carter as point guard
But the largest beneficiary of the team’s changes has been Grayson Allen.
If Giannis Antetokounmpo represents the bones of the Bucks, the foundational structure upon which the identity of the franchise rests, then Jrue Holiday as the starting point guard is the brain, making the decisions and determining the path by which an offensive possession proceeds. Allen this season has become the muscles, the means by which a body asserts its will. He is the tissue of the offense, chaining events together and ensuring the team never becomes disconnected.
Allen is first on the team in possessions ended via handoffs and third in drives per game. He runs the tied-third furthest on offense and has the second-fastest average speed. If Antetokounmpo and Holiday ensure defenders are out of position, rotating or otherwise on the move, then it often falls on Allen to capitalize. He does that in a variety of ways.
Allen is the most accurate catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter on the Bucks, hitting almost half of such attempts. In fact, among players attempting 3.0 or more catch-and-shoot triples per game, Allen is the fifth-most accurate shooter in the league. He is especially terrific when sprinting away from the hoop while receiving a down screen or curling around a wide pindown from the corner, both of which frequently create open shots for him.
Grayson Allen jumpers off cuts
But he does so much more than shoot. His legs are as impactful as his hands. It’s rare that Allen begins a handoff from a static position; he usually sprints into them, using his momentum as a weapon.
Because his jumper is so deadly, those high-speed cuts usually leave his defender on his backside when he receives the ball. Then a drive can open up layups for Allen himself -- he’s shooting a career-high 71.4 percent from within three feet of the rim -- or can turn the defense into an accordian, collapsing it after it just expanded, to open passing lanes for teammates’ open jumpers.
Grayson Allen screens into drives
Down screens and wide pindowns can be chained into pick and rolls or handoffs, sowing chaos into defenders. He can either be the recipient or the deliverer of screens. He can layer another movement off of that, leaking into open space after giving the ball up. So many actions in such a short span of time force defenders to make a variety of choices, increasing the odds of holes opening elsewhere.
Such plays don’t always turn into direct points, but even if Allen doesn’t score or throw an assist, he reroutes the ball around the court as he moves the defense, where advantages are often converted in other ways; Allen averages the most secondary assists on the Bucks. Because of his ability to capitalize on the star power of his teammates as a cutter, shooter, passer, and finisher, Allen has the second-best on/offs on the team, with the team outscoring opponents with him on the court versus on the bench by a larger margin than Antetokounmpo but smaller than Holiday.
Mike Budenholzer can be cruel with his play calling to take advantage of the combination of Allens’ legs and the threat of his shooting. Allen and Holiday can set up in inverted horns, with both guards standing at the nails, then screen for one another, which can transition into an Allen pick and roll, forcing a switch, to allow Antetokounpmo to attack a small player in the post.
Inverted horns to PnR to post
That’s a flurry of events in a short span, and it’s an extreme example of creativity; however, it delivers the point as forcefully as an Antetokounpo dunk: Allen’s abilities give the Bucks options. Milwaukee’s offensive rating with all three of Antetokounmpo, Holiday, and Allen on the floor this season is almost as high as it was last year with Antetokounmpo, Holiday, and Middleton all playing. Allen layers complexity over top of the static textures that made up last season’s offense. He isn’t meant as a replacement of Middleton, but rather a means of surviving without the All Star. And perhaps most enticing of all: as Middleton returns, Milwaukee’s newfound offensive approach can remain a cherry on top of an even more potent sundae.
There are few players in the NBA as consistent as Middleton. For the past five seasons, he has averaged between 18.3 and 20.9 points per game. Over the same period, his effective field goal percentage has vacillated little, bouncing between 51.9 and 57.5. His other box score contributions -- assists and steals -- have been remarkably consistent, too. He will continue to score with efficiency upon his return, no matter what the Bucks have changed, and the team will be better for it. He’s too talented for anything else to be the case. During every season he’s played in the NBA, every team on which he’s played has been better on offense with him on the court versus him on the bench, according to Cleaning the Glass.
His return will mean fewer touches and minutes for Carter and Allen, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be less impactful in their contributions. The Bucks have found success, and they’ve found it in a new way. That lesson remains true no matter who is in the lineup. Allen’s maddash sprints across the court around down screens and wide pindowns, transitioning into handoffs, will only be more effective with Middleton on the court. Allen should have even more open, catch-and-shoot jumpers going forward. Carter will have even more space to attack out of the pick and roll as well as one of the most talented scorers in the league for whom he can create.
In a way, the Bucks have been treading water since Middleton hurt his MCL, but they’ve developed a new swimming stroke while keeping their heads above the waves. With Middleton back, Milwaukee is already more talented this season than last as a result of the discoveries they’ve made in their own personnel and the strategic changes they’ve made to empower them. The principles guiding Milwaukee’s offense have changed in some ways. It will take work and time to figure out the mix with Middleton back. But the future has never looked brighter, and it’s because the team used lessons from the past to solve problems in the present.