In a season filled with the unceasing presence of unpredictability, the Milwaukee Bucks have unearthed an unlikely — and wildly efficient — offensive vocal point.
Nothing is going according to script.
The Milwaukee Bucks house one of the most exciting young cores in the NBA.
Spearheaded by the long-limbed avatar known as the Greek Freak (government name: Giannis Antetokounmpo) and the doughy — albeit, mind-bogglingly explosive — Jabari Parker, the Bucks were supposed to the next logical leap into the Eastern Conference elite after making a surprising playoff run last season under first-year head coach Jason Kidd.
However, as we presently stand, Milwaukee is in the 13th slot in the suddenly contentious middle-tier of the East, winning just 14 of their 37 contests thus far this season.
The most obvious culprit to their regressed play is undoubtedly their depreciating defensive play. The switch-everything, scrambling helter-skelter scheme the Bucks ambushed opposing teams with last year is met with a more predisposed brand of attack in 2015-16.
Certainly, essentially replacing grizzled veterans Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley with offensive-minded, borderline defensive-sieves in Parker and Greg Monroe will dampen any team’s defensive prospects — but, their problems are more of a product of a league-wide adjustment, rather than a simple swap in personnel.
As teams over-emphasize early ball movement, skip passes, and weak-side hammer actions, the Bucks chaos-consumed D has become an awfully flawed strategy as the Bucks continue to give up an avalanche of open 3s and commit a damaging amount of early fouls.
To put their defensive decline into perspective, Milwaukee ranked second in defensive efficiency last season, sporting a sterling 99.3 defensive rating. This year, however, the Bucks rank third to last in defense, allowing 106.6 points per 100 possessions.
Offensively, on the other hand, the Bucks have remained more or less the same team. Specifically, their offensive rating, team TS% and pace of play are nearly identical year-over-year.
Who’s leading their offensive attack, though, may come as somewhat of a pleasant surprise.
Coming into the year, many expected their prized free agent signing, Monroe, to serve as the team’s primary offensive hub on the low block, while Giannis and Jabari receive the majority of the touches on the wings.
Playing a complementary, 3-and-D role, Khris Middleton was supposed to be merely the yin (a.k.a. glorified floor spacer) to the Bucks’ holy trinity’s yang. After all, the 6’8″ swingman not only thrived, but was one of the most effective players in the league in the aforesaid role last year.
Sure enough, after nailing 40.8 percent of his 3-point attempts and leading all shooting guards in Defensive RPM in 2014-15, Middleton was awarded with a handsomely paid five-year, $70 million contract this offseason.
But, as the Bucks’ defense crumbles right before our eyes — as a system defender — Middleton’s defensive effectiveness has also plummeted. Alternatively, in a season full of unpredictability, the former Texas A&M Aggie has morphed into the team’s go-to offensive weapon.
Aside from his striking resemblance to Scandal’s Kerry Washington, “Money” Middleton has always been traditionally billed as a spot-up shooter; and he’s continued to excel in that area — converting on a career-best 44.7 percent from the land of great beyond, including shooting a mind-numbing 47.9 percent on his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, per NBA.com’s SportVU Data.
In addition to his bread and butter, Milwaukee has been putting the ball in Middleton’s hands, and utilizing the fourth-year wing in a secondary ballhandler capacity.
Most noticeably, since Joe Prunty took over the interim head coaching duties from the ailing Kidd some six games ago, Khris has taken a much bigger offensive role. In fact, Middleton — a career 19.5 percent usage rate player — has seen said usage explode north of 25 percent in this incumbent, albeit temporary, Prunty era.
More encouragingly, during the mentioned stretch, Middleton has averaged 22.7 points and 4.7 assists a contest on an ultra-efficient 65.7 percent TS%.
And while Middleton’s ranking in ESPN’s Defensive RPM list has spiraled down to 49th among shooting guards thus far this season, he’s currently rated as the third-most effective offensive player at his position this year, according to the worldwide leader in sport’s Offensive RPM rankings.
Going forward, although the Bucks’ season has been an unmitigated disappointment, and the overall play of the Eastern Conference has improved incrementally, Milwaukee only sits six games back of eighth place.
One thing is for certain, however: expect the unexpected from the Milwaukee Bucks. With the success Khris Middleton has enjoyed as the team’s primary focal point on offense under Prunty, it’ll be interesting to see if his touches will remain at a 25-percent plus usage rate level once Kidd returns back on the Bucks’ bench.
Maybe perhaps playing in a faster pace, with the aid of a new go-to weapon, the once defensive juggernaut can turn into an uptempo transition-and-3s team as they aim to make their final playoff push.