When Khris Middleton makes a shot in the Bradley Center, the opening lines of The O’Jay’s “For The Love Of Money” play over the loudspeakers.
“Money, money, money, mon-ey. Monnnnn-ey.”
The music is flattering, but the offer sheets he’ll see this summer will be even better.
Part of the purpose of the Milwaukee Bucks big trade deadline move was to create financial flexibility and freedom, the sort of flexibility and freedom that could allow the Bucks to retain Khris Middleton, whose rise over the past two seasons has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the league. Rather than face the decision about whether or not to spend $12-$16 million on Brandon Knight, Milwaukee’s biggest question this offseason will center around how much money they can afford to commit to Middleton, a player who seems to play both an important and obvious role.
Coming into this season, there appeared to be an opportunity for Middleton to show off an expanded game. He began the season as Milwaukee’s opening night shooting guard and saw his number called with frequency against the Hornets in Charlotte. It seemed like he’d no longer just be the catch and shoot guy he was last season. But his first month under Jason Kidd wasn’t so great, the lowest point being a DNP-CD in Milwaukee’s sixth game.
After a tough start, he’s gotten better with each passing month.
What changed? There didn’t seem to be any “Aha!” moment. After the first month of the season, his shots shifted slightly more towards catch and shoot or catch and get to the basket, the two ideal shots for a guy like him. But basically, he’s started to make more shots and seems to increased his activity defensively. Middleton got more comfortable the more he was on the court and able to adjust to his role under a new coach.
“More minutes, playing with more energy,” he said just before the All-Star break about what’s changed over time this season. “Trying to do the little things on defense and offense to help get us going. And also just playing within the offense and just letting the game come to me. With this team we have so many options and so many guys can put the ball in the basket, we’re just trying to get the best shot for us.”
The one noticeably different thing about his game this season is an apparent increased willingness to post up. Middleton’s 22-39 out of the post this season, and while he’s posted up on only about 8% of his possessions, he’s averaging better than one point per possession out of the post, good enough to place him within the league’s top 20 among players who average at least 10 minutes per game and have at least 10 post-ups.
“I have smaller guys guarding me in the shooting guard position and if my shot wasn’t falling, I just try to put them in a bind by going in the post and see what they would do,” Middleton said. “Every time I get in the post I’m not looking to shoot, most of the time I’m looking for the help, because they know I have a smaller player on me. So I’m looking for the pass out and trying to take advantage of it.”
Everything Middleton’s doing is working. Through February 18, per 82games.com, Middleton’s a net +16 for the Bucks. When he’s on the court, offensively the Bucks are 6.5 points better and defensively they’re 9.4 points better per 100 possessions. He’s been the anti-Brandon Knight, a guy who seemed to be contributing a lot, but couldn’t quite get his plus/minus numbers to match what the eye test was telling us about his production.
If this is the player Khris Middleton is, there’s going to be a very healthy market for his skills this offseason when he’ll be a restricted free agent. At minimum, he’s a developing player who has spent two seasons as one of the league’s 15 or so best 3-point shooters. Since joining the Bucks, he’s made 42% of his 3-point shots.
When browsing the list of the NBA’s top 3-point shooters percentage wise, we start to get an idea about what Middleton’s salary floor will probably look like based on two classes of players that populate the league’s best shooters. There are the “role player” 3-point shooters, guys who generally are responsible for making threes and that’s about it. Kyle Korver: $6 million annually. J.J. Redick: $6.5 million. Jose Calderon: $7 million. Marcus Thornton: $7.5 million. And then there are the guys tasked with being a centerpiece of their team’s offense (or at least players teams bet on at some point). Klay Thompson: $18 million. Kyrie Irving: $18 million. Eric Gordon: $15 million.
Middleton’s deal is likely going to exist somewhere between the purely responsible for threes players and the max money types, unless something drastic happens over the course of the next 27 games.
While teams love three and D players of all ages, what could make Middleton more intriguing is his youth, especially if he starts to post bigger and better numbers without Brandon Knight as Milwaukee’s first option offensively. At 23-years-old, with only three years of experience under his belt, imaginations may run wild if he’s able to average around 20 points per game in the second half when teams start thinking about what amount makes sense when putting together an offer sheet for Middleton.
But at his first press conference after the Knight trade, Jason Kidd didn’t seem to think Milwaukee’s offense would be changing all that much.
“We don’t rely on one person,” Kidd said when asked how the offense may change without Knight to rely on. “Nothing changes. That’s how we have been built from day one. Nothing changes from the trade. When you rely on one person it is easy to guard. When you have five guys and they don’t know who is going to take the shot, it makes the game a lot of fun. I look at it the same way. B-Knight was getting shots because of his teammates.”
Middleton may not become much of an offensive initiator, but even if the ball just happens to end up in his hands a few more times he’s a likely choice to become Milwaukee’s scoring leader over the rest of the season. If that takes him from a 12-15 point scorer up to a 16-19 point scorer, he’s probably going to get an offer sheet around $10 million.
From there, it’ll be up to Milwaukee to determine just how crucial a part of the Milwaukee Bucks success Middleton is and whether or not the budget of the championship team they want to build includes that sort payday for the guy they’re calling Money Middleton.