Klutch? Examining Khris Middleton and the Bucks’ late-game strengths and weaknesses

I had lunch with my dad the other day. Shoutout to Major Goolsby’s for discounting downtown employee lunches. At some point, as it usually does, our conversation turned toward the Milwaukee Bucks. Like everyone else, he was encouraged by how the young players were playing lately. But he wasn’t so sure about Khris Middleton. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, right?

Specifically, he was concerned about Middleton late in games. He felt like Milwaukee’s ever-developing shooting guard was turning it over too much and not looking for his teammates enough. I remember seeing similar complaints on Twitter lately, especially since the All-Star break. And being the world’s leading Middleton skeptic, I had to dig into the matter.

Overall, the Bucks haven’t been especially bad or good anywhere late in games. They do have the fourth-highest clutch shooting percentage in the league this season, but they’re 16-16 in games where they’re up or down five or less with less than five minutes to play (that’s the definition of clutch the rest of the way through). They’ve struggled some from the free throw line, but been a league average 3-point shooting team, which is hard to believe once you take a look at Middleton’s numbers.

As I began to dig in, I found that a lot of what Milwaukee’s done late in close games all season has revolved around Middleton. That could be him taking matters into his hands, or it could be the coaching staff designing plays for him (THE PLAY), but it’s probably a mixture of both. But regardless of whether plays have been drawn up for him, teammates have kicked out to him on drives or he’s just pulled up, he’s struggled to shoot the ball late in games.

In clutch situations this season, Middleton has shot just 15.4% on 3-pointers, a drastic drop from his season average of 40.4%. When Middleton gets to the basket late, he’s been a great finisher. When Middleton shoots from basically anywhere else on the court, he’s been shockingly inaccurate. It’s been a season-long problem, as he’s made just 21-62 FG in clutch spots this season. His shot chart reflects his struggles from outside:

khris middleton clutch chart

I went through and watched all 26 3-point attempts Middleton has taken in clutch situations this season to understand his struggles. My assumption going in was that he was taking a lot of threes off the dribble in a “hero ball” sort of way. My assumption was wrong. Of his 26 threes, only six have been off the dribble. He’s missed all six of those. The other 20 threes have been catch and shoot. More often than not, though, they’ve been well-defended.

He’s been wide open on only three or four of his late game threes all season, which may speak to Milwaukee’s lack of other 3-point options. When the Bucks need a three, teams know where they are going. Defenses are keying in on Middleton and making shots tough for him. But even if defenders were right up on him on all 20 of his catch and shoot shots late (they haven’t been), he’s still shooting a much lower percentage on these threes than he’s shooting on all “tightly guarded” threes he’s taken across the season (23.5% for the season when players are within two feet of him per NBA.com).

In December, January and February, Middleton took almost twice as many shots as Milwaukee’s second leader in FGA in clutch situations (in February it was 15-8 Middleton over Monroe). Middleton has missed his last 10 clutch situation threes this season. If the Bucks want to continue to develop, it might be time for the Bucks to begin diversifying a bit late in games, especially with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker coming on over the past 12 games.

Giannis has had turnover issues late in games. He’s prone to late game charges and the occasional bad pass, but he’s been no worse than Middleton from a turnover standpoint. He’s turned the ball over seven times in 91 clutch minutes, once every 13 minutes. Middleton’s turned it over once ever 11.5 minutes. Perhaps Giannis’s numbers will inflate now that the ball is in his hands so much more, but we’ll only find out if he’s given license to play the same way late in games that he’s played the rest of the game. Despite some turnovers, he’s been a productive scorer and reliable free throw shooter (18-23 FTs). He knows his strengths, and he plays to them, regardless of time or situation. On the season, he’s 12-21 in clutch situations.

giannis clutch shot chart

Giannis feels like an obvious late-game option, given his ability to draw free throws and find teammates. Sure, he can’t shoot a three, but we’ve yet to see that stop him for the rest of the game; I’m not sure why it would stop him late in games. When looking through the remainder of the Bucks roster for other tight game alternatives to Middleton, I couldn’t help but come away in awe of Greg Monroe, who has played 103 clutch minutes or 96 more clutch minutes than Miles Plumlee. Milwaukee’s center has made 23-34 FGs (67.6%) in clutch situations this season, all directly around the hoop.

monroe clutch shots

That chart is a monument to knowing one’s strengths.

As always, though, Monroe’s success does not come without a price. He’s a net -8.8 per 100 possessions in clutch situations this season and has the worst defensive rating (113.1) among Bucks regulars. We know he’s not the ideal defensive center for Milwaukee and earlier in the season, John Henson was inserted late into close games for defensive purposes. But that’s not the only thing that makes it hard to trust Monroe late. He’s made just 8-17 FTs (47.1%) in clutch situations this season. He’s a 74.4% free-throw shooter on the season, but late in games, he’s been only a little better than DeAndre Jordan.

The free throw woes have been a little bit of a trend for Monroe now over the past two seasons. Granted, he’s only taken 31 clutch free throws over that stretch, but it’s worth keeping an eye on and, when combined with his lack of defensive presence, could play a role in limiting his minutes and touches late in games the rest of the season.

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 7.12.35 PM

Going forward, the Bucks would be best served to continue to experiment with different options late in games. We’ve seen tons of Middleton and a lot of Monroe. Neither has proven to be a foolproof option, for a variety of reasons. Giving Middleton more chances wouldn’t be the end of the world, as he’ll likely be a key player late in games for the Bucks in the season moving forward. Having him improve would help Milwaukee tremendously in 2016-17. But for the time being, more Antetokounmpo seems like a logical progression for Milwaukee. Involving Parker and Jerryd Bayless (5-8 clutch 3FGs this season) could help swing a couple of games in Milwaukee’s favor as the season winds down too.

The more Milwaukee can do to become a less predictable and more balanced offense late in games, the better off Milwaukee will be as it continues to build around its young core.

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3 Comments

  1. essentially all his stats are up since the All-star break including his assists, so I’ll take this article with a grain of salt. Yes, he is probably forcing a few things, but this team anointed him the finisher since the beginning of the season because no one else had the nuts to take the big shots.. there is some carry over, but if there is fonts with him, then Plumlee should never get 4th quarter minutes based on turnover rate

    • I don’t know what you mean by “take this worth a grain of salt.” As in this data is inaccurate?

      I just reported what’s happened and wrote that it would be interesting to see if Milwaukee continues down that path in an effort to develop Middleton or if they’d opt to have some of their other young players get increased clutch reps.

      If you believe that he’ll come around because his percentages are bound to return to the mean, that’s a fair idea.

  2. Jeremy, not to be a total grammar snob, but based on the incredibly high number of typos and idioms used by “Justin,” I think you should simply ignore his comment.

    I agree, the Middleton phenomenon seems like “worshipping a false god”… I remember disagreeing with (I think Preston and Nick?) during you mid-season MVP discussion a few months ago. Giannis is the clear MVP, and the post-All Star Jabari is a distant second. I think Middleton is a perennial good stats, bad team type of player who performs well when he is in low pressure situations.

    Miles Plumlee is among the most underrated players in the league right now. Definitely not the long term answer at either the 4 or the 5, but a serviceable big nonetheless (and a nice break from the barrage left-handed hook shots of both Henson and Monroe). Let’s hope he doesn’t get really into “art” (read: drugs) and spontaneously decide to retire.